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Madden: Harris' stay at Pitt won't last forever

Saturday, December 02, 2000

Walt Harris is still the football coach at Pitt.

But his days as the Panthers' boss are numbered.

The courtship of Harris by Alabama, though not consummated, is just a reminder that Pitt is, has been and probably always will be a steppingstone for top-line football coaches, not a final stop. It's a reminder that Pitt is largely perceived as a second-rate program. That reality will be driven home by the middle of the decade when Harris is picked by Ohio State to replace John Cooper.

Johnny Majors used Pitt to build his reputation, then moved on. He won the national championship in 1976, then went to Tennessee the very next year. Jackie Sherrill posted three consecutive 11-1 seasons at Pitt before jumping to Texas A&M in '82.

Harris ultimately will follow in their footsteps. He'll follow them right out of town. Ohio State is his dream job. Like Alabama, Ohio State is truly a big-time college football program.

In the interim, Pitt benefits by Alabama's consideration of Harris, whose name is bigger through mere association with the Crimson Tide.

But Harris will leave Pitt. He would have been offered the Alabama job if Texas Christian University's Dennis Franchione had turned it down. Despite denying so yesterday, I feel Harris would have taken it. He would have been crazy not to. Harris would have doubled his salary and then some. He would have been able to assemble a good staff and pay its members enough to keep it together. Harris' inability to do that at Pitt has been an aggravating thorn in his side.

But perhaps most important, Harris would have had one of the few really prestigious jobs in college football. In college football, prestige means so much.

In Pittsburgh, the Panthers will always be No. 4 on the sports totem pole behind the Steelers, Penguins and Pirates. If you don't believe that, how can you explain the putrid crowds at Pitt games despite the team's renaissance this season? Oh, yeah, I forgot, no parking. You people and your lame excuses.

That doesn't make Pittsburgh a bad sports town. There's plenty of other evidence to confirm that. Pittsburgh fans just prefer pro sports over college sports.

That's not a problem in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Or in Columbus, Ohio.

The nation's truly great college football programs are, with few exceptions, located in places where they are the only game in town. Such is the case at sweet home Alabama, where the football coach is king and the players can do no wrong, unless they go 3-8 like this year. Harris would have been welcomed as a god in Tuscaloosa, as the man come to rebuild the Bear Bryant legacy.

True, Alabama isn't a perfect situation. The pressure is enormous. Harris faced little pressure when he succeeded Majors' wax figure on the Pitt sideline in '97. The only place to go was up. Never mind Alabama's 3-8 record this season. Every Crimson Tide coach will labor in the Bear's shadow.

Alabama also is under NCAA investigation for alleged recruiting violations and likely will face some sanctions. That's a heck of a welcome for Franchione.

The California-born Harris also would have been under close scrutiny because he's not a Southerner. Alabama's redneck fans prefer their redneck players to be coached by a redneck.

But Alabama is a better situation than Pitt. If not, why did Harris think about going there?

One thing I find absolutely laughable about college football is that contracts don't mean anything. Harris is committed to Pitt through the 2006 season, but Athletic Director Steve Pederson still granted Alabama permission to speak with Harris because that's standard protocol in college football.

Wouldn't it have been great if Pederson had refused Alabama? The heck with protocol. I want to see Pitt keep Harris.

But Pitt won't. Mark my words, Harris will replace Ohio State's already beleaguered Cooper within a few years. Ohio State alumni are already campaigning for Harris, a former Buckeyes assistant who greatly enjoyed his time at Columbus. Harris will leave Pitt with the foundation for a good program, so things shouldn't slide for several seasons. Given a good replacement, they might not slide for a long time.

But if Harris' replacement is of high caliber, he'll be gone within a few years, too. Gone to a truly big-time college football program.

Why didn't Alabama go after Notre Dame's Bob Davie or Florida's Steve Spurrier? Because those are truly big-time college football programs. Why did Miami's Butch Davis and Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer turn down Alabama? Because those guys already coach at truly big-time college football programs.

Can the Panthers get better? Sure. Under Harris, an excellent coach, they probably will. Can Pitt crack the Top 25? Absolutely. How about the Top 10? Maybe.

But will Pitt ever be the talk of the town day in and day out? No. Will Pitt consistently be mentioned in the same breath as Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Florida State, Florida, Oklahoma and --- dare it be said -- Penn State? No. Will Pitt ever be perceived as an elite program? No.

Enjoy Harris while you can, Pitt fans. He won't be around much longer.

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