Wannstedt resigned under pressure Tuesday, three days after Pittsburgh finished up a disappointing 7-5 season by beating Cincinnati 28-10. The former Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins coach will remain as a special assistant to athletic director Steve Pederson.
Pitt apparently chose to change coaches now, rather than after playing Kentucky in the Jan. 8 Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., because most top candidates would not be available then, and national signing day would be less than a month away.
Wannstedt gave no signs Sunday after Pitt accepted the minor bowl bid that he was weighing retirement, and he said he was looking forward to recruiting. But after he met Tuesday with Pederson, Pitt held a hastily called news conference announcing he wouldn't return.
It was immediately evident that Wannstedt didn't voluntarily choose to leave. A number of Pitt players, not invited to the news conference, gathered around him to show support.
"You know what? I had a few things to say but this says it," an emotional Wannstedt said. "I appreciate the opportunity that [chancellor] Mark Nordenberg and this university gave me to come here, win games and most importantly to try to make a difference in these young men's lives. Thank you."
Wannstedt didn't take any questions before leaving for a team meeting. The players were told not to answer reporters' questions. Pederson attempted to portray the departure as a mutual decision.
"Over the course of time, Dave and I talked a number of times that he wouldn't coach forever and that he might want to do something else," Pederson said. "After this season, it became the appropriate time to have that discussion. It seemed to make sense at this particular time."
Asked about the players' support of Wannstedt, Pederson said, "I'd be disappointed if had a coach that the players didn't think the world of. These players think a lot of Dave, and that's obvious. Nothing could have meant more to Dave than to have them here with him."
Pitt will immediately begin a national search for a replacement. Pederson doesn't prefer an offensive or a defensive coach, and assistants will be considered.
"We've kept our eye on a number of people," Pederson said.
Wannstedt's tenure was marked by upset losses to teams such as Ohio University and Bowling Green and a failure to play in a BCS bowl something the Panthers did under lame-duck coach Walt Harris before Wannstedt took over in 2005. Wannstedt went 42-31 in six seasons, including a 26-12 mark from 2008-10 that is Pitt's best for a three-season stretch since 1981-83.
Still, the Panthers failed to meet expectations even while going 9-4 in 2008 and 10-3 in 2009, when last-minute losses to West Virginia and Cincinnati cost them the Big East title.
This season, the heavily favored Panthers lost a two-game lead in the Big East and a BCS bowl bid by losing to Connecticut and West Virginia. Blowout losses at home to Miami (31-3) and the rival Mountaineers (35-10) especially upset fans, and four players were charged with various offenses during a short span of time. Pitt also lost non-conference games to Utah and Notre Dame, leading to diminished attendance at Heinz Field.
Running back Dion Lewis also had a disappointing season, rushing for fewer than 1,000 yards after gaining 1,799 last season. Greg Romeus, considered one of the nation's top defensive ends, was limited to two games by a pair of major injuries.
"This was a hard season, a tough year all the way around, on and off the field," Pederson said. "That wears on everyone. ... As you go through tough years, you begin to evaluate."
Pitt won only one bowl game under Wannstedt, beating North Carolina 19-17 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl last season.
This will be Pederson's first national coaching search since his failed hiring of Bill Callahan at Nebraska in 2004, a move that followed the surprise firing of Frank Solich following a 9-3 season. Pederson and Callahan subsequently were ousted weeks apart in 2007, with Pederson returning to Pitt shortly after that. Wannstedt had been hired in late 2004 by former Pitt AD Jeff Long, who is now at Arkansas.
Pitt's highlight moment under Wannstedt's tenure was a 13-9 upset victory in 2007 at West Virginia, a 28-point favorite that needed to win to qualify for the national championship game.
Wannstedt, a former Panthers player, returned Pitt to its roots by emphasizing local recruiting, but with decidedly mixed results. Western Pennsylvania turns out far fewer impact players than it did during the 1960s and 1970s, when Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino and Bill Fralic all came from the region.
The top Pittsburgh-area high school player during Wannstedt's tenure, Terrelle Pryor, never seriously considered Pitt before signing with Ohio State.
Pitt's best players under Wannstedt were cornerback Darrelle Revis, now a star with the New York Jets, and running back LeSean McCoy, now with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Wannstedt, who has drawn sharp criticism for his in-game coaching, will be allowed to coach the bowl game if he wants. Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. likely will coach the team if Wannstedt doesn't.
"Dave's coached his whole life, and all of a sudden he's not a coach anymore," Pederson said of the former Southern Cal, Miami and Dallas Cowboys assistant coach. "It's tough on anyone. Finishing coaching is not easy for anyone."