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May 8, 2014

Pederson holds academics as point of pride

Minutes before Pitt's foray into its first ACC Tournament, Athletic Director Steve Pederson stepped to center court at the Greensboro Coliseum with redshirt junior Cameron Wright. The Panthers were about to face Wake Forest in the second-round of the conference tournament, but before the game started, Wright was being honored.

Wright's recognition: the 2014 Skip Prosser Award, presented annually to the ACC's top scholar-athlete in men's basketball.

"I told Cameron that one of my greatest memories in this job is standing with him at center court when he got the Skip Prosser Award as the ACC student-athlete of the year," Pederson said Wednesday. "In some ways, I don't know if there's another award I would have rather had any of our student-athletes win than that, with the history and tradition of basketball in this league and the great institutions, to have one of our guys win that award, it was almost too good to be true."

Wright became the fourth Pitt men's basketball player all-time to be named a conference scholar-athlete and the first since Aaron Gray in 2007. What's unique about the ACC's scholar-athlete honors is that the conference considers both academic and athletic achievement. The Skip Prosser Award, for instance, is sixty-percent academic and forty-percent athletic.

"We always try to keep this in perspective in terms of success in both areas," Pederson said.

Pitt's student-athletes acquitted themselves nicely in their first seasons as ACC members. 30 Panthers were selected to the conference's various All-Academic Teams, including six in football (tied for second-most of any school in the ACC), four in men's basketball (tied for the most of any school), three in wrestling (tied for second-most of any school), three each from men's soccer, volleyball and men's indoor track, two each from women's soccer and women's basketball, and one each from cross country, women's indoor track, women's swimming and diving and men's swimming and diving.

And that's just from the fall and winter sports. More recognition will likely come for Pitt's spring sports, and there were other awards and accomplishments as well. Three Pitt student-athletes were nominated for ACC Future Internships; as a result, Kimmy Borza (tennis) will start an internship at FSN South in Tampa and Jordan Hoyt (track) will begin one at Fox Sports South in Atlanta.

"I think the league just elevates everything for us…and I think the student-athletes have risen to that, and they're having opportunities that they never had before," Pederson said.

Additionally, on Wednesday Pitt announced that the men's basketball team received Public Recognition from the NCAA for posting an Academic Progress Rate that ranked among the top ten percent in college basketball nationally for the third time in the last four years.

"It's pretty impressive that Jamie can have a team that succeeds among the best in college basketball and also among the very best academically in college basketball," Pederson said. "So we're really proud of that and proud of what our kids are doing."


Conference schedules

As conference commissioners and athletic directors continually look for the ideal formats and structures of their relatively-new and redesigned leagues, several common topics usually emerge:

Expanding the conference schedule from eight games to nine and eliminating divisions.

Those topics will be discussed at the ACC's league meetings next week, and while the conference was set to go with a nine-game schedule prior to the addition of Notre Dame as a part-time member who will rotate through the schedules of the ACC teams, Pederson said that he thinks the status quo - two seven-team divisions and an eight-game conference schedule - will stay in place.

"Generally, I think the league has been in the mindset of playing eight games in two divisions, and that's really where I am right now: I like the divisions, I like the idea of playing eight games," Pederson said. "I've been in favor of playing nine games, but with the Notre Dame games being rotated in fairly regularly, the problem you get into with nine games is, if your tenth game is Penn State and your eleventh game is Notre Dame, nobody in the country is going to play a schedule like that. With eight games that's different than when you're playing nine games."


Crossovers

One issue with the ACC scheduling model relates to the considerable gaps that develop in how frequently opponents will face each other. For example, Pitt will meet each of its Coastal Division opponents every year on a rotating home-and-home basis; the other two games in the conference schedule will be filled annually by Syracuse and one other Atlantic Division opponent.

That means that, after hosting Florida State in Pitt's inaugural ACC game, the Panthers won't see the Seminoles again until 2020, and no date is set for the next time FSU could return to Heinz Field. The same goes for Clemson, N.C. State, Louisville, Wake Forest and Boston College: Pitt will face each of those teams just twice from last season until 2024.

Pederson said that those considerable gaps were the "genesis" of the nine-game schedule discussion, but once again he pointed to the limits on non-conference scheduling that could be created by an expanded schedule.

