Harris Heads West, Whats Next ?

The long rumored exit of Walt Harris as head football coach at the University of Pittsburgh became fact on Sunday. Harris gathered his players and assistants at the indoor practice facility on the South Side and gave them the news that he had accepted the coaching job at Stanford.

Harris accepted Stanford's job offer Sunday and will be at the school Monday for a 6 p.m. press conference to be introduced as Stanford's football coach.

Harris, who has spent the last eight years as the head coach at Pittsburgh, is expected to coach the 19th-ranked Panthers in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1. He was named the Big East Coach of the Year after leading Pitt to an 8-3 record and the conference's automatic berth in the BCS.

Harris was one of two finalists, along with USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow, for the Stanford job. Harris interviewed at Stanford on Friday afternoon, two days after Chow came to the Stanford campus.

Harris has 11 years experience as a head coach, with University of Pacific -- where Stanford AD Ted Leland hired him in 1989 -- and Pitt. He has posted a 52-43 record at Pitt over eight seasons.

Pitt athletic director Jeff Long was not available for comment yesterday, but did issue a statement once it was confirmed that Harris had indeed resigned and taken the Stanford job.

"I have accepted Walt Harris' resignation from the University of Pittsburgh so that he can accept the same position at Stanford University," Long said in the statement. "During his eight years at Pittsburgh, Coach Harris has done an exceptional job revitalizing our program both athletically and academically. We are grateful for those efforts and wish him the very best in his new position at Stanford."

Pitt and Harris part on strained terms. Pitt was not intending to renew Harris' contract, which had two years remaining at a reported $600,000 a season. Harris and Pitt athletic-department officials experienced a falling- out this season after Harris requested a contract extension and did not receive one.

Relations between the head coach and both the fans and the Pitt administration have been rocky. Harris came into this 2004 season riding a surge of 23 wins in his last 32 games, but things deteriorated when Harris' agent took public shots at the Pitt administration early this fall feeling that Harris was being hung out to dry and needed to be offered an extension to his contract (scheduled through the 2006 season) or turned loose.

Criticisms were leveled in public, and Harris did little to distance himself from his agent's proclamations. The Pittsburgh head coach has never been a media darling and on more than one occasion expressed open disdain toward a group he felt was too negative. Harris' public persona was a source of embarrassment for the University and his game time coaching decisions were often questioned.

Quite simply Harris had worn out his welcome in Pittsburgh and this maybe a good thing for Harris and Pitt as many view this as a win-win situation for the University and Harris.

Where does Pitt go from here? In the Press Box at Heinz Field on Sunday as the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the New York Jets many local and out of town sports writers formed their list of candidates.

Dave Wannstedt, 52, a Pitt alum and former assistant, is seen as a top candidate. Some believe it is his job if he wants it, but Wannstedt might want to take a break from coaching after resigning from his head coaching duties with the Miami Dolphins in November after they got off to a 1-8 start. He was 43-33 overall in Miami.

Wannstedt coached the Dolphins for 4 1/2 years and has held two head-coaching jobs in the NFL. The other was with Chicago from 1993-98 before he got fired.

He is currently doing color commentary on NFL broadcasts for Fox, which sent him to the San Francisco-Arizona game yesterday. Wannstedt, a Baldwin native, could be in Pittsburgh today.

Chancellor Mark Nordenberg reportedly holds Wannstedt in high regard.

Others on the list include Pitt defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, 37. If the players have a vote, Rhoads would be the odds-on favorite.

Carolina Panthers defensive line coach Sal Sunseri, 45, a former Pitt player and assistant coach. Sunseri seems to be the favorite among some influential alumni. He always has been regarded as a strong recruiter and has great ties with the high school coaching community in western Pennsylvania.

Oklahoma defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, 37, a Youngstown native. Pelini is a hot, up-and-coming assistant and is said to be on the list of candidates among some in the Pitt administration. Some of the out of town writers wondered if Pitt would be able to afford him.

Another name that surfaced is current ESPN color commentator and former Notre Dame coach Bob Davie. He is a Western Pennsylvania native and a one-time Pitt assistant.

Let me offer a checklist for the Pitt administration to follow when selecting the next head coach at Pitt.

Pitt should hire a coach with:

1.) Charisma!

2.) Someone who can intelligently speak to the media and deal with criticism and represent Pitt with class.

3.) Someone who can recruit locally and mend some fences in western Pennsylvania.

4.) Someone who can recruit all positions, such as lineman, instead of just skill position players.

5.) Someone who can attract competent assistants and fire up the alumni, students and fans.

6.) Someone who can delegate authority without micro managing, who won't try to do 3 jobs when he is supposed to be competent as a head coach, first and foremost.

7.) Someone who believes Pitt can be a Top Ten program (like those non-BCS coaches at Utah, Louisville & Boise St).

8.) Someone who is not quick to blame others and accepts the responsibility of being captain of the ship.

9.) Someone who is not going to use Pitt as a stepping stone for another job elsewhere and is happy living in the 'Burgh.

10.) Someone who's off the field antics and his personal life will not be an embarrassment to the University.


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