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Cook: Zimmerman doesn't explore road not taken

Friday, September 08, 2000

Who knows what would have happened if Tony Zimmerman had stayed at Pitt? Maybe there wouldn't be a John Turman-David Priestley quarterback controversy. Maybe Zimmerman would be getting ready to play Bowling Green tomorrow, Penn State next week.

"I think about that from time to time," Zimmerman said.

He wouldn't be human if he didn't.

"But, really, I'm only concerned about playing La Salle this weekend."

People find happiness in different places. Zimmerman has found his at Duquesne. It's a fascinating tale.

Zimmerman's success hasn't happened without a price. He gave up a shot at major-college stardom. He probably gave up a shot at the NFL.

"His dream changed from, 'I want to play in the Super Bowl,' to 'I just want to play football,' " said Duquesne Coach Greg Gattuso, the lucky beneficiary of Zimmerman's decision to transfer from Pitt in 1998.

There is something to be said for that.

Zimmerman has played plenty the past two-plus seasons. Not coincidentally, Duquesne has won big. He threw for a school-record 391 yards and four touchdowns in a 57-31 victory at VMI Saturday, one of the Dukes' biggest wins.

Perhaps you're saying, "Big deal. It's only Duquesne." But that's misguided thinking. Zimmerman, once expected to be Pitt's savior, is no failure. His grades as an elementary education major have improved dramatically since he arrived at Duquesne. So have his work habits as a quarterback.

"I don't think Tony would change a thing about his career," Gattuso said.

There is one thing. Zimmerman jumped on a scholarship from Pitt's Johnny Majors before his senior season at Penn-Trafford. He still was new to football, was insecure about his abilities, was especially insecure after missing his junior year with a knee injury.

"If I had to do it again, I would have taken all my visits," Zimmerman said. "Miami offered me a scholarship ..."

There wouldn't have been those heavy Dan Marino comparisons at another school.

"I ended up being apologetic when I got to Pitt for what other people were writing and saying," Zimmerman said. "I'd tell people, 'I'm really not that good.' I hated doing that."

Zimmerman started believing it. It didn't help that he completed one of 10 passes for 8 yards in six games at Pitt as a freshman in 1996. He was supposed to be redshirted that season, but Majors panicked after 72-0 and 45-0 losses to Ohio State and Miami.

Zimmerman did redshirt in 1997, Walt Harris' first season at Pitt. He watched Harris, maybe the country's top quarterback coach, work miracles with Pete Gonzalez. He thought he would be the next great Pitt quarterback, if not the next Marino.

"I know this is one-sided, but I didn't think I was getting an equal shot with the other guys," Zimmerman said. "That staff hadn't recruited me. They had a problem with my foot speed."

That really is one-sided. Zimmerman must take the most blame for his Pitt problems. He wasn't ready to make the commitment Harris demands from his quarterbacks. He was out of shape. His confidence was shattered.

Zimmerman knew after spring football in 1998 that he had to leave. Another major school would have meant sitting out another season. He considered IUP and California of Pennsylvania but wanted to stay closer to home. That left Duquesne.

Gattuso knew Zimmerman had been a star at Penn-Trafford, but also heard troubling whispers about him.

"That he was lazy. That he wasn't very smart. That he wasn't tough ... None of it turned out to be true."

Give Gattuso, who's good enough to be a head coach at a much higher level, and Duquesne offensive coordinator Rich Ingold credit for their work with Zimmerman. But, most of all, give credit to the kid. He dropped his weight 15 pounds to 215. He has put in enough film study for Gattuso to call him "as football-smart as any player I've ever been around."

Zimmerman threw 43 times at VMI and wasn't sacked, not bad for a quarterback with little mobility.

"Oh, yeah, he's immobile," Gattuso said. "But he beats everything with his head and his arm. He drove VMI crazy the way he read their blitzes."

Gattuso thinks so much of Zimmerman that he's already offered him a graduate assistant's position next season. "I want this guy around my team."

Zimmerman hopes an NFL tryout delays his coaching career. It seems unlikely. No Duquesne player has made it to an NFL camp during the modern era.

"They'll test his arm and his foot speed, but they can't test his heart," Gattuso said. "If a pro team is smart, it will give this kid a look. He can play.

"I'm sure people will say he can't move well enough. But I've watched Kent Graham. Tony can move as well as he can. And I've never seen Tony stumble and fall backwards."

Zimmerman said he won't have regrets if he doesn't get a pro shot. Nor should he. Life is too short to be miserable. He was miserable at Pitt and still would be miserable if he was on the bench behind Turman and Priestley.

"I'm successful here, successful and happy," Zimmerman said. "What more could I ask for?"

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.

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