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
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
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
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
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
"But it's a team effort," Harris said. "It's not about one
guy or one coach."