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February 18, 1999



With the University in the largest expansion phase in its history, Pitt's AD faces some difficult decisions.

Steve Pederson was named Pitt's 10th athletics director Oct. 28, 1996, after serving for two years as the associate athletics director at the University of Nebraska.

At Nebraska, Pederson oversaw one of the most successful football programs in the country, which produced back-to-back undefeated and national championship seasons in 1994 and 1995.

Prior to his appointment at Nebraska, Pederson was a member of the Tennessee football staff. In 1991, he was named recruiting coordinator for then-coach Johnny Majors. A year later he was promoted to assistant athletics director for recruiting and then was elevated to associate athletics director for football operations in the spring of 1993.

Pederson also served as the recruiting coordinator at Ohio State from 1988 through 1991, and helped rebuild the Buckeyes into the power that they are today.

A native of North Platte, Nebraska, Pederson graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1980 with a degree in business administration.

Pederson talked recently with University Times staff writer Peter Hart about the state of the Pitt athletics department and its plans and goals.

UNIVERSITY TIMES: You came here in 1996 and tried to establish a new attitude and winning tradition, including introducing a new team color scheme, Panthers logo and tag-line. How would you say those efforts are going? Is there anything that surprised you?

PEDERSON: We're very proud of what's happened. I think that for a very extended period of time, athletics at the University of Pittsburgh had not grown. We'd kind of just been sitting back and waiting for things to get better. And if there's one thing I know, it's that by sitting back and waiting for things to get better, you can be sure they'll never get better.

I've said from the beginning that athletics is not more important than anything else that happens in the University, but it's not unimportant either. And as we build the athletic department, we want it to be one of the great departments in the University. I really think tremendous days are ahead. We had to change our image; we had to change our attitude; we had to change the way we did business, because, quite frankly, it wasn't working. We had fallen to the bottom of the Big East Conference in our competitive levels, and there is no reason in this University, in this great city, in this environment not to be at the top of the Big East Conference.

So we've set our goal to be the top athletic department in the Big East Conference, to reflect the values of this great University.

I've been probably surprised, if by anything, by the number of people here whose expectations for us are lower than the expectations we have for ourselves. And there are some groups of people who don't really believe we'll ever succeed, and I mean the athletic department, as a university, as a city. And sometimes these naysayers are the very people who are closest to it. I feel that the possibilities here are limitless.

Your responsibilities at other universities included working in sports information, fund-raising for major facility improvement and recruiting coordinator. How has that background helped in your job as director of athletics?

Well, I think one of the strengths I bring to this job is that there isn't anything in an athletic department that I haven't done. When I started as a young guy in sports information, you know, when the mail guy was gone, I delivered the mail. I know what everyone in this department is doing, how they approach their job, and it also is a good way to remind us that every job in this department is key to it. There are no unimportant jobs and there are no unimportant people.

One of the things I did when I got here was to put every one of our student-athletes, male and female, in the same kind of warm-up suit. I don't know that any other school in the country does that. My purpose was clear: We are one, we're all in this toget her and no one sport is more or less important than another.

In his resignation announcement, head men's basketball coach Ralph Willard said an Associated Press story and rumors over his job status had crippled recruitment. The coach mentioned that "perception is reality." Do you have any comment on that? And what do you think of the local media: print, sports talk shows, TV coverage?

I think in athletics perception is reality and I think in athletics you'd better be able to ride the bad times with the good, and from that standpoint, that's just part of the game. In terms of the media, I don't always agree with everything they write, but overall they've reported fairly.

I do have concerns over the talk radio programs. I think they create a perception that often times isn't fair. What you find is that the same people call in every night, time and time again, and people will say they got an inordinate amount of negative calls on [a particular] topic. But there's really not much we can do about it.

There is the theory that, when a team is successful, athletes' problems outside the arena are overlooked or tolerated — while the reverse is true when a team is not so successful. Do you agree?

Well, I think problems in athletics can be blown out of proportion. I think that's just the nature of the business. We had an incident where one of our student-athletes made a mistake. It was played out very publicly. I called in all of our student-athletes, all 400 of them, a couple weeks ago at 7:30 on a Tuesday morning, and I told them I can argue all I want, but that as student-athletes they are in a high-profile position where this is how this is going to be played out. We don't have control over that.

The last semester we had 212 student-athletes out of 400 who had a 3.0 or better GPA, and 14 of them with a perfect 4.0. And they are helping at Children's Hospital and helping rebuild a women's shelter, doing so many good things. I said, "Put your shoulders back, be proud, and look at what you're doing, because we are proud of what you're doing."

