Under the guidance of Walt Harris, the University of Pittsburgh football team is growing quite familiar with holiday sojourns to bowl destinations.
In fact, the Panthers have made three bowl trips in his five seasons beginning in 1997. It is an impressive accomplishment considering that in the eight years prior to his arrival Pittsburgh had just one postseason berth.
Coaches, Harris likes to say, should represent more than just wins and losses or Xs and Os. They are "molders of young men" according to Harris. As a result, Pittsburgh's path to the 2001 Visit Florida Tangerine Bowl might just be one of his most gratifying moments in a coaching career that spans more than three decades.
Following a disappointing start to the 2001 season, few - if any - observers could have forecasted a postseason berth for the Panthers. But six weeks after it had slipped to 1-5, Pittsburgh rebounded in resounding fashion. The Panthers won five straight contests, including a highly impressive 38-7 win over No. 12 Virginia Tech, to achieve their strongest finish to a season in recent memory.
The strong regular-season finish was capped by a 24-6 victory over UAB. Following the game, the Visit Florida Tangerine Bowl extended an invitation to Harris and the entire Pittsburgh football team in their locker room at Heinz Field.
"I'm really proud of what our football team has done and what our coaches have done," responded Harris. "This was big. A lot of people gave up on us. We had some tough losses but with the help of our coaches, the leadership of our seniors and the talent of this football team, we came back from adversity. I'm excited to be a part of it.
"Just look at where we were and where we are now. These guys really learned about dealing with adversity. It is a lifelong lesson that we have learned. We pulled together instead of pulling apart."
The Panthers completed their impressive finish by defeating N.C. State, 34-19, in front of a national ESPN television audience. It was Pittsburgh's first postseason victory since 1989.
The stirring conclusion to the 2001 season was just one more reason Pittsburgh is considered a rising college football program under the tutelage of Harris.
It was, amazingly, just six years ago that Pittsburgh had seemingly hit a modern-day nadir. A once-proud football tradition had at first stagnated and then hit rock bottom. The direction has changed with Harris at the helm.
He looks, by all accounts, far too young to be 55 years of age. Not surprisingly then, he has attacked the rebuilding process at Pittsburgh with a fiery, youthful vigor that has reaped exceptional results.
When Harris was hired back in 1996 he undertook an incredible rebuilding challenge. Many wondered if the job was too great. But at least one observer predicted that the union of Harris and the Panthers' struggling program would reap success.
"This is the best thing that could have happened to Pittsburgh," said Bill Walsh, former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers' football dynasty. "I think Walt Harris is one of the best coaches in the country."
Those words seem prophetic now. At the time of his hiring, Harris was well known in football circles even if he wasn't a household name. With the turnaround he has orchestrated at Pittsburgh that has all changed. The Panthers are being viewed as a quickly ascending program and the praise is beginning to pour in from football pundits nationwide.
The Sporting News in its 2001 preview issue lauded Harris as the Big East's "Best Coach." "Harris...has Pittsburgh on the verge of making a national splash again," wrote TSN.
"Walt Harris is one of the top ten coaches in the country," said longtime college football commentator Beano Cook.
"Walt Harris is right there with the best," ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit said. "Not only does he know his Xs and Os, but he has an instinct about play calling. Everybody might not be aware of this, but the more talent he gets at Pittsburgh, the more evident his greatness as a coach will be. We've seen glimpses of it, and once he gets the total package in place and more recruiting classes in place, we'll see everything. Anybody who's followed the Panthers from where they were to where they are now understands what he can do."
"Walt Harris is the best coach I ever had," said former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason. "There's nobody better."
His revitalizing of the Panthers has also made him a big hit in his new hometown of Pittsburgh. In fact, he was selected as the winner of the 2001 City of Champions Achievement Award by readers of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The award, annually presented to the person who represents the true spirit of sport and helps define Pittsburgh as the City of Champions, has been won by such Steeltown legends as the Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux, Steelers head coach Bill Cowher and Pirates Hall-of-Famer Bill Mazeroski.
Others have praised Harris as an "offensive mastermind" or "a cutting-edge, innovative coach." But Harris prefers to think of himself in less glamorous terms. He is simply a football coach and a teacher.
And that's the way he likes it.
Harris has also been described as a "fighter" and "dreamer." Perhaps his experience as an ill child had something to do with that.
Harris was stricken with polio at the age of three. Unable to walk, he required constant attention from his mother, a nurse by profession. Amazingly, he would grow up to be a football star at South San Francisco's El Camino High, although at the beginning of his career coaches and parents alike questioned his ability because of his smaller size. Following El Camino, he went on to become the conference player of the year while in junior college and earned a scholarship to the University of the Pacific.
It is that same kind of fighting attitude that has perpetuated a coaching career which spans 31 years on both the professional and collegiate levels.
Upon accepting his appointment at Pittsburgh in December 1996, Harris enthusiastically welcomed the challenge of restoring one of the nation's great college football traditions.
His debut season at the University of Pittsburgh in 1997 came in almost breathtaking fashion.
Taking over a program that had managed just 15 wins in the previous five seasons, Harris immediately energized the Panthers and led them to their first winning season in six years as well as their first postseason berth since 1989.
