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June 12, 2013It's not easy to identify a primary adjective to describe Pitt Athletic Director Steve Pederson, and the options are usually defined by who you ask.
To some, Pederson is a visionary, a leader with courage. To others, he is divisive and polarizing.
The reality is probably somewhere in the middle, encompassing all of those traits and more. The reality is also that he has led Pitt's Athletic Department through some of its biggest transitions and turmoil in recent memory. Some of those transitions have been to his credit and some of that turmoil has been his responsibility; all of it has combined to create a figure in Pitt history whose legacy is still being written, despite his involvement in some of the more monumental shifts in Panther athletics.
Pederson was hired by Pitt in 1996, and by the turn of the century he had already made enough critical decisions to render mixed opinions. He raised the ire of Pitt fans by razing the beloved-but-antiquated Pitt Stadium; he turned colors and fonts into passionate movements when he changed the color scheme and logo; and he drew national attention - although not the kind he craved - when he infamously re-branded "Pitt" as "Pittsburgh."
But in that same span, he hired Walt Harris and Ben Howland to resurrect the moribund football and men's basketball programs, respectively. He turned the former location of Pitt Stadium into a state-of-the-art basketball arena. And he led the football team to NFL-caliber facilities in the South Side and at Heinz Field.
Not every move pleased every Pitt fan, but in retrospect, most of those decisions were invaluable in moving the Athletic Department forward.
"When you're here a long time, there are going to be some tough decisions to be made," current men's basketball coach Jamie Dixon said Tuesday. "I've never seen (an Athletic Director's) decision that's 100%, where everybody is going to back it, even if it's the obvious decision."
Despite the divided opinions, Pederson's alma mater, Nebraska, hired him away from Pitt in 2002. And when his tenure in Lincoln ended in rather inglorious fashion five years later, Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg wasted little time in re-hiring his former Athletic Director.
Once again, Pederson was a polarizing figure at Pitt. He signed head football coach Dave Wannstedt to a contract extension in the spring of 2010, and less than a year later he fired Wannstedt after the football program was unable to grasp a Big East championship for the third consecutive season. Pederson hired Mike Haywood to replace Wannstedt, only to fire Haywood two weeks later when he was arrested for domestic assault.
Pederson then hired Todd Graham in January 2011; 11 months later, Graham left Pitt for Arizona State.
The decision to fire Wannstedt was expected to be Pederson's legacy, and a final verdict on his career as an Athletic Director would be rendered based on how he replaced Wannstedt. Instead, Pederson was given two mulligans and 12 months to bring in a coach who could help re-establish a program that had won 27 games from 2008-10 but had fallen in those tumultuous 12 months.
Pederson finally settled on Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who was hired in December 2011, but by the time two full seasons had passed since the Wannstedt decision, Pitt had gone through three head coaches and manufactured just 12 total wins. The legacy hire had become a series of misfires.
"I wish I could predict human behavior, but that's a pretty hard thing to do," Pederson said. "I think we've always tried to do the right things; I know I've always tried to do the right things. And like all things, some things go better than others. We did go through kind of a unique period; I don't know how you'd describe it exactly other than 'unique.'
"But we ended up at a good place, and I feel like that's what we have to keep doing. You're going to go through some rough patches, and you have to stay steady and try to get us to the right place.
"It's my job to lead us through the rough patches and the good patches. And do it with good people you can trust to work with you to try to make it all come together the right way. I can guarantee everybody around here wants what's best for the University, and everybody's tried to do what's best for the University."
But as with the rest of Pederson's time at Pitt, 2010-12 wasn't easily defined as a black mark on his legacy. In the midst of the coaching chaos, Pederson was a central figure in one of the biggest transitions in the history of the Pitt Athletic Department. In September 2011, the Atlantic Coast Conference announced that it had formally invited Pitt and Syracuse to join its league, saving both programs from the fading life support of the Big East and promising a sizeable influx of new revenue.
It was critical for Pitt to get out of the Big East, and Pederson was instrumental on the athletics side of the move to the ACC. On Tuesday, ACC commissioner John Swofford even released a statement praising Pederson, despite the fact that Pitt hasn't officially joined the conference yet.
"Pitt has a terrific asset and leader in Steve Pederson," Swofford said. "He's one of the most experienced and respected athletics directors in the country and he's already made a positive and prominent impact around the ACC table."
Swofford released that statement after Pitt's announcement that it had signed Pederson to a new five-year contract. The news of an extension predictably drew mixed reactions from Pitt fans, but through all of the transition, all of the turmoil, through uniforms and stadiums and arenas and head coaches, Pederson has tried to stay steady in his focus as Athletic Director.
"The most important thing is what happens to the institution and what happens to our student-athletes," he said Tuesday. "I've always felt, to a certain extent, when things don't go exactly as you had hoped, you can't lose the institutional values and you have to keep pushing through what's best for the institution. And I've always said, as long as we are trying to do what's right by our student-athletes, and as long as we're always prioritizing them, we're going to be fine, whatever else happens. We owe it to them to be stand-up people when things aren't great. We just owe it to them to set an example for them but also to be the ones to say, 'We're going to be fine here, we're going to get there, and we're going to stick with you all the way through it.'
"When I talked to the team after Todd Graham left, what I said was that I just wanted the team in [the room] because I wanted them to know we were committed to doing this right for them, that we were going to get the right coach, whatever time it took, and we were going to get somebody who would be the right person for them and that that was so important."
Dixon, who took over as head men's basketball coach after Howland left for UCLA in 2003, wasn't hired by Pederson. Interim Athletic Director Mark Boehm - and Nordenberg - formally hired Dixon, but Dixon has spoken on numerous occasions of his personal relationship with Pederson, even referencing conversations the two had while Pederson was at Nebraska and Dixon was considering leaving Pitt for other jobs.
And as other schools have tried to poach Dixon since Pederson returned to Pitt, Dixon has cited Pederson as one of the key reasons he has stayed with the Panthers. Dixon said Tuesday that he has a shared set of values with Pederson - that the best interests of student-athletes are the primary focus - and as he compares the Pitt of 2013 with the Pitt he saw when he first arrived on Howland's staff in 1999, he sees considerable changes.
"He's had to do some tough things; that's part of being an Athletic Director" Dixon said. "How long's he been here? 13 years with conference realignment and the changing rules of the NCAA, you have to do some tough things; there's going to be some different sides. But at the end of the day we have a great arena, we're playing in one of the best football facilities, and we're in one of the best conferences. And we weren't in those [prior to Pederson's arrival]. That's pretty easy to me to point to."
"I'm glad that we get to continue on to do this together," Pederson said. "The University of Pittsburgh is a great place, the city of Pittsburgh is a great place, and we feel very fortunate to be here. I'm just glad that we get to continue on pushing this forward together, particularly at a time when we're headed on to one of the most exciting times in our history."
Where Pederson fits in that history is a subjective matter, and his legacy may be that of a complicated figure with no consensus from the fans on his tenure as Pitt Athletic Director. But his impact on Pitt athletics, however you judge it, is unmistakably present.