Coach has Pitt in fifth straight bowl game
PITTSBURGH -- Utah's Urban Meyer is leaving after the Fiesta Bowl, having already signed on to become Florida's coach. The question is whether Pitt coach Walt Harris might be going elsewhere, too.
Harris' future at Pitt threatens to be a major distraction for the Panthers (8-3, No. 20 ESPN/USA Today, No. 19 AP) during the four weeks of preparation for the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl against Utah (11-0, No. 6, No. 5) -- their first major bowl game appearance in 21 years.
Harris is taking Pitt to a bowl game for a fifth consecutive season, the first time that's happened at the school since coaches Johnny Majors, Jackie Sherrill and Foge Fazio combined for nine consecutive bowls from 1975-83.
Still, despite leading one of Pitt's youngest teams ever to a major bowl, there is no certainty Harris will return to coach largely the same team again next season.
Harris is signed through the 2006 season, but many major college coaches with his portfolio of success -- three consecutive seasons of eight or more victories among them -- have much longer deals. Harris' agent questioned earlier this season why a new deal wasn't in place, but athletic director Jeff Long said only that Harris' status would be reviewed after the season ends.
Now, by not moving to offer Harris an extended deal at more money than the estimated $600,000 a season he currently makes, Pitt may have significantly improved Harris' bargaining position should the two part ways.
Given how he has developed sophomore quarterback Tyler Palko into one of college football's promising stars, Harris would likely have little trouble finding a replacement job in Division I-A or as an NFL offensive recruiter. He previously was an NFL quarterbacks coach.
Harris has said little about his status during a late-season run of six victories in seven games that included wins over Boston College, Notre Dame and West Virginia, except to say, "This isn't about me."
Pitt rebounded from early season losses to Nebraska and Connecticut and near-misses against Division I-AA Furman and Temple to put on one of the best stretch drives in school history.
"It's not me, it's about us, it's about the team," Harris said. "A lot of teams would have gotten down had they gone through the circumstances and adversity that they faced, and the turmoil, if they didn't have the right stuff. They are the ones who got it done and they deserve all the credit."
Appearing in the only bowl game played on New Year's night, even one that may attract a relatively small TV audience for a BCS bowl, certainly won't hurt Harris' bargaining position -- whether at Pitt or another school.
Palko has already lobbied for Harris' return, calling on Long and chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg to extend his contract. Pitt's administration now must decide if a promising team that returns nine offensive starters in 2005 can be entrusted to another coach and another system, despite prior criticism of Harris for his game management skills.
Palko will be the top returnee, having thrown five touchdown passes each against Notre Dame and South Florida and running for the game-winning score against West Virginia in just the last month.
"But it's a team effort," Harris said. "It's not about one guy or one coach."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press