Much of the information that is on the streets, so to speak, comes from athletic success or lack of success. That's why I want a successful program here. I had a discussion with a faculty member here recently, who had done some correlation studies at Penn State. The correlation studies showed that for every football game won by Penn State, applications went up by 1,500. I was at Nebraska at the time we won the national championship; applications nearly doubled and we got the best freshman class we'd ever had.

A year ago on our Internet site we were averaging about 2,300 hits a week. The day after we beat Miami on a Thursday night on ESPN, from 7 in the morning to 7 at night we had 10,000 hits on the site. And what we know from experts is that a majority of that was coming from kids in high school saying that looks like a neat place, I want to know more about the University of Pittsburgh, I saw them last night on TV. So it does correlate to what we're trying to do overall.

You've said you weren't going to be specific about hiring a new basketball coach. But, speaking generally, what is your approach? Do you have a length of contract in mind? How would you describe the goals and expectations you have for a new coach?

I think that as we go through the negotiating process there would be length-of-contract discussions with whomever that person is. I want somebody who is going to come in here with a great deal of integrity, enthusiasm, a high-energy level, desire to be successful at the University of Pittsburgh and who believes wholeheartedly that he can be successful at the University of Pittsburgh.

I've hired a new women's basketball coach, Traci Waites, and Walt Harris — and then myself coming in here, the common thread is that we all believe that we can be successful and take the programs to the top. And so, for the new basketball coach, I would like to have that same philosophy as we go forward.

The Big East is certainly one of the top two conferences if not the top conference in basketball. Teams from our league have won the national championship and consistently been in the Final Four. Is that a dream at the University of Pittsburgh? Absolutely not. It's something we can point towards and accomplish with the right commitment to facilities and the program and so forth.

The 10-year Facilities Management plan, with new student housing, the Multi-Purpose Academic Complex, the convocation center and other major projects, represents the largest expansion in University history. The athletics department is a big player in all that, true?

Well, we're playing in a basketball arena that is the oldest in the Big East by 20 years. Other than the Cost Center and minimal stadium renovations, those are the only things that have been done in the last 50 years to improve our athletic facilities.

We have a lot of exciting projects going on right now. The UPMC sports center, which is going to be on the South Side and house our football operations, including our coaches' offices and meeting rooms and locker rooms and weight rooms and so on, is going to give us the opportunity not only of having tremendous first-class facilities and recruiting top players, but to enhance other programs by making better use of our other facilities.

The convocation center is very important to us. Once the basketball program moves out of the Field House, we'll have the opportunity to renovate it and Trees Hall the way they need to be renovated. And then, in a short period of time, we've played "catch up" real fast.

Once we address the facilities issue, I think we're on the right track. And you know there's obviously been much discussion and speculation with a brand-new stadium in Downtown Pittsburgh, what would our reaction to that be. I've said that to get this program on the right track we have to make some dramatic decisions.

Certainly, we are open to discussion of anything we think can make us a better program, and in Pitt Stadium itself there have been no major renovations since it was built. So, what is the real life of a stadium? At what point, when a beautiful new downtown stadium is being built, does it make sense for you to invest in your own stadium? That is the question: the economic sense of devoting millions to two different stadiums. And so why would we look at that? This is not about Steve Pederson or Walt Harris or anybody else, this is about the University of Pittsburgh. Where will the University of Pittsburgh be in 10 or 20 years? I want to show people that you can win and you can do it the right way and do it with student-athletes.

From time to time people come up to me and say "Well, you want to make this and this change and you might not even want to be here." Well, if I didn't want to be here, I'd make superficial changes and go about my business, instead of coming in and making hard decisions that move this program forward. What you see is someone making a commitment that they'd like to be here an extended period of time because they're going to have to live with these decisions.

There are concerns that commercial enterprises in Oakland, which traditionally rely on big crowds for Saturday home games for part of their revenue, are being ignored or shortchanged by the University in this context. What would you say to those commercial establishments in the neighborhood?

Well, it's interesting to me that last year I took a beating from a lot of Oakland merchants on the "millions of dollars" that we were costing them by moving the West Virginia game to Three Rivers Stadium. Oddly enough, when I got here, I literally went door-to-door to the Oakland merchants, and I would say the vast majority of them were not enthusiastic that I was down there to see them. A common theme was, "You know, we don't make any money off you anyway. You have lousy teams and nobody comes to your games." And I said to myself, how things change in two years, that now we're costing them millions!

So, I guess if they lost millions over the West Virginia game, then I haven't heard any of them say thank you about what they made on the other six. In fact, we actually added a home game last year to our schedule.

