BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — University of Pittsburgh football the past month has been juicy enough for a soap opera, and the final episode of "The Young and the Coachless" will take place Saturday when the Panthers play Kentucky in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Since Dec. 7, Pitt has seen its coach, Dave Wannstedt, forced out, and his replacement, Mike Haywood, fired after 16 days on the job following an arrest on domestic-violence charges. Wann-stedt considered coaching in the bowl game but decided against it earlier this week.
With Wannstedt gone, it's up to defensive coordinator Phil Bennett to try to hold things together enough to end the season on a positive note.
The Pittsburgh players say they've been getting bombarded with phone calls and text messages from friends and family trying to find out what's going on, but the Panthers say they've been able to block out the mess.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"It really hasn't been as hard as you think," junior linebacker Max Gruder said. "Somebody on the outside looking in would think there's a lot of disarray in our program. But with Coach Bennett stepping in, there hasn't been much change at all. He's been a head coach, he has a presence, and we all have confidence in him."
The 55-year-old Bennett is definitely not a novice. He's served as head coach at SMU for six years in addition to defensive coordinator stints at Purdue, LSU, Texas A&M and TCU.
Pitt sophomore quarterback Tino Sunseri described Bennett as a "hard-nosed, Southern gentleman."
"He definitely lets you know what he's feeling," Sunseri said. "He's fiery. He has us practicing hard and focused on the game."
In addition to the coaching circus, the Panthers are wrapping up a season that started with BCS hopes but ended with a 7-5 record.
"They're resilient kids, and they'd be the first to tell you that we wished we had a couple of do-overs this year," Bennett said. "We didn't accomplish exactly what we wanted to, but I do believe that they're excited about another opportunity to play. We'll see Saturday."
Bennett has been operating without two of Wann-stedt's assistants, offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti and defensive assistant Jeff Hafley. Also, All-America defensive end and Big East Defensive Player of the Year Jabaal Sheard opted to have elbow surgery and get ready for the NFL Combine instead of playing in the game.
Still, the Panthers are dangerous. Dion Lewis and Ray Graham are a talented running tandem, and receiver Jon Baldwin could be a first-round pick in the NFL Draft if he decides to skip his senior season.
"We're short-handed, but we've got guys capable of stepping up and getting the job done," Bennett said.
Bennett said there's no magic potion for getting the Panthers ready to play.
"We've just tried to stay on schedule and talk about the things we can control," Bennett said. "We know we're playing a good team in Kentucky.
"It's a players' game, and I just think Dave didn't feel like he wanted to be a distraction about his situation and he wanted the focus to be on the game. That's the same thing I'm trying to do."
It's obvious that Wann-stedt's presence still looms large over the program, as Bennett and several Pitt players spoke highly of him.
"We not only want to win this for Coach Bennett and all of the coaches who are leaving, but also for Coach Wannstedt," Gruder said. "He had a great tenure here at Pitt, and we love him and want to win this game for him and end things on a positive note."
"The players are very passionate about Dave and what he put into the program," Bennett said. "And I appreciated how he handled it. He didn't talk about his situation with the kids at all, and that made it easier on me."
Bennett said the off-field drama might add some intrigue that the game seemed to lack when the matchup was announced.
He also noted that UK will be breaking in a new quarterback in Morgan Newton and a new defensive boss in Rick Minter.
"The bowl people have a greater appreciation for this game now because there's going to be a lot of people watching it," Bennett said. "It might not have been one of the prime games to begin, but now it's like, 'How are these guys going to respond?' (Kentucky Coach) Joker (Phillips) has made some changes, and we've changed, so it'll be interesting."
The Pitt players said regardless of what's going on outside the lines, it's a lot easier to zone in on the task at hand once the ball is kicked off.
"When you step on the field, it's an escape for everybody," Gruder said. "You've got school, your girlfriend, your parents, whatever's going on in your life, it's great to have an outlet to get out there and forget about everything. It really doesn't matter what happened in the last month or two. You can get out on the field, block everything out and play."