Walt Walks West Again

Exactly two weeks after the position became available, Stanford has hired a new football head coach: <b>Walt Harris</b>. The Bay Area native was most recently the head man at Pitt for eight years, leading the Panthers to five straight bowl games including the current BCS berth in the Fiesta Bowl. Ted Leland wanted offense from this hire, and Walt Harris brings that in spades...

These are proud times for The Bootleg.  Just as we led the national and local media every step of the way this past spring in reporting on the basketball head coaching search and hire of Trent Johnson, we have led the last two weeks in the fast-changing news of the football coaching search.  Two weeks ago we broke the story before anyone else in the country on the firing of Buddy Teevens.  We first brought you the names on Stanford Athletic Director Ted Leland's short list for the vacant football head coaching position, and then we reported the narrow field of two leaders.  We first reported anywhere that Leland met with Walt Harris back East, and we first had the news of Harris' trip out West to interview on Stanford's campus.

Yesterday, we broke to our subscribers the long-awaited news that Stanford's next head coach would be Walt Harris.  He was offered the job by Ted Leland yesterday and has accepted the Cardinal coaching challenge.  Harris has flown back to Pittsburgh to tell his players and coaches in person the news that he is moving on to Stanford.  He will fly back to Stanford and Monday be announced at a 3:00 PM press conference on campus as the Cardinal's new head coach.  The timing of the hire is just a few days later than ideal for the current Stanford players, as they finished final exams this past week and have scattered home to all corners of the country for their three-week winter break.

Harris comes to Stanford after eight years as the head coach at Pittsburgh, where he has recorded an impressive turn-around feat for the Panthers.  Prior to Harris' arrival in 1997, Pitt had suffered through five years of losing that had a four-win season as the high water mark.  The 1996 season saw the Panthers go 4-7, but they were thrashed for 430 points and several humiliating defeats.  34-0 to West Virginia.  45-0 to Miami.  55-7 to Syracuse.  60-6 to Notre Dame.  One of their wins was a squeamish 53-52 squeeze past Temple.

The worst whipping they took that year came at the hands of Ohio State, 72-0.  On the other sideline was quarterbacks coach Walt Harris, who reaped national acclaim for the job he did with the Buckeyes super signal caller Bobby Hoying.  The Panthers brought Harris to their sideline the next year and saw a team that had averaged exactly three wins the previous five years notch six wins and a Liberty Bowl berth in 1997.  Pitt had not been to a bowl game since 1989.  Harris had some rebuilding hurdles in 1998 and 1999 but have been to bowl games now in each of the last five years.  The back-to-back bowl wins in 2001 and 2002 marked the first time Pitt fans had enjoyed consecutive post-season successes since the "glory days" two decades earlier (1979-81).

Though Harris and the Panthers have won eight games now in each of the last two years, 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 he was far from a favorite of the new Athletic Director.  Harris' agent took public shots at the Pitt administration early this fall that his guy 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 had not been much of a favorite with the media prior to that firestorm, expressing open disdain toward a group he felt was too negative, and the local sportswriters covered him with plenty of negative ink afterward.  Fan sentiment has mirrored the media's malaise.

The Pittsburgh fanbase and administration have put high hopes on the program with their upgrade in facilities, now that they share a practice field as well as stadium with the Steelers.  An 8-4 regular season last year and 8-3 season thus far this year, plus the school's first BCS berth, has not quenched their thirst.  You will find a good number of Pitt fans applauding the Cardinal hiring away Harris, with seemingly no memory or appreciation of how their program has risen up during Harris' tenure.  The kindest of that crowd will call the cross-country relocation of their eight-year general as a "win-win" for both Pitt and Stanford.  Time will tell soon enough how the move plays out for the Panthers and Cardinal.

Harris has in front of him two immediate challenges on The Farm.  He has a wealth of assistant coaches at Pitt and at Stanford from which to choose as he assembles his new staff, plus possibilities elsewhere in the country who could make moves this winter.  Until that staff is formed, the Cardinal will continue to twist in the wind as recruiting marches ahead at a quickening pace.  Today is the first day of the last of three weeks of a period where college coaches can make in-home visits with prospective student-athletes, and Stanford has been struggling for the entirety of the previous two weeks without a head coach.  He will have a lot of phone calls to make and receive to connect with his new Stanford priority targets, but time is short for him and his yet-to-be-assembled staff to hit the road.

