It is understandable that, in the final days of his tenure as football coach at the University of Pittsburgh, Walt Harris wants all of the attention to be on his players.
"Football is about the players," said Harris, who guides the Panthers for the last time in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday. "Our approach all season has been on them."
For much of the season, however — especially early, when the Panthers stumbled to a 2-2 start — the focus was on the coach and the school that, in the last couple of years, could never seem to embrace one another.
"I’ll look back and think that he did something great for the university, but I know not everyone is going to think of him as a Johnny Majorstype guy," said guard Rob Petitti, referring to the coach that led Pittsburgh to the national championship in 1976.
Many powerful people in the athletic department felt that there were too many inexplicable defeats and not enough bigtime bowls for a program as talented and facilityblessed as Pittsburgh’s.
Harris, meanwhile, fe lt his achievements — taking the Panthers, who had won 15 games in the five years before his arrival, to five bowls in his first seven seasons — were unappreciated.
"This is a pro city, a pro mentality," Harris said in September. "Nothing is ever good enough. I know what goes with the territory here."
Earlier this month, Harris accepted the coaching duties at Stanford. Many feel it spared Pittsburgh the trouble of firing him. Pittsburgh officials were not eager to extend Harris’ contract, which ran through 2006.
After Harris took the Stanford job, Pittsburgh athletic director Jeff Long said that " ‘disappointment’ is not the word I would use" to describe his feelings at seeing the coach go.
"Before Coach Harris came here, Pittsburgh had 3-8 teams," nose tackle Vince Crochunis said. "I think Coach Harris will be remembered as the guy who had the vision to turn the program around."
Though Harris will coach the Fiesta Bowl — a provision he insisted on in his agreement with Stanford — both parties have moved on. Harris signed a five-year, $3 million deal with the Cardinal. The Panthers hired former NFL coach Dave Wannstedt.
Harris ends his eighth season at Pittsburgh by finally reaping a BCS bowl reward. "This is the most enjoyable team I’ve ever had because we accomplished more with less experience and with a lot of people on the outside doubting us — and maybe some doubt inside, too," Harris said.
Petitti said that, after the dust settles and wounds have healed, Harris will be remembered at Pittsburgh as a successful coach.
"In 20 years, when a lot of that criticism has gone away, people will look at the accomplishments and see all those bowl games," Petitti said. "People want national championships . . .
"But in the future, people will read the media guide, see ‘Fiesta Bowl’ and think he must have been a pretty good coach to bring us here."