Pitt has interim coach for bowl game against SMU
By CHARLES ODUM
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri says there's a bright side to the program's latest coaching change: The Panthers at least have been in this position before.
The Panthers are playing in their second straight BBVA Compass Bowl on Saturday against SMU, and each time they've had an interim coach.
One year ago, Pittsburgh was looking to replace Dave Wannstedt. Interim coach Phil Bennett led the Panthers to a bowl win over Kentucky.
This year, Pitt already has hired Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst to replace Todd Graham, who left for Arizona State.
Chryst is expected to be at Legion Field for Saturday's game. Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is the interim coach.
"It's not like we haven't been in this situation before," Sunseri said. "We know how to handle ourselves."
Sunseri said he has told his teammates they must look out for themselves.
"A lot of guys have NFL aspirations and I've told them you need to be professional," Sunseri said. "You need to be able to handle this kind of stuff. You need to be able to study tape on your own. You need to become a man and grow up and take it upon yourself to study the game and kind of fall in on everybody else's shoulders and come together."
As a twist to Saturday's game, SMU coach June Jones almost was hired by Arizona State before the school chose Graham.
Patterson has his next job lined up. He was announced Wednesday as the new defensive coordinator at Arkansas State.
Patterson said he didn't was caught off guard by Graham's decision to leave Pittsburgh after less than one year on the job.
"I'll be honest with you, it took me a while to sort through it all," Patterson said. "It was unexpected, of course."
The Panthers are hoping to overcome the chaos just as they did in their last visit to Legion Field when they were motivated to win for Wannstedt, who was forced to resign.
This year's change was different. When he was denied permission by Pitt to talk with Arizona State, Graham quit and used texts and emails to tell his players of his decision.
"We've really tried to focus on the positive things," Patterson said. "It's been a challenge but the kids have really responded. After the first three or four days, the kids got over it and they've got an energy about themselves. We've focused on the opponent and finishing what we started."
SMU (7-5) is playing in its third straight bowl and, like Pitt (6-6), is switching conferences. While SMU prepares to move from Conference USA to the Big East, Pittsburgh is moving from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference by 2014.
Each team has obvious weaknesses.
SMU ranks last in the nation in turnover margin. It has lost 31 turnovers, including 19 interceptions.
"In these games, as I watch on television, it comes down to special teams and turnovers," said Jones, the former Hawaii and Atlanta Falcons coach. "If you turn the ball over and don't take the ball away, you're going to have a hard time winning the game."
SMU senior quarterback J.J. McDermott has passed for 3,182 yards with 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
Pitt is last in the nation with its 56 sacks allowed, 4.75 per game.
The Panthers struggled in Graham's spread offense, ranking 84th in the nation in total yards.
Updated January 6, 2012