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September 25, 2008

The sad thing is I’m actually a paying subscriber for this service. I tried watching the live “All-Access” video of AD Pederson and Coach Dixon announcing Dixon’s contract extension. Got choppy feed that froze a couple minutes in. Then the audio died. Tried re-launching several times only to be told that the program I requested had not yet started. There’s little point in trying to do these sort of events with streaming feeds if you can’t make them work.

I know, this isn’t the athletic department’s fault. It’s a problem with CSTV/CBS College Sports service. Yeah, well, Pitt has this branded as “Panthers All-Access” so it is their fault and their problem. Nothing like bad tech and lousy service to spoil a good story. Fan outreach only works, if it reaches the fans.

Sorry had to vent.

Here’s the story.

Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson announced today that men’s basketball coach Jamie Dixon has been given a three-year contract extension, through the 2015-16 season.

“This contract extension is all about commitment: our commitment to Jamie and his commitment to the University of Pittsburgh,” Pederson said in a statement. “Jamie has risen to the top of his profession in a very short period of time. He is deserving of this commitment by the university for establishing Pitt basketball as one of the nation’s premier programs.

“Five years ago, we gave a young but extraordinarily capable and committed head coach the opportunity to lead our men’s basketball program — which he had helped move onto the national stage — to even higher level of quality and impact,” Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg said. “Under Jamie Dixon’s leadership, that program has secured a position as one of the country’s finest — widely respected for its success in competition, its high-quality student-athletes and its strong guiding values. Jamie Dixon not only is one of college basketball’s best coaches, he also is one of our university’s best representatives.

“Today’s announcement is a clear reflection of our shared desire to have him continue in those roles for many years to come.”

I’m happy about this. Coach Dixon has done a great job at Pitt, and things keep looking brighter. It has been an interesting thing to watch Dixon grow more comfortable in his role and being the public face of the team. Something that took him a couple years to really grasp. His mannerisms and the way he looks in public and in front of a camera have become more at ease and more comfortable.

He has hired and replaced assistants well. The talent has continued to trend upward. Despite the ever increasing competitiveness and brutality of the Big East, Pitt has been one of the top teams in the conference almost every year.

Continual and steady growth. The next step is to go deeper in the NCAA Tournament. That just seems like a matter of time as Coach Dixon continues to improve as a coach and the talent level of the team keeps improving.

Pitt has been smart enough to stay reasonably pro-active on his extensions and raises. Dixon in turn has been loyal and quickly extinguished much interest in him this past off-season. This is the nature of college sports and coaches salaries. A good way to lose a coach is to drag out negotiations and nickel-and-dime on contracts. It gives other schools a chance to drive a wedge and take an opening. Dixon may be the highest paid employee at the University of Pittsburgh, but he’s only middle, maybe upper-middle in terms of compensation in the Big East.

And just before publishing, they put out the official press release. Here’s Dixon’s statement.

“I am grateful to the University of Pittsburgh for the opportunity and support that I have received here. I love both the University and our outstanding city. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by a special group of players, a great coaching staff, the most supportive administration in the country and tremendous fans. Our success can be attributed directly to those components. We’ve been able to celebrate Big East Championships and NCAA Tournament appearances while playing in the sold out Petersen Events Center. My family considers Pittsburgh home.”

The news has been seeping out since yesterday night — KDKA TV mentioned it (Hat tip to Joe T.) — that Dixon was signing a long-rumored extension today. Sure enough.

Pitt will hold a news conference this morning to announce that men’s basketball Jamie Dixon has signed a contract extension. Dixon, the top earner at the university last fiscal year with a salary of nearly $1.3 million, had been signed through the 2012-13 season.

Details of the extension were not immediately known.

Now, the Pitt site has this:

Pitt Athletic Director Steve Pederson will hold a press conference for an important men’s basketball related announcement on Thursday, Sept. 25 at 11 a.m.

The press conference will be streamed live and free on the site. Warning, the “All-Access” that Pitt uses from CSTV only works in Explorer. Firefox gets rejected.

The one thing definitely lacking from Pitt to this point is the offensive “big play.” When a 36-yard pass play between Bill Stull and Oderick Turner in the Buffalo game is the longest play of the season followed by a 28-yard shuffle pass to LeSean McCoy versus Iowa, well you just tell yourself that this offense wasn’t geared towards the big play. Of course, when you then read the coach talking about the wide receivers and McCoy needing/getting close to the “big play,” it can be a bit frustrating.

This has led to the question of why McCoy hasn’t taken a direct snap from the Wildcat formation to this point. To say nothing of the limited appearances of Greg Cross.

He’s not much of a threat when he’s on the bench and, given starting quarterback Bill Stull’s struggles against Iowa, Wannstedt is being asked why the ball wasn’t in Cross’s hands more. Pitt had seven three-and-out possessions during the game, including six in a row at one point.

Stull was 11-of-25 for 129 yards and an interception. Cross was sacked for a 10-yard loss on the only other play he had the ball.

“We do have a series of plays for him other than the two we ran last week,” Wannstedt said. “We’ll see how things unfold. He’s been practicing and doing everything since Day 1 in camp.”

McCoy also hasn’t been used out of the Wildcat this season, even though defenses are stacking the line of scrimmage to contain his running. The sophomore has 242 yards in three games, down from 347 yards last season — even though he wasn’t a starter at the beginning of that season.

Of course, the issue of how, when and frequency with the use of Greg Cross is the center of the debate on Pitt using the Wildcat offense. It apparently didn’t help when the Miami Dolphins used it with great success to blow out the New England Patriots.

