Harris not bitter over days at Pitt
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That youthful-looking man sitting three rows in front of you Monday night at the Steelers-Baltimore Ravens game? The one you swear you know? The one you're thinking can't possibly be back in Pittsburgh let alone watching a little football at Heinz Field?
Chances are it is Walt Harris.
Yes, that Walt Harris.
The man left Palo Alto, Calif., and moved back last fall. "My fiancee is from here, my son lives here and the price of housing is a lot cheaper here," Harris said last week. He moved into a 110-year-old house in Shaler and has been working like a dog to renovate it. This is the second consecutive season he has been out of coaching.
Sounds a lot like the "R" word, doesn't it?
"I am not retired," Harris said, firmly.
Although Harris' previous two jobs ended badly -- he was fired by Stanford after the 2006 season after two lousy years and pushed out at Pitt after the '04 season after eight mostly successful years -- he said he wants to coach again. He'll turn 62 Nov. 9, but he looks at least 10 years younger.
"I had a shot at an NFL job this season, but it fell through," Harris said. "I definitely miss it ...
"I feel like I have a lot of football left in me. My best is still ahead."
For now, Harris is a fan.
Of the Steelers, of course.
Of Joe Flacco, the Ravens' rookie quarterback, in whom he saw something special when few others did. Flacco played for him briefly at Pitt, which explains why Harris might be at the game tomorrow night or certainly watching on television.
And -- get this -- of Pitt.
Harris is a bigger man than most.
"Pitt still means a lot to me," he said. "Some of the people there still mean a lot to me ...
"You can't have a better chancellor than Mark Nordenberg. He was great to me. And it was wonderful that they brought Steve Pederson back [as athletic director]. He's the smartest guy I've ever been around. They'll bring Pitt back."
It's amazing Harris isn't bitter about the way he was forced out at Pitt despite twice being Big East Conference Coach of the Year and leading the Panthers to six bowl games, including the Fiesta Bowl in his final season. It's also amazing he isn't reveling in the fact that his successor, Dave Wannstedt, in his fourth season, has not come close to matching his success. Pitt didn't go to a bowl the past three seasons and lost its opener to Bowling Green this season with Harris in the Heinz Field stands.
The Harris era never has seemed better.
Harris never has seemed so smart.
"How does being bitter help me?" Harris asked. "How does it make my situation any better?
"Our record at Pitt is what it was. I'm very proud of it. I'm very proud of some of the other things we did there. Our graduation rate. Keeping the off-the-field problems to a minimum ... "
Harris said he doesn't waste time thinking about what might have been at Pitt if he had been able to stay. University officials believed he had taken the program as far as he could. I shared that belief, endorsed that he be replaced and heartily endorsed Wannstedt's hiring. The Panthers finished in the top 25 only twice under him, No. 19 in '02 and No. 25 in '04.
But that wasn't the only reason Harris was let go. In October '04, his agent, Bob LaMonte belittled the Pitt job publicly. "Pitt is not a major power," he said. "It is not one of the top 20 jobs in the country." Nordenberg and then-athletic director Jeff Long hardly could keep Harris after that. Harris fired LaMonte after the season, but it was too late. He made his mistake by not refuting LaMonte's comments immediately.
"I agree with that 100 percent," Harris said. "That was the biggest mistake I made at Pitt, not speaking out about it. Obviously, I didn't feel that way."
Harris took the Stanford job even before he coached Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl, a 35-7 loss to Utah. His Stanford team went 5-6 in '05 and -- after a series of injuries, including one to quarterback Trent Edwards, now the starter for the Buffalo Bills -- 1-11 in '06. The 11 losses were the most in school history. New athletic director Bob Bowlsby replaced Harris with Jim Harbaugh.
Despite those failures, Harris would be a good hire for any NFL or college team -- as an offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach. The man knows offense. He knows quarterbacks.
Which leads back to Flacco, the Ravens' No. 1 draft choice out of Delaware.
"He was big, fast and tough, and he could really throw," Harris said. "I think Rutgers had some interest in him coming out of high school and maybe Delaware, but he wasn't a marquee guy.
"I always thought he was a good prospect. He just needed to play. He got that chance at Delaware."
Flacco was redshirted by Pitt in '03 and started the '04 season behind Tyler Palko and Luke Getsy. He became the No. 2 quarterback early that season when Getsy transferred to Akron after Harris picked Palko as his starter, a decision Harris called "my toughest at Pitt because those guys were so close." Flacco transferred to Delaware after spring practice in '05 when it became clear Wannstedt was going to stick with Palko.
"I never got a shot [at Pitt]," Flacco told the Baltimore media on draft day. "I still carry it with me that I'm a I-AA guy and I had to go down to the minor leagues of college football and prove who I was. I'm going to carry that with me the rest of my life."
Talk about being bitter.
Harris' memories of Flacco are strictly warm and fuzzy.
"What a wonderful young man," he said. "I'm so happy for what's happened to him. I just love how tough he is. I saw he scored on a 38-yard run in one of the [Ravens'] games and threw a great block on a reverse. Man, I'm rooting for that guy."
Maybe in person at Heinz Field.
Don't be surprised if Harris shows up in that seat next to you.
First Published September 28, 2008 12:00 am