Pitt trying to put distractions aside

As part of the BBVA Compass Bowl week activities, Pittsburgh visited the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham on Thursday morning. Like most who go there, the players were moved by the experience.

"You just feel the history around you," quarterback Tino Sunseri said. "It brought everybody together."

While it's less than nothing compared to the struggle of the civil rights movement, the Panthers have had their own recent history to deal with. They can only hope it helps bring them together for Saturday's game against Kentucky.

At this point, there's no need to fully recap Dave Wannstedt's forced resignation and Mike Haywood's hiring and subsequent firing. The school is searching for its third coach in less than a month and may have one ready to go before kickoff. The situation has been a distraction to say the least, but the players are trying to stay focused on the game at hand.

"It's been crazy," defensive end Brandon Lindsey said. "Our coach gets fired, then they hire another dude and he gets fired. But we've still got a game to play. Nobody's worried about the coaches right now because it's out of our hands. We're just worried about Kentucky."

While the program has been in turmoil, the players themselves haven't seen too much of a transition. Sunseri said that Haywood addressed the team once before Christmas break, and he was fired before ever talking to them again. The Panthers went through bowl practices at home under Wannstedt until he told them Monday that he wouldn't be coaching the game.

Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett will serve as interim coach. The defense won't notice much difference, but Lindsey said the offensive players have gotten a taste of Bennett's personality this week in Alabama.

"Coach Bennett is a really fiery guy," Sunseri said. "Coach Wannstedt was more of an NFL type coach who sat back and watched practice and told us what he thought at the end of practice. Coach Bennett, though he's over with the defense, he'll check in on us and let you know when you've done something wrong that second. He wants to make sure we understand what we're down here for."

Though Kentucky is just 6-6, Pitt knows it can't afford to not have total focus on this game. The 7-5 Panthers repeatedly lost big games on national TV this year and would like to reverse that before the season ends. A bowl game victory can at least begin to provide some optimism for a reeling program.

"I think a win would lighten the mood around campus a lot and give everybody some stability," Lindsey said. "Plus, it might help us salvage the recruiting class because people will see what we have coming back."

To do that, Pitt will have to play up to its potential. And they will have to come together despite their recent history.