Former Pitt coach Harris is ready to coach

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After 36 years as a football coach, Walt Harris spent two long autumns away from the game when he was fired by Stanford after the 2006 season. He used the unscheduled coaching hiatus as an opportunity to recharge his battery and spent time reconnecting with his family. But he could never quite get away from football completely.

On fall weekends in 2007 and '08, Harris spent Saturday afternoons in front of the television watching, learning and taking copious notes.

"I never let the game go," said Harris, a former head coach at Pitt who coached from 1997-2004 and was formally introduced Monday morning as the new offensive coordinator at Division II California University of Pennsylvania. "I probably was not a lot of fun to live with on football weekends. I liked to be in front of the TV from noon until midnight and maybe later if the West Coast games were on. I always loved the game of football. There were a lot of things I learned from watching other people."

Harris got back into coaching last season when he joined friend and former Pitt assistant J.D. Brookhart at Akron. He was the assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach.

Now Harris will try to help California take the next step from contenders to champions. Head coach John Luckhardt has led the Vulcans to five consecutive PSAC West titles and three consecutive appearances in the NCAA Division II semifinals.

"He has had an exceptional career," Luckhardt said. "He is the consummate professional. One of the things that he never gets enough credit for is what he did at Pitt. People see the football program at Pitt in a different light than they did in 1996. When Walt was an assistant at Ohio State they played Pitt and beat them, 70-0. That was the year before Walt took over the program. He went [6-6] and [played in] a bowl game in his first season with basically the same personnel he inherited."

Harris moved back to Pittsburgh after his two-year stint at Stanford. He has lived in Pittsburgh for the past three years.

Harris remains close with several of his former players at Pitt. He attended a charity event over the weekend that was hosted by former Pitt defensive back Torrie Cox and saw many players for the first time in years.

"I'm close with a lot of those guys," Harris said. "I've been through the wars with a lot of them. It was a thrill to be around them. A couple of the players I hadn't seen in quite a while. It was a thrill."

Harris also has kept close tabs on the football happenings at Pitt. The university decided to let Harris go after the 2004 season -- when Pitt qualified for the Bowl Championship Series for the first and only time in school history -- but he has maintained an affinity for the school and the football program.

"It's my adopted school," said Harris, who was 52-44 in his eights seasons as head coach at Pitt. "I've admired what chancellor [Mark] Nordenberg has done. Dave Wannstedt has done a great job. They built it slow. They built it with great care. Now they're really reaping the dividends. They have a chance to be the dominant team in the Big East like we were hoping to be."

Harris, who will turn 64 in November, joked on Monday that being called a veteran coach is just another way of saying old. He has coached at every level from high school to the NFL. And now, after some time away, has a renewed focus and excitement for the game.

"I missed coaching without a doubt, but honestly, some parts of me were recharging," he said. "The actual coaching of football I never lost. I think sometimes you have to recharge yourself in regards to the other things you have to do, the other sacrifices, the time you're away from your family, all of the responsibilities you have to do away from the football field. The football field never changed because that's what I loved the most."


Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-215-4729.


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