Harris Finds Shangri-La
Fourth-Year Head Coach Now Seeking Promised Land
By Scott Robertson
Walt Harris is in a unique position as the 2000 Pitt Panther football season gets under way, although he almost refuses to acknowledge it, such is his focus on the task at hand.
Harris, who is starting his fourth year at the helm of the Panthers, has helped lift the program from the depths of college football to one that many observers say is on the cusp of returning to national prominence. That return has been a long time coming for both the coach and his team, but Harris knows they are not there yet, despite the excitement that is building.
"We haven't done anything yet," Harris said. "But it's up to us. I am excited about the direction of our program. But we still have to learn how to win."
Winning has been infrequent at Pitt. The Panthers have not had a winning record sine 1991, when then-Coach Paul Hackett directed the team to a 6-5 mark. It has not played a role in the national picture since 1982, the year Foge Fazio led Pitt to a 9-3 overall mark following a Jan. 1 loss to SMU in the Cotton Bowl.
There have been winning seasons since that Cotton Bowl year - five of them - none better than the 8-3-1 mark Pitt posted in the 1983 season that ended with Mike Tomczak's touchdown pass to Thad Jemison to send Pitt to a 28-23 loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl Jan. 2, 1984.
Harris, for the success he has had, has only reached the .500 plateau once, when his team finished 6-6 after a loss to Southern Mississippi in the Liberty Bowl in 1997. His career mark at Pitt is 13-21.
So why all the optimism?
It starts, of course, with the opening of the Panthers' Duratz Athletic Complex, a 58,000-square foot training center that is home to the day-to-day operations of Panthers football. It is a state of the art facility that players, coaches and administrators believe finally puts Pitt on a par with the top schools in the country. Harris called it his vision of Shangri-La.
But the optimism goes deeper than that. It is perhaps rooted in Pitt's 37-27 win against Notre Dame last season in the final game at Pitt Stadium. The Panthers followed that up with a clunker, a 52-14 defeat at the hands of West Virginia, but Harris believes the Notre Dame win can serve as a building block for the future.
For one thing, it was a lesson in how to win.
"I don't look at the schedule like some people do and say, `Well, we should be better than that team, so there's a win, or we're maybe not as good as these guys, so we'll probably lose that one,' " Harris said. "We found out at the end of last year when we finished the season against a team we were supposed to be better than that that's not the way to go. The other thing is, if you play one of those games and beat a team you maybe didn't think you would, you might end up selling yourself short."
Harris is taking steps to make sure the Panthers don't sell themselves, or their opponents short this season. He has instituted strict disciplinary rules and a code of conduct, or sorts, for both on and off the field activities. Quite simply, he has told the players that if they do not want to do what the coaches ask, they can expect to be dismissed - ask Demetrious Rich, who would have been a four-year starter in the defensive backfield had he not run afoul of Harris and fallen short on his academic requirements.
Expect that attitude to carry over onto the field as well. As Harris put it at his season opening press conference, if a running back is having problems fumbling because he is not holding the ball the way the coaching staff instructs, he'll get plenty of opportunity to hold onto the ball - on the sidelines.
Harris is pleased with some of the notoriety the program has received entering this season, including some preseason publications that rank his first team wide receivers, Latef Grim and Antonio Bryant, at or near the top in the country.
He also realizes that such notoriety raises local expectations. Sports fans in the Pittsburgh area are hungry for a winner, and he wants to deliver. The fact that the Pirates fell below expectations this summer and that expectations for the Steelers are not high puts the Panthers in a position to recapture the hearts of sports fans throughout the city.
They will be playing in Three Rivers Stadium this fall before moving next season into the new football stadium on the North Side. The level of talent on the team has improved greatly, and the community is energized by what it has seen of the new training complex.
Harris, of course, cares little about the woes of the other teams in town, or what media expectations are for his squad. He cares only about building the Pitt program, and about the next game on the schedule.
"We all want to go to a bowl, but when you start thinking about that, you stop thinking about the team you are playing," he said. "I like to play them one at a time. We are not trying to get to a bowl. We are trying to win every game. To do that, we have to be good on 11 Saturdays."
That is not to say Harris expects his team to go unbeaten this season. It means only that he and the team have set their goals in the short term - specifically, to win the next game on the schedule. Do that well enough often enough, and the bowl games will come.
"Life is about attitude, and if you can't get a good attitude walking in here (to the new complex), you're just about brain dead," Harris said. "The more upbeat and positive you are, the more you get the feeling that you're not that far away from where you want to be. We are not that far away."