(First in a series. Some schools have great football teams. Some have great basketball teams. But a select few have the best of both worlds. CBSSports.com ranks and profiles the schools who’ve positioned themselves for success now and into the future in both sports. Today, No. 5 Pittsburgh. Mon., July 26, No. 4 revealed.)
This Dion is definitely not Neon. The Next Big Thing at Pittsburgh keeps to himself.
Aside from lighting up highlight reels, the flashiest thing Pittsburgh's freshman All-American tailback did was transfer twice in high school, finally ending up at Blair Academy in New Jersey.
"I wanted to get my name out there a little more," Dion Lewis said, "and play against a little bit better competition."
When Pittsburgh secondary coach Jeff Hafley came sniffing around on the recruiting trail he found a 5-foot-8 back who had been offered scholarships only by Tulane and Miami (Ohio).
"I put the tape on and watched, literally, about eight plays," said Hafley's boss, Dave Wannstedt. "I said, 'There's got to be a hole in this kid. He's too good a football player.'"
Hafley reminded Wanny to be wary of the kid's height. Sure, Barry Sanders was the same 5-8 at Oklahoma State more than two decades ago. That ushered in a new era of short, squat, elusive tailbacks. But that's comparing a Hall of Famer to an unproven kid from Albany, N.Y.
"I think everybody is looking for that 5-10, 5-11, 6-foot running back," Wannstedt said. "I think you've got to look for guys to make plays. You've got to try to project with these kids. That's what we did with Dion."
Lewis turned into a metaphor for the entire program, which helped land Pittsburgh on the CBSSports.com list of the nation's best combined football/basketball schools. A lot of times you've got to try to project at Pittsburgh. Not quite the biggest football draw in town -- the Steelers and high schools take care of that. Not quite a conference power -- since the Panthers won the Big East at 8-3 in 2004, the program has finished higher than third twice. Certainly not national champions. It's 34 years and counting since Tony Dorsett led Pittsburgh to that 1976 title.
|Flourishing Five: No. 5 Pittsburgh|
Once an afterthought, Pitt is now a Top 25 staple. You can thank the coaches, but the Panthers aren't on the top combined programs list without their commitment to hoops. Read>>
|2009||10-3||Won Car Care|
-- Finished 2009 ranked No. 15 in the AP and Coaches Poll
-- Defeated North Carolina 19-17 to win Meinke Car Care Bowl
-- In 2007, beat West Virginia 13-9 in final game of season
-- Dion Lewis was CBSSports.com Freshman of the Year in 2009
|Top Draft picks|
|LeSean McCoy||53 (2009)||Philadelphia|
|Jeff Otah||19 (2008)||Carolina|
|Derrelle Revis||14 (2007)||N.Y. Jets|
|No. 4 Wisconsin: Football | Basketball No. 3 Ohio State: Football | Basketball No. 2 Texas: Football | Basketball No. 1 Florida: Football | Basketball Blog: Honorable mention | Who's the worst?|
Yeah, sometimes you have to project at Pittsburgh.
Greg Romeus didn't play high school football until his senior year at Coral Glades High School in Coral Springs, Fla.
"I remember not being able to get in a stance when I got here," the Pittsburgh defensive end said.
Re-districting had forced Romeus to transfer from Stoneman-Douglas High in neighboring Parkland, where he played mostly basketball. Last season, though, Romeus was the Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year, having to make a tough decision to turn down the NFL. Now there are whispers that, with another year of experience, he might be the No. 1 player taken overall in 2011.
Pittsburgh is on an upswing for sure which makes a difference in breaking down the five best football/basketball schools. It's close, real close. In fact, about 70 miles separate Pittsburgh from the school that could be in this spot if the Panthers weren't. West Virginia has a basketball tradition as well. It has been to BCS bowls.
It still isn't Pittsburgh for the purposes of this argument. It's not only where the Panthers have been, it's where they're headed. In his second season, Lewis is a Heisman candidate and has at least two seasons left in college. Romeus helped Pittsburgh lead the nation in sacks (47). Sophomore Dan Mason could become the program's fourth consecutive all-Big East middle linebacker. There is a healthy receiver tradition led lately by junior Jonathan Baldwin.
If Lewis is comfortable, he shouldn't be. Wannstedt is aggressively recruiting Jameel Poteat, a top 20 tailback from Harrisburg, Pa. for 2011. That's how Pittsburgh got to this place, coming off the program's best season in 1981. Wannstedt landed Lewis when he was looking to replace LeSean McCoy, who had left for the NFL. He wanted a January enrollee who had a chance to play.
Wanny got a workhorse. Last season's 45-44 loss to Cincinnati will be known as much for its heartbreak -- Pittsburgh would have clinched the Big East with a win -- as for Lewis' other-worldly performance. A school-record 47 carries produced a career-high 194 yards.
It was not enough, kind of summing up the not-quite part of Pittsburgh football. The program's last five losses have been by a touchdown or less. Last season's three losses came by a total of 11 points.
Are the Panthers there yet? Wannstedt has finally settled in as coach in his sixth season. The quintessential Pittsburgh guy started out 15-19 before winning 20 of his last 27. Wanny never deviated from the plan. His pro-set offense is a changeup for defenses used to the spread. There's always a star or two on defense.
It's all very traditional. It turns out kids still like to hit. Imagine that.
"You've got to act that way, you've got to think that way, you've got to practice that way, you've got to talk that way," Wannstedt said.
Things just might have changed for the better on Dec. 1, 2007. Pittsburgh knocked West Virginia out of the national championship game with a 13-9 upset in Morgantown. Since that day only Cincinnati (24-4) has a better record than the Panthers (20-7) among Big East teams.
It's all been done with a pro-set offense and a 4-3 defense.
"We're the dinosaurs of college football," Wannstedt said.
This is how Pittsburgh stays away from the mundane: The defense harasses the quarterback a lot. Romeus had eight sacks and 11½ tackles for loss. The offense pounds in a different way. Last season it barely finished out of the top 20 in scoring (32 points per game).
"Guys want to draw up 1,000 plays and throw the ball 50 times ..," Wannstedt said. "Who else can have a fullback named Henry Hynoski? That only works in Pittsburgh, a big Polish fullback, you know?"
But with the Big East title on the line, all Pittsburgh had to do last season was beat either West Virginia or Cincinnati in its final two games. The Mountaineers won 19-16 in Morgantown. Pittsburgh led 31-10 at home, held the ball for 39 minutes, picked off three passes and still lost to Cincinnati.
That's enough to build a bridge of determination from December heartbreak to September hope.
"As much as I could, I tried to take it out of my head," Romeus said of the Cincinnati game. "I don't think I ever will -- how we lost, how we were up the whole game."
The motivation is there. So is the desire, the Wanny ethic, the no-Neon Dion, the rival grinding its teeth just a few miles down the road. The project that Wannstedt found when he walked in the door 5½ years ago is now a verb: The entire program projects to greatness.