Walt Harris is known as a very loyal man to his staff, so we will likely see him bring some number of assistants with him from Pittsburgh.  Wayne Moses, the running backs coach, was at Stanford for two years before moving to Pitt in 2004.  Before his stint on The Farm, Moses coached for 12 years at UCLA, California, Washington and USC.  Moses is the most obvious fit, should he welcome a return to the school that gave him the boot less than 12 months ago.  Offensive line coach Tom Freeman went to school and coached at San Diego State, in addition to eight years coaching the offensive line at Arizona State. Freeman and defensive tackles coach Paul Junko are the only two coaches on the Pitt staff who have been with Harris since his start there in 1997.  Harris will undoubtedly want more than just West Coast experience on his staff, though, as he looks to recruit nationally and maintain his footprint in particular on the East Coast.

Monday will be the first day of Harris' new Stanford regime, though he is scheduled to meet with and interview the remaining Stanford assistants on Tuesday.  Bill Cubit has already moved to the head coaching position at Western Michigan, and we believe that George McDonald will join him on that Broncos staff as well.  The entire Stanford defensive staff is available to interview with Harris, and a strong case could be made for each/all of them, given the success the Cardinal enjoyed on that side of the ball this year.  Continuity in scheme and knowledge of personnel could be a great asset on defense for Harris as he evaluates a unit that could start as many as eight seniors in 2005.

The 58-year old Stanford head coach is known primarily for his prowess on offense, and in particular as a developer of quarterbacks.  He held the title of quarterbacks coach at Pitt as well as head coach and has been well represented at the position by the performances of Rod Rutherford and Tyler Palko.  Rutherford threw for more than 6,000 combined yards in the 2002 and 2003 seasons while Palko is about to hit 3,000 yards in his first season of primetime action this fall.  Harris tutored the aforementioned Hoying at Ohio State, Tony Eason at Illinois and Boomer Esiason at the New York Jets.  Past evidence leads us to believe that the title of "Quarterback U" will be strengthened once again at Stanford under Harris' watch.

He also recruited and developed two Biletnikoff Award winning wideouts at Pitt in a span of four years: Antonio Bryant (2000) and Larry Fitzgerald (2003).  Harris is known for his excellent eye for talent in evaluating his college roster as well as his recruiting prospects.  Bryant, for example, was a lowly regarded recruit in high school who held offers only from Pitt and a then-middling Louisville.

Of course, much of the talk in the media with his hire will center around the connections between Harris, a Bay Area native, and Stanford's Athletic Director.  Ted Leland was the AD at the University of Pacific 15 years ago when he hired Harris as the head coach for the Tigers.  Leland is hiring a "friend" again into the Stanford head coaching position, following a resoundingly unpopular hire of Buddy Teevens, who Leland knew from their AD-coach relationship at Dartmouth.  Leland had said just two weeks ago how hard it would be for him to hire a friend again, after how little credit Teevens received right out of the gate because of their prior relationship.

Walt Harris is a native of the area, attending El Camino High School in South San Francisco, where he would get his first coaching job in 1970.  Though known first and foremost for his offensive acumen, Harris was a defensive back in college at Pacific, where he played under defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.  He coached defense for the first nine years of his coaching career before shifting to the offensive side of the ball at Illinois as the quarterbacks coach in 1980 under head coach Mike White.  That was the second stop in Harris' coaching career under White, with the first coming in the 1970s at Cal.  White of course overlapped with Bill Walsh at Stanford under John Ralston in 1964 and then coached for him again on the San Francisco 49ers staff in 1978-79.  Walsh has gone on the record about his professional respect and admiration for Harris, who is reputed as one of the last coaches in college football to employ a verifiable West Coast Offense.

The septuagenarian coaching legend has recently returned to The Farm in an advisory and development role in the Athletic Department.  Walsh was a central figure on Leland's search committee during this evaluation, interview and hiring process that selected Harris.

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