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Ron Cook: Turning down Pitt started Cavanaugh on path to Super Bowl

Thursday, January 25, 2001

TAMPA, Fla. -- Before Walt Harris, there was Matt Cavanaugh.

The Pitt football job could have been his after Johnny Majors resigned following the 1996 season. Harris and Florida State offensive coordinator Mark Richt also went through the long interview process with Mark Nordenberg and Steve Pederson, but Cavanaugh looked like the guy. He had played at Pitt and won a national championship in 1976 when he was MVP of the Sugar Bowl. He played for heavyweight coaches Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells during his 14-year NFL career. At the time, he was quarterbacks coach for another Super Bowl coach, the San Francisco 49ers' George Seifert. There was a lot to like about him.

Pitt seemed like the perfect fit for Cavanaugh. What better place than your alma mater to get your first head job? Especially when it's practically home? His mother, Rena, still lives in Youngstown, Ohio. His brother, D.J., and sister, Carol, live in Pittsburgh.

So why did Cavanaugh tell Pitt no and take a much different career path, a long, windy and extraordinarily bumpy road that has led him here for Super Bowl XXXV as the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach?

Blame it on the 1993 Pitt season, the one year he spent as a college coach. He was Majors' tight ends coach.

"It seemed like I spent about one-third of my time teaching football and the other two-thirds worrying about class schedules and faculty and making sure my kids weren't getting into trouble and were getting out of bed and going to study hall," Cavanaugh said yesterday.

"I wasn't ready to make that kind of commitment as a head coach. It wouldn't have been fair to the university or to my family. The days are just as long in the NFL, but it's all about football on this level. When the day is over, I can go home at night. I don't have to go to a booster meeting."

Pitt has no regrets. Cavanaugh did the university a favor. A man whose heart wasn't in the job couldn't have turned around the program. Harris came in and has done a wonderful job.

"I'm a big admirer of his," Cavanaugh said. "I get correspondence from him two or three times a year and I write to him. I love what he's done there. I'm glad he's staying. I'm pretty sure he could have had that Ohio State job if he wanted it."

You would think Cavanaugh, 44, has the regrets. No, not because it was rough trying to explain to his mother why he wasn't coming home. Because that could have been him -- not Harris -- making a name for himself at Pitt. He wants to be a head coach in the NFL. That's always been his goal. Well, Harris might have been able to get an NFL job, if he had pursued one, because of his success the past four years.

"I can't look at it that way," Cavanaugh said. "I'm still young enough. I'm not going to jump into a job just to be a head coach.

"These last two years have been great for me. I love working for [Ravens Coach] Brian Billick. I've learned so much from him about how to talk to players and structure meetings. I know I still have a lot to learn. If my time does come, I want to be ready."

The past two years have been better for Cavanaugh than the previous two. After passing on Pitt, he went to the Chicago Bears as Dave Wannstedt's offensive coordinator. The Bears went 4-12 in 1997 and 1998. Cavanaugh does regret those seasons. He regrets his wife and three children had to sit in the stands at Soldier Field and hear fans call him an idiot.

After the Bears fired him, Cavanaugh almost had a chance to make it back to Pittsburgh. Bill Cowher was looking for an offensive coordinator and scheduled an interview with him, then canceled at the last minute after hiring Kevin Gilbride. That probably worked out just as well for Cavanaugh because Cowher since has fired Gilbride, the third offensive coordinator he's fired in his nine seasons as Steelers coach.

Going to the Ravens couldn't have been much more appealing for Cavanaugh. Billick was known as an offensive genius as a Minnesota Vikings' assistant. It's tough working for a genius.

Cavanaugh slowly won Billick's trust. At mid-season last year, Billick turned over the play-calling to him. That means Cavanaugh will have a much greater role in the Super Bowl Sunday than he did in his previous two Super Bowl trips as a player. He won rings as the backup to the 49ers' Joe Montana in 1984 and the New York Giants' Jeff Hostetler in 1990.

That will make a win against the Giants this weekend his second-greatest thrill in football.

"Playing in the national championship game in college and winning it has to be No. 1," Cavanaugh said.

Once a Pitt guy, always a Pitt guy.

In spirit, anyway.

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

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