The last Pitt coach to beat PSU: Q&A with Walt Harris

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The last Pitt coach to beat PSU: Q&A with Walt Harris

Walt Harris led the Panthers as head coach from 1997 to 2005. Courtesy of Pitt Athletics.

Walt Harris led the Panthers as head coach from 1997 to 2005. Courtesy of Pitt Athletics.

Walt Harris led the Panthers as head coach from 1997 to 2005. Courtesy of Pitt Athletics.

Walt Harris led the Panthers as head coach from 1997 to 2005. Courtesy of Pitt Athletics.

By Dan Sostek / Senior Staff Writer

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Until Pitt’s Chris Blewitt or Penn State’s Joey Julius kicks the ball off Saturday, the last Pitt head coach to take on the Nittany Lions is none other than Walt Harris, who headed the program from 1997 to 2005.

Harris coached the Panthers to a 52-44 record in eight seasons with the team, culminating in Pitt’s lone BCS bowl appearance against Utah in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. He guided the Panthers to a 12-0 shutout over Penn State in the last meeting between the teams Sept. 16, 2000.

The Pitt News caught up with Harris –– who will serve as an honorary captain Saturday –– to discuss his memories of the rivalry, his thoughts on current head coach Pat Narduzzi and his outlook on this year’s matchup.

The Pitt News: What is the first moment you think of when you think of Pitt-Penn State? What stuck out from your experiences coaching in the games?

Walt Harris: I think of Rod Rutherford catching the [62-yard touchdown], that’s the one thing that sticks out. That was a very exciting moment, because that gave us some breathing room. It’s all kind of a blur now –– it was a long time ago, 16 years.

TPN: How disappointed were you that the rivalry discontinued in 2001 and stayed dormant for so long?

WH: I was very disappointed, because we were trying to build a program. Obviously, coach [Joe] Paterno and Penn State had a much better football program than we did. At the same juncture … defeating Penn State, finally climbing that mountain and beating them was huge for us in our quest to build our program back. Then, not playing them anymore, it took a little air out of the sails because, to me, it was a noteworthy victory for our football program, which would help us mightily in recruiting. And [now] we don’t get to play them anymore. So it was tough.

TPN: Who was the best Penn State player you ever coached against?

WH: That’s a tough question. Probably [defensive lineman] Courtney Brown. He was a force.

TPN: You’re going to be an honorary captain this week, and you’ve attended Pitt practices earlier this year. What is your relationship like with Pat Narduzzi? Did you know him before he was hired?

WH: I did not [know him], but I knew of what he had done, and was doing. I have nothing but the greatest respect for him. I think he’s doing a fabulous job. I know he has resuscitated those defensive players that had such a horrible experience when they played Houston in [the 2015 Armed Forces Bowl] when coach [Paul] Chryst and some of his staff were getting ready to go to Wisconsin. He resuscitated those guys and they played tremendous on defense last year. I think he’s really an outstanding defensive coach, and I think he’s got a really great personality that’s really upbeat, and I think the players really dig him and want to give him their best effort.

TPN: Some Penn State players have been quoted saying that they’re not really sure this matchup is a rivalry anymore. Would you disagree?

WH: I can understand why they say it. In a lot of ways it isn’t. The two universities — I don’t know who is really culpable for the situation, obviously the football players and football coaches had nothing to do with it. They don’t get to make those decisions.

I can see why they don’t think it’s a big rivalry. But when you hear about the history of it, and I’m sure coach Franklin has had some ex-players from Penn State that played in Pitt-Penn State games to try to talk them, just as probably coach Narduzzi is doing. It’s still Pitt-Penn State, whether it’s a big rivalry for these kids or not, they’re going to feel it when they get to the stadium if they haven’t already felt it.

TPN: Pat Narduzzi has cut off the media from players and practices for the week. Have you ever done something similar, and is this something you think will help Pitt?

WH: Well I know that the press have to leave practice after half an hour [usually]. I wish I had been much more in that direction. For some of the negative publicity I got and we got, we were awfully nice to the press. We gave them free access, and I heard that Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon didn’t, and I kind of wished I had changed that way back when, in hindsight. It’s at least a safe idea, and Pat knows his team, and so it’s probably a real good idea for him and his players.

TPN: When you coached against Penn State, you coached against Joe Paterno. What was that like?

WH: I didn’t really know him from before, but I kind of got to know him … I think he got some award in Pittsburgh, I think at the [National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame]. And at the event, I was on the dais as was he, and he had a player who had broke his neck against Ohio State while I was at Pitt, Adam Taliaferro. And so what I did was, I wrote the young man a couple letters, wishing him well. And when [Paterno] accepted his award, he thanked all the people for giving him the award, but he talked about how nice it was that I wrote this young man those letters. It caught me completely off guard, because that was primarily his acceptance speech. That was very nice of him, he didn’t need to.

TPN: Obviously, you’re going to be on the Pitt sideline Saturday, but do you think one team has a clear advantage?

WH: I’m sure it’s going to be an evenly matched contest. I would think Penn State has what they have, they have outstanding players, they obviously have an outstanding coaching staff. One of them was one of my ex-coaches, Joe Moorhead, who is in a key position for them. And I know Pitt is looking forward to it because it’s a home game for them. It is a rivalry game, even for the Pitt kids who might look at it the same way as the Penn State kids: ‘We don’t play these guys, but we hear a lot about them, so maybe it’s a big game.’

But I think it’s going to be an evenly matched game, with Pitt winning.

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