I think some of this is a lot of noise. But certainly we want to have a good relationship with the merchants. And as I told some of them, the guys that know me from down there, know that they can pick up the phone if they want to talk to me. They don't have to go on television to discuss what they're concerned about.

Would the new convocation center, with many more events and bigger crowds than in the Field House, offset some of the merchants' concerns?

I believe that even if we were to move the games to the new stadium, people will still go to the same places they've been going to, whether it's before or after the game; that [commercial] establishments will be just as successful.

But really, I think that the University of Pittsburgh has provided great opportunities for [the local merchants] 365 days a year. And with all the students, faculty and staff that are around here, I just can't believe that six days a year will make or break anybody's business. What I'm trying to do is square the business of the athletic department to be successful. I understand that that's what they're trying to do as well, but sometimes those particular goals are going to run into conflict. And there's nothing I can do about that.

How does non-athletics-related expansion fit in with your plans?

That's one of the things I hope that people know by now: that academics are the life of the University and we are a proponent of all of the great things that can happen on this campus. We are, first of all, recruiting students. Our students happen to also be athletes. And so from that standpoint anything that helps to make this University go and make student life better is a real advantage in our recruiting.

And when I see the plans laid out for the MPAC building and the new student housing, I mean that is so exciting because we can use that in our recruiting. When we go out and talk about the University, we talk about a great chancellor who absolutely is doing all the right things that need to be done to bring this University to the overall level that we all want to have. We're excited because obviously he believes that a strong athletic program can enhance overall the University and we believe that, too. We're working very diligently to make him right. And we have a Board of Trustees that is dedicated to making this University great. We're excited about the capital campaign. It's just an exciting time.

Is the department's budget adequate?

In terms of our overall budget we are not really on a budget level with some of the other schools that are around us, but I think that we're making progress. We'll try to continue to find new sources of revenue to make the programs better and have the least amount of University support possible.

Would one of those sources be selling naming rights for the convocation center?

Yes. But we haven't really made a presentation on that yet. Right now, naming rights is under study.

How would you describe the state of the non-revenue-generating sports?

When you see the teams that are most successful in football and basketball, you'll find what follows that is the success of their other teams. Because the revenue generated from those sports in successful times is the funding supporting the other teams. That's just the way college athletics works, that you have the opportunity with 56,000 seats in a stadium to make the kind of income it takes to improve these other programs.

I think they're getting healthier. Our plan is to be playing basketball in the convocation center in 2001. In the trickle-down effect, right now our teams are obviously suffering from the lack of success. But as football and basketball become more successful, [non-revenue-generating sports] are going to be the beneficiaries of that.

Does that put pressure on you to "win now" in football and basketball?

We've got to get ourselves established long range as a program. My concern has been that here we have tended to build our success around particular teams. The problem with teams is they graduate. And if you haven't built a solid program then you ride the ups and downs. The long-term great programs can replace student-athletes, and so we're in the process of building that. And that's priority No. 1.

You were talking about budgets, and it costs nearly as much to run an unsuccessful program as it does a successful program. The upside of a successful program is that you have the revenues that offset the rest of that, and then everybody's happy.

Obviously, revenues from television coverage are a big budget factor. Do you worry about potential over-saturation hurting attendance?

Nationally televised games justify any loss you might have in revenues from attendance and concessions and the like. The problem for us is that regional television has yet to prove to me that it's worth that. Those contracts were in place prior to my arrival, and we've got three more years of that. The question is how much TV is too much. If it's raining that day and the game's on television, it's a real negative for you. And yet, there's always the exposure that you get and that helps you too, so we're really going to have to look at that when negotiating a new contract.

Any chance of renewing the football series with Penn State?

I'm on record as saying I'd love to, and I'd sign a 30-year deal if we could do it. The problem is, that's just not in the cards for Penn State. So my tack is to go out and try to find teams at that level to schedule. We have an extended deal with Notre Dame. It's not exactly every other year, but it's extended through the middle 2000s. I'd like to supplement that with another quality team.

What do see for the future?

I just see this explosion of the city of Pittsburgh going on into the next millennium and I see us being right in the heart of what happens, as a University and as an athletic department. I think that we have a unique opportunity here over the next several years to really change not only the perception but the reality of what we're accomplishing here to the point that when people think of us it will be as one of the top athletic programs in the country. And I really believe that in 10 years, people will sit back and say: "What happened to the University of Pittsburgh? They were struggling and now look at them."

I think the best thing we can do is start letting people know all the great things that are happening here and let them come see what we have here. Because we stack up against anybody in the country. And we need to let people know that.

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