PITTSBURGH (AP) – Maybe he still needed time away from football after the Ricky Williams fiasco. Or, perhaps he felt too far removed from college football after being away for 15 years.

Whatever the reason, Pittsburgh alum Dave Wannstedt said no when athletic director Jeff Long first approached him with the idea of coaching the Panthers.

But once Wannstedt started thinking about the job he turned down, the one he had been contacted about four times previously but had never taken, he questioned his decision.

As a young coach in the 1970s, Wannstedt considered coaching the Panthers the job of a lifetime. He also knew this was almost certainly the last time he would be offered it.

So when Long called back a second time, supposedly to get Wannstedt’s thoughts on a possible hire but in reality to gauge his interest, Wannstedt said yes.

“I had to take the emotion out of it,” said Wannstedt, the former Bears and Dolphins head coach who grew up in suburban Pittsburgh and played at Pitt. “Once I realized this was what was best for me and my family, I knew I needed to pursue it again.”

There’s another reason, too. Just like Long, Wannstedt thinks a national championship can be won again in Pittsburgh, even if it’s been 30 seasons since it last happened. He was a graduate assistant when it last occurred in 1976 – and the next time it does, he wants to be the man in charge.

The Pitt team Wannstedt inherits from Walt Harris, now at Stanford, is nothing like what Harris took over in 1997. Then, Pitt had won just 12 games in four seasons during Johnny Majors’ second and far-less-successful stop; now, Pitt brings back 18 starters and from an 8-4 Fiesta Bowl team. The Panthers have won 25 games in three seasons, or one more than they won in seven seasons from 1990-96 before Harris arrived.

The pitch-and-catch combination of Tyler Palko to Greg Lee is one of college football’s best. The defense has the potential and the kicker (Josh Cummings) and punter (Adam Graessle) both made All-Big East last season.

And the coach who initially didn’t know if he wanted to go back home? Once he took the job just before Christmas, Wannstedt moved quickly to rebuild Pitt’s uneven recruiting in western Pennsylvania. As a result, he’s landed 13 quality recruits for his second team even before he’s coached his first.

Though Wannstedt’s background is as a defensive coordinator – a job he once held at Oklahoma State, USC and the University of Miami – he’s also brought the run back to an offense that was one of the nation’s best in passing and worst in rushing a year ago.

Palko is an excellent scrambler and playmaker, but Wannstedt felt Pitt’s offense was overly reliant last season on the only quarterback in Pitt history to throw for more than 3,000 yards as a sophomore. That should mean a lot of carries for star-in-the-making Rashad Jennings.

“We’re still going to throw the ball,” said Lee, the latest in a recent line of Pitt star receivers that includes Biletnikoff winners Larry Fitzgerald and Antonio Bryant. “Being able to run is going to make it a lot easier for us to throw.”

Palko averaged 303.5 yards passing and had 17 touchdown passes and two interceptions in his final six games. Wannstedt only wishes he had a QB during his days with the Bears and Dolphins who produced like that.

The worry is what happens if either Palko or Lee (68 catches, 1,297 yards, 10 touchdowns) goes down with an injury. Palko’s only backups are a pair of incoming freshmen, and no other receiver is close to Lee in talent.

But with players such as offensive tackle Charles Spencer, linebacker H.B. Blades and defensive lineman Thomas Smith back, Pitt seems to have enough talent to be a power in the reconfigured Big East. Palko also sees no difficulty in shifting offenses, even though he was a perfect fit for Harris’ version of the West Coast system.

“This isn’t calculus, this isn’t aeronautical engineering, there’s only so many ways you can run a play,” Palko said. “The terminology may be different, but it’s not that hard to pick up. We’ll be fine.”

Maybe more than fine, especially if the Panthers get through a stretch that matches them against Notre Dame and Nebraska in the first three weeks of the season.

“Do I like the excitement? Sure,” Wannstedt said. “It’s getting our football team to catch up with the excitement, and that’s tough to do.”


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