"We play a lot of national games, and I don't think you don't want your conference to become so conference-centric that you don't play outside the conference more than once a year or something like that. I think that would hurt us long-term."

The other alternative would be to eliminate the permanent crossover opponent. For Pitt, that would mean rotating all seven Atlantic Division teams two at a time. The issue there is that some ACC programs place considerable value on their crossover opponent.

"You could play more people if you didn't have a permanent rotating opponent, but then you're going to have some people who say, 'I want this permanent opponent'…I think at the end of the day we just have to do what's best for everybody, and that's going to take some talking-through."

With varying opinions on the matter, discussions at next week's ACC meetings should be interesting. No matter the differences of opinion, Pederson likes how the conference resolves issues.

"One of the things I've been impressed with and appreciative of is that everybody ends up being focused on what's being best for the league overall, and I think in every decision we come back to what's best for the league overall. That doesn't mean that everybody gets exactly what they want, and the bigger the league gets, when you've got 14 football and 15 total, the chances of having unanimous votes on things probably get reduced significantly."


Divisions

One other topic to be discussed is the possibility of eliminating the ACC's current two-division format in which the winners of each division meet in the conference championship game. The alternative would be a single 14-team conference that placed its top two finishers in the title game.

For example, last year Duke and Florida State met in the ACC championship game (FSU won 45-7). Duke made the game as the winner of the Coastal Division, although the Blue Devils' 6-2 conference record would have put them behind Clemson, who finished 7-1.

Similarly, in 2012's conference title game, Florida State beat Coastal Division "champion" Georgia Tech (who made the game because North Carolina and Miami were ineligible for the postseason). The Yellow Jackets were 5-3 in the ACC that year, while Clemson again posted a 7-1 mark but had the misfortune of playing in the same division as Florida State.

Regardless, Pederson thinks the current format has value.

"I still like the idea that you win your division and go to the championship game. I think there are some neat things about that, so that's why I've been a proponent of staying in the divisions like we have."

And the two-division structure doesn't always skew the matchups. From 2005-11, the division winners were also the two teams with the best records in the conference.


Keeping FCS games

Another popular talking point in the national discussion of college football scheduling has been the elimination of FBS schools scheduling games with FCS schools. The so-called "rent-a-wins" - although they don't always work out that way - allow the FBS school to schedule an extra home game with no expectation of a return visit.

If the goal is to consistently schedule seven home games every year, then finding an opponent that doesn't require a home-and-home series becomes essential, Pederson said. And since there aren't many FBS programs that will be willing to regularly travel for a one-game series - like New Mexico did last year while Pitt and the Lobos were in desperate circumstances - Pederson said that the FCS games are almost a necessity.

"We had the discussion about it, and then I think the reality came that sometimes you might not have any choice (in order to) keep the pool big enough to find games."

Pederson added that he doesn't think any significant change is coming along those lines in college football.

"I didn't get the sense that very many people had any sentiment toward eliminating [FCS games]. If you don't want to schedule FCS schools at your institution, don't do it."


Improvements

Pederson said there are several major projects going on in Pitt athletics right now. Construction is underway in the Petersen Events Center, where the locker rooms and meeting rooms for men's and women's basketball are being renovated for the first time since the building opened in 2002.

Crews are at work in the South Side as well, where the football team's weight room is being expanded.

"That was something that Coach Chryst has been interested in doing, just because he likes more guys lifting together at the same time. That's been one of his believes that the more guys we have in there together working, the better it is for our team all the way around for camaraderie and competition and those kinds of things."

But Pederson said that neither of those projects are tied to the additional revenues Pitt has gained through its membership in the ACC. Instead, he said, at least some of that new money has gone back into the programs.

"Basically, what we did with the new revenues is, we've let the coaches put that into their recruiting budgets and their travel and competition budgets. We tried to make sure that our coaches had enough money to recruit the way they felt they needed to recruit, so they got significant increases in their recruiting budgets, in some cases more than others. And then also in their travel and competition budget, so that they could go to meets and games that they needed to play and bring teams in here that they wanted to play.

"So those were the things that are probably the most tangible in helping their programs grow, so that's why we did it that way. That's what was most important to them."




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