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November 25, 2012

Five long years for Pitt seniors

When Pitt's seniors walked off the field after the Panthers' 27-6 win over Rutgers at Heinz Field Saturday, they did so with more than the experience of 65 games.

The experiences Pitt's seniors have had since joining the Panthers in February of 2008 are more than could be recounted in the confines of Saturday's Senior Day activities, but if cataloged, those experiences might look something like this:

A 38-25 record with at least one more game to play. Four head coaches (plus a pair of one-game interim head coaches). 30 assistant coaches. Three strength and conditioning staffs. One 3-0 loss in the Sun Bowl. Two BBVA Compass Bowls. 45-44. Fourth down at Connecticut. Four overtimes at Notre Dame. Three overtimes at Notre Dame.

And that's just a brief list for the class of seniors that, for the most part, committed to Pitt and signed in the aftermath of the Panthers' 13-9 win over West Virginia in 2007. Those players joined Pitt in the midst of the program's highest point since the 1980's and experienced as much success as any team since that era.

At the same time, these seniors have experienced some of the lowest lows - off the field, at least - of any class in recent Pitt history. The messy dismissal of Dave Wannstedt led to the fortnight career of Mike Haywood, which gave way to Todd Graham's 10-month tenure, and that era's early conclusion brought Paul Chryst to Pitt. That constant transition and instability over the last three years wreaked havoc on the program and the team, but the players battled through it with the only constant they could rely on:

Themselves.

"It was tough with all the coaching changes," redshirt senior safety Andrew Taglianetti said after Saturday's game. "At times, it was just kind of frustrating. That's one of the only negatives I can think of: it was tough to go through that. But if it wasn't for the players, things would have gone to [disarray]. I can't speak highly enough of my senior teammates and some of the underclassmen; they're some of the best guys I've ever met. They'll be some of my best friends forever.

"That's what this program is: it's the players. It's not the coaches, it's not anything that goes on externally; it's about the players."

Taglianetti was part of the 2008 recruiting class with receiver Cameron Saddler, and both became fan favorites over the last five years. But Saddler agreed with Taglianetti that, when times got tough, the players turned to each other.

"I feel like we had to, because we had nobody else," Saddler said. "It kind of just got annoying, and we were like, you know what? Let's all deal with it. We'll handle it on our time. That's what we did."

Still, the process wasn't smooth. After winning 27 games in Wannstedt's final three seasons - including a 10-3 record in 2009, easily the pinnacle of that coaching tenure - Pitt went 6-7 last season and will face South Florida in Tampa this Saturday for a chance to finish the 2012 season with a .500 record. For the class that came to Pitt in the aftermath of the 13-9 game, when expectations were at their peak, that's a marked drop-off from what they thought they might experience in their careers as Panthers.

"I understand the expectations coming in after 13-9 that we'd come in and just win Big East championship after Big East championship, and it didn't come to fruition," Taglianetti said. "In a way, I still think we had success. I think this senior group had success. The record may not have always reflected it, and from coaching change to coaching change, it's been tough at times, for sure. But I think if you ask any one of these seniors, it's been an absolute pleasure to be here and play for Pitt."

For Saddler, the experience of the last five years has been one of growth and maturity, even if it was forced by the circumstances.

"I feel like I've learned how to be a man here at Pitt," he said. "With all the changes and stuff that happens, it taught that, no matter what, just get up. Don't let anybody just keep kicking you into the ground. You have to get up at some point. I feel like that's what I learned, for sure."

As for Taglianetti, the relationships he formed over the last five years have made the biggest impact.

"Oh man, best friends," he said. "I came in with them five years ago. It's…it's been a lot of fun, for sure. I'm going to miss them…"

At that point, while sitting in the press conference room at Heinz Field Saturday, Taglianetti choked up. But he and Saddler will have the lasting memory of a dominating win in their final game at Pitt's home stadium.

"Definitely the victory," Taglianetti said when asked what he will remember about his last time at Heinz Field. "It meant a lot that a lot of the younger guys came up to me and said, 'Hey, thanks for everything.' It means a lot to play for Pitt."





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