The campaign was one of the most dramatic in Pittsburgh's illustrious football history. The highlights included a stirring 21-17 upset of Miami before a Thursday night ESPN audience, a 30-23 upset of bowl-bound Virginia Tech and a heart-pounding 41-38 triple-overtime win at West Virginia that sealed the Panthers' postseason berth.
So impressive was the achievement that Harris was voted by conference coaches as the Big East Coach of the Year.
"I know the award lists one person, but there's no way it's one person that won the award," Harris said. "I'm a little bit embarrassed by the fact that they have to put my name on there. Everybody had a piece of the action-our players and coaches, especially-but also our entire athletic department staff, secretaries and our wives. It is really a team award, and I couldn't be more thrilled."
The 1998 season had fewer magical moments. Beset by major graduation losses, the Panthers endured a season-long growth process that resulted in a 2-9 mark.
Pittsburgh bounced back in 1999, coming within a victory of qualifying for its second bowl berth in three seasons. The Panthers upset Notre Dame, 37-27, in the final game ever at Pitt Stadium. Earlier in the year, the Panthers valiantly fought second-ranked Penn State before falling, 20-17. It all served notice that Harris' work had Pittsburgh on the rise.
"We're building a program at the University of Pittsburgh," Harris said. "It is not about a game or a season. We are trying to build at every position. We're trying to build a winning mindset."
Harris says the seed for his coaching career was planted when he was just a teenager. Playing under Tom McCormick at El Camino High School in San Francisco, Calif., he realized immediately that coaching was the path he wanted to take in life-not because of the glamour of the profession but, more importantly, to make a difference in a young person's life. Coach McCormick (who played in the National Football League and also coached under Vince Lombardi with the Green Bay Packers) provided that role for Harris, impressing upon him the ideals of hard work and commitment.
Those ideals have helped Harris achieve success at each of his coaching stops.
It was a collection of strong qualities, including integrity, sincerity and football savvy, that made him Athletic Director Steve Pederson's top choice to replace the legendary John Majors as the Panthers' coach. One of the hallmarks of Harris' coaching career is his ability to maximize a player's potential, both athletically and, more importantly, personally. One of the finest examples of this knack is Pete Gonzalez. After an undistinguished four-year career, Gonzalez evolved into one of the top quarterbacks in the Big East under Harris in 1997. He threw for more than 2,800 yards and a Big East-record 30 touchdowns. Gonzalez also set Pittsburgh single-game records with 470 passing yards and seven touchdowns.
Other players during the Harris tenure who have fueled Pittsburgh's revival are receiver Antonio Bryant, a consensus All-American and the 2000 Biletnikoff Award winner; free safety Ramon Walker, a three-time All-Big East honoree; running back Kevan Barlow, a 1,000-yard rusher for the Panthers who now is an emerging talent with the San Francisco 49ers; cornerback Hank Poteat, who finished fourth nationally in interceptions in 1998 and now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers; receiver Latef Grim, one of the most prolific receivers in school history; defensive end Bryan Knight, one of the top pass rushers in the Big East the last two seasons; and quarterbacks John Turman and David Priestley, who rank among the school's all-time leading passers.
Before his Pittsburgh appointment, Harris spent the 1995 and 1996 seasons as the quarterbacks coach at Ohio State. He played an instrumental role in the development of Buckeye quarterback Bobby Hoying, who in 1995 threw for a school-record 3,269 yards and 29 touchdowns.
In 1996, Harris was the guiding force behind one of the nation's most prolific offenses that averaged over 450 yards per game. Moreover, it was Harris who orchestrated the Buckeyes' last-minute scoring drive that resulted in Ohio State's dramatic 20-17 Rose Bowl victory against Arizona State.
Prior to joining the Ohio State staff in 1995, Harris was the quarterbacks coach for the New York Jets for three seasons (1992-94) and played a key role in the career resurgence of quarterback Boomer Esiason.
In 1989, Harris landed his first head coaching position, returning to his alma mater Pacific. His 1991 Pacific team ranked second nationally in total offense (511.3 yards per game) and third nationally in passing offense (342.9 yards per game). Interestingly, Harris' first game as a head coach was against Pittsburgh on Sept. 2, 1989, at Pitt Stadium.
From 1983-88, Harris served as an assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Tennessee under John Majors during which time the Volunteers made five bowl appearances and captured the 1985 SEC championship. In 1987, the Vols averaged 405.9 yards per game (4,871 total), which set a school record at the time.
Additionally, he was the quarterbacks coach at Illinois (1980-1982) where he developed future NFL quarterbacks in Tony Eason, Dave Wilson and Jack Trudeau. Eason and Wilson were both first-round NFL draft picks, while Trudeau was a second-round selection.
Harris also was the secondary coach at Air Force (spring 1978) under Bill Parcells; the linebackers coach at Michigan State (1978-79) and California (1974-77); and secondary coach at Pacific (1971-73), where his first recruit was Pete Carroll, now the head coach at Southern California.
Harris graduated from Pacific in 1968 and received his master's degree from there a year later. As a defensive back for the Tigers, Harris played for former NFL head coach Buddy Ryan, who was the defensive coordinator at the time. Harris began his coaching career at his high school alma mater, El Camino High.
Harris and his wife Nancy have three children: Scott (born Aug. 15, 1981), Summer (born Aug. 31, 1982) and Brett (born Sept. 17, 1996).
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