The instant success of Cross, coupled with the Miami Dolphins unveiling the Wildcat for six plays that accounted for 119 yards and five touchdowns in ending the New England Patriots’ 21-game regular-season win streak Sunday, has only opened Cavanaugh to more second-guessing.

Yet, Cavanaugh stood by his convictions Wednesday that Bill Stull deserves to be Pitt’s starting quarterback, that Cross will be used when situations allow and the Wildcat isn’t the answer to what ails an offense that ranks last in the Big East in rushing yards per game (123.3).

After spending 25 seasons in the NFL as a player and coach, Cavanaugh believes the Wildcat isn’t going to last long in the league.

“If you pull that out of nowhere – much like our Michigan State game last year – it’s tough to adjust to. It sounds like (the Dolphins) got some big plays out of it,” said Cavanaugh, who spent 11 seasons as an NFL assistant coach, eight as an offensive coordinator. “I’m sure it’s not going to be the rage. I’m sure every team in the NFL has asked for a copy of that game and is going to watch it and start preparing for it. I’m sure that’s what Miami wanted to do, spring it on somebody and make them prepare for it.”

I’m going to assume Cavanaugh was asked about it’s potential impact in the NFL. The problem I see, is his dismissal of it for college as well. Like Wannstedt, he seems to be treating it more as a gimmick that might occasionally surprise an opposing team. Not as something that can be utilized productively in the course of a normal offensive scheme and gameplan. I find that disheartening.

Although Pitt hasn’t unveiled the Wildcat this season, Cavanaugh didn’t dismiss the notion that the Panthers could use it when the time is right. Where LeSean “Shady” McCoy took the snaps out of the unbalanced formation last season, Cross is more likely to handle them this time. But Cavanaugh warned that the Wildcat won’t replace the West Coast as Pitt’s base offense, mostly because of the physical pounding the quarterback endures.

“I would think the best way to do that is with a real athletic quarterback who you don’t mind running the football because he’s going to get hit – a lot – but he’s got the ability to pull the football out and throw it,” Cavanaugh said. “I think (Cross) is probably more adept at running the Wildcat right now. He’s more of a good runner. You expose your quarterbacks to hits that Shady’s used to taking, not a quarterback. If you’re going to do it and you mix it in for four or five snaps a game, you do it. If it becomes a bigger part of the offense, you’re probably better off with a back.”

Yeah, and the spread will never catch-on in the college game. It’s just a gimmick. Again, this is about using the players on the team and their talents in a way that provides the best opportunity for success.

While I have been very critical this season about Wannstedt, one area he deserves credit for has been the play of special teams. Wannstedt has been directly coaching that area. I’ve been very happy with most of the coverage on kickoffs and punts. To say nothing, of successfully attacking the kickers and punters.

He said the units are seemingly starting to get comfortable with some of the changes he has made to their schemes — such as the new spread-out punting formation, which enables the coverage units to get down the field quickly and has led to quicker punts — but there are still too many glitches for his liking.

“The kids are working hard at it,” Wannstedt said. “Our kickoffs have been the best they have been over the past two weeks, certainly the best since I have been here, and that goes for where we are kicking too, hang time and distance.

“We’re close on our kickoff returns — two of them last week, we were one block from breaking them. So we just need to keep working on our fundamentals and keep improving.”

The kickoffs have indeed improved, largely thanks to redshirt sophomore Luke Briggs, a walk-on. The Panthers tried out several players for the kickoff position and began the season with Conor Lee, but Briggs has stepped in and excelled.

But Lee and punter Dave Brytus have, as Wannstedt said, also been excellent and that has been a big boost for the special teams units.

Lee has made all eight of his extra-point attempts and three of four field-goal attempts on the season while Brytus has averaged 43.8 yards per kick, has kicked directionally well and was named the Big East special teams player of the week this past week for his performance in a 21-20 win against Iowa.

The one area of concern, though, has been punt returns.

While some blame Berry for not breaking one longer than 12 yards through the first three games this season, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt is more concerned with Berry catching the ball and getting good field position.

“Aaron Berry hasn’t really had much of a chance,” said Wannstedt, who’s coaching the special teams since Charlie Partridge left for Wisconsin. “It’s not like he’s catching the ball and he’s got nothing but field in front of him. He’s had people down there too fast. We’ve got to work on our hold-ups.”

Wannstedt said Berry’s sure-handedness and willingness to stay in harm’s way is what separates him from other return candidates, such as receivers Derek Kinder, T.J. Porter, Aaron Smith and Aundre Wright.

“He’s the most consistent at catching the football — trust me on that,” Wannstedt said. “The thing that is most important to me is having a guy back there that will field the ball. That’s the No. 1 thing: you want to catch the ball.

“We have a lot of guys that might be faster than Aaron or maybe better with the ball in their hand. But LaRod Stephens-Howling can’t catch punts. I’d love to have him back there, but he’s never returned punts. That’s the other side of the coin.”

It does seem, though, that Berry is thinking too much back there. Looking for exactly the right place to run, rather than just taking off. Seems to be a theme. Players trying to think about what they are supposed to do overruling their own abilities and instincts.

I wonder if the coaches have pushed a little too much on that. Making them worry too much about mistakes, and making it that much harder to have the big play.

Basketball Bits

Filed under: Basketball,Players,Recruiting — Chas @ 5:40 am

A little bit of puff questions for Sam Young.

September 24, 2008

Dominic Cheek, one of the top recruits in the country, will receive the Pitt coaches this weekend. He still hasn’t decided if he will pay Pitt a visit.

With the verbal of J.J. RIchardson, James Padgett isn’t that interested in Pitt any longer. The feeling is probably mutual at this point.

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