For Ravens' Flacco, no hard feelings from time at Pitt
Every time Walt Harris practices his golf swing, he thinks of Joe Flacco.
When Harris leans on his right foot, pain radiates through the big toe, but good memories come rