Cook: It's not all Walt's fault

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All of that television and radio attention. All of the negative press. You would think Pitt coach Walt Harris had bared a nipple. Or dressed down chancellor Mark Nordenberg at The Dirty O.

I'm sorry, but I just can't believe the world is ending for Pitt football because it lost out on recruits Andrew Johnson and Anthony Morelli.

That's the reason for the latest round of Harris bashing, the fact Johnson of North Hills High School and Morelli of Penn Hills reneged on their word to Pitt and signed last week with Miami and Penn State, respectively.

I blame Harris for a lot of things, but I'm not sure that was his fault as much as it was the collapse of the Big East Conference.

I'm not even certain Pitt would be better off if Johnson and Morelli had signed on.

For every scout who loves Johnson's eye-popping speed, there's another who will tell you he's soft. He's no sure thing the way Woodland Hills' Steve Breaston was a few years back when he picked Michigan. Now there was a loss that hurt Pitt.

The same is true of Morelli. For every scout who loves his big arm, there's another who says he won't be able to master the complexities of a college offense, even one as bland as Penn State's. If he had chosen Pitt, he almost certainly would have sat behind Tyler Palko and/or Luke Getsy for the next three years. He also would have caused a few tense moments in the quarterback meetings after he and his dad, Greg, had a public snit over him being left out of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl by East coach Bob Palko, Tyler's father. Talk about addition by subtraction.

Many people have said the defections of Johnson and Morelli will hurt Pitt most by creating the perception Harris can't keep the local stars at home. That's just not true anymore. It was true in 1997 when North Hills great LaVar Arrington picked Penn State, but it's not true now. Since then, Harris and Pitt have signed Pennsylvania players of the year Rod Rutherford, Dustin Picciotti and Palko. Rutherford turned out to be a superb quarterback. Picciotti was a bust because of repeated concussions. The jury remains out on Palko.

What adds to the hysteria surrounding Morelli, of course, is that he chose Penn State. That makes him Public Enemy No. 1 to a lot of people around here. Nittany Lions fans stopped caring about Pitt years ago when Joe Paterno shamelessly allowed the Pitt-Penn State rivalry to end, but Pitt fans still are sick with jealousy because of just about everything in Happy Valley. Paterno's phenomenal success, at least until the past four years. Penn State's ability to draw 110,000 fans without ticket gimmicks. And now, Penn State's very solid future in the very solid Big Ten Conference.

But take solace on this one, Pitt fans. There's no guarantee Morelli will make it big at Penn State. Paterno and his staff didn't want him at first. They wanted West Lawn's Chad Henne, who went to Michigan. They also wanted Lancaster's Jordan Steffy, who picked Maryland. They settled for Morelli.

There's also Penn State's less-than-stellar recent tradition of developing quarterbacks. It's become the place where good quarterbacks go to wither. Zack Mills, who has regressed instead of progressed, is the latest proof. There has been speculation Paterno will replace his son, Jay, as quarterbacks coach and bring in an offensive guru. Penn State fans can only hope.

That doesn't mean the future of Pitt football is brighter than Penn State's. It most certainly is not because of the Big East's problems caused by the jump of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Linebacker James Bryant of Reading -- one of at least three other recruits Pitt thought it had and lost -- said he went with Miami because of the diminished Big East.

It also doesn't mean Harris is above criticism. You want to blame him? Blame him for Pitt starting last season in the top 10 and finishing with an 8-5 record. Blame him for his insistence on being more of an offensive coordinator than a head coach. Blame him for his inability to recruit big-time linemen. This list could go on and on.

It just means Pitt wouldn't necessarily be a better program and Harris a better coach if they had signed Johnson and Morelli.


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