Coaching carousel in full swing in Tempe

Updated: December 31, 2004, 6:04 PM ET
By Ryan Hockensmith | ESPN The Magazine

TEMPE, Ariz. -- At 9 this morning, Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris shook hands with Utah coach Urban Meyer. Behind them, the gi-normous three-tiered spectacle that is the Fiesta Bowl trophy glimmered as cameras snapped for the photo op. After 15 seconds of silence and frozen smiles, the two dropped their hands and Meyer walked off. Then Utah coach No. 2, Kyle Whittingham, jumped in with Harris, who cemented on another quarter-minute smirk.

And that's only a snapshot from perhaps the strangest coaching matchup in college football history. Take a deep breath and try to follow the chronology of what's happened over the last four weeks leading up to Saturday's game between the No. 21 Panthers and No. 6 Utes. Then imagine what it's like for a bunch of college kids to focus on playing an actual football game.

Walt Harris, left, and Urban Meyer
Save this one -- Walt Harris and Urban Meyer before coaching their last games at Pitt and Utah, respectively.
On Dec. 4, Meyer announced he was leaving for Florida. That weekend, offensive coordinator Mike Sanford accepted the UNLV head coaching job as BYU courted defensive coordinator Whittingham. Sanford left immediately and took linebackers coach Kurt Barber and tight ends coach Keith Uperesa with him to Las Vegas. Whittingham, a former All-WAC linebacker at BYU, ultimately decided to stay in Salt Lake City as the next head coach of the Utes.

Defensive backs coach Chuck Heater has already left for Gainesville, where Meyer says he's "holding the fort" until Sunday morning, when Meyer can focus entirely on being the coach of just one major college football program. Just to field a full coaching roster for the Fiesta Bowl, Meyer had to promote graduate assistants Jay Hill, Garry Fisher and Lance Hunsaker to full-time staff members.

In Utah's bowl media guide, Meyer is listed as the team's "Fiesta Bowl coach." Whittingham is labeled as the Utes' head coach. Thus, the two photo opportunities.

Whew. Compared to that, Pittsburgh has had a sleepy December. All the Panthers have endured is coach Walt Harris' Dec. 13 announcement that he had accepted the Stanford head coaching job. Then, two days before Christmas, Pittsburgh pegged former Miami Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt as his replacement.

As Wannstedt recruits and looks into forming a coaching staff, Harris' assistants have no idea where they'll coach next year. During the day, Harris game plans and coaches his Panthers. At night, he recruits and looks to fill out his own new coaching staff at Stanford.

"We haven't been deterred by the other factors that shouldn't affect our focus," he says. "The way things have wound down for me, to see the team respond the way it did, it's been very rewarding and is a great memory that I will take with me forever."

Utah has dealt with coaching whirlwind -- the understatement of the bowl season -- in equally ho-hum fashion. Utah's relied on a depth chart loaded with 15 seniors to set the tone that helped the Utes become the first non-BCS school to crack the BCS wall.

"Our players have a maturity level and an air to them that comes from great senior leadership," Whittingham says. "I've been at Utah 11 years and this is hands-down the best senior class that I've ever been involved with. It was a great week of preparation. Tomorrow night, we'll find out how we did."

Pittsburgh has only six senior starters, so it's been up to sophomore quarterback Tyler Palko and the players who'll remain to keep the Panthers focused. They know they have 48 more hours until their program could be turned upside down.

"The bottom line is, Walt Harris is still our coach for the next few days," Palko says. "After the season, that's a different story. It does stink what's happened with our coaching staff. I don't think that's how you should treat people, but we know the rules of the game and you can't complain about it."

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