PITTSFORD —It was 15 months ago that Dave Wannstedt sat in a side room at UPB waiting to give the Commencement address to Pitt-Bradford’s graduates, and talking about his NFL coaching career.
As yours truly was about to leave, the then-football coach at the University of Pittsburgh offered a final thought.
“Buffalo is going to be fine with Chan (Gailey) as head coach,” Wannstedt maintained of his close friend. “I’m certain they’ll be solid offensively because they WILL run the ball effectively.”
He added, prophetically, “His problem will be on defense because (the Bills) are going from a 4-3 to a 3-4 (alignment) and that changes the personnel needed in the front seven.
“But in my mind they’ve got the right guy as head coach.”
As it turned out, the Bills went 4-12 — all the wins in the last eight games — with five of the losses by a touchdown or less, three via a field goal in overtime.
And though Buffalo was 28th of the NFL’s 32 teams in points scored and 25th in yardage, the Bills were clearly more improved and interesting on offense and Gailey got a honeymoon pass.
Not so much.
Buffalo surrendered 425 points, second-most in franchise history, and was last in the league defending the run, including a numbing eight games when an opponent rushed for at least 200 yards.
Wannstedt, meanwhile, had problems of his own.
Pitt, a heavy favorite to win the Big East, staggered home at 7-5 and the Panthers’ alumnus coach was dismissed after going 42-31 in six seasons, including 26-12 between 2008-010, the best such three-year streak by the Panthers in 18 years.
But he wasn’t unemployed for long.
Came the new year and Gailey hired Wannstedt to be Buffalo’s assistant head coach with the added responsibility of inside linebackers.
And earlier this week, the 58-year old former head coach of the Bears and Dolphins talked about his latest stop following a training camp practice at St. John Fisher.
“It’s funny how life works out sometimes,” said Wannstedt, sporting a cast on the wrist he broke falling off a bike. “ I kind of anticipated being at Pitt for the next five years … I wasn’t going to do it that long. The reason I took the Pitt job was that it was my alma mater … I’d never have gone back to college otherwise.
“When the guy who hired me (former athletic director Jeff Long) left, I didn’t have a good feeling about anything. I guess those things happen, but it didn’t take long for me to move on, that’s for sure.”
HIS FRIENDSHIP with Gailey began back in his years as Dolphins’ coach.
“I knew him from when I was with the Bears and he was with the Steelers … I had a chance to see him coach. His reputation speaks for itself,” Wannstedt said. “As soon as I got the Dolphins’ job (in 2000) he was the first guy I called. He came down with his wife and it just clicked. It was good chemistry and I think he looked at that opportunity as a positive one.
“ We had a good football team and he was able to take us to another level (Miami went 11-5 in the two years Gailey was offensive coordinator) and that’s what this profession is all about. When he went to Georgia Tech (2002) we kept in touch and talked all the time, even when I went to Pitt (in 2005).”
Wannstedt recalled, “We talked (last) year about what was going on in Buffalo and when things got bad at Pitt at the end. We got talking about the situation there and at that point I didn’t know what I was going to do.
“I was talking to a few people in the NFL and he said, ‘Why don’t you come on up.’ My wife and I flew to Buffalo. We were (in Florida) trying to figure out if we wanted to do something … and only if it was right. I wasn’t going to take a job just to take a job. I wanted a good positive situation with people I wanted to work with. We spent the weekend it Buffalo and it just felt good ... I had a good feeling about it.”
And Wannstedt’s enthusiasm hasn’t ebbed.
“I’ve never been as excited about coaching and doing what I’m doing professionally than I am right now,” he said. “Chan’s been great, (general manager) Buddy Nix, (owner Ralph) Wilson. I think we’re in a great spot right now. I think I’m part of something that people are excited about and we have a chance to get a lot better.”
That’s saying something for a former head coach who went 41-53 in six years with the Bears, but a solid 44-33 in four-plus seasons with Miami.
Gailey is delighted with the hire.
“He brings and awful lot of knowledge and an awful lot of experience,” the Bills’ second-year boss said of Wannstedt. “There’s an immediate credibility when you have a guy like that on the field. Whatever he says, players hang on every word.
“We have a very good relationship and I think it’s a win-win for the football team.”
For Wannstedt, defensive coordinator under Jimmy Johnson at Dallas for one of the Cowboys’ Super Bowl wins, loves the opportunity.
“We’ve got a great group of defensive coaches who work well together,” he said. “We’ve got some good young talent on defense and I’m coaching .... I’m a football coach. I love the interaction with the players, I love being back in the NFL. Most of my peers and guys I grew up with (professionally) are in the league.”
AND what is it about football coaches hiring people they know and the favor being returned?
When he was coaching Chicago in the USFL, Marv Levy hired a scout named Bill Polian. When Polian was Buffalo’s GM, he hired Levy to replace Hank Bullough.
“It’s very difficult to hire people on recommendation,” Wannstedt said. “ I always wanted to have somebody that I knew. How did they handle the ups? How did they handle the downs? How did they handle the tough situations?
“Chan and I have been through ups and through downs and that’s invaluable, you don’t get that in a job interview.”
Clearly Gailey has the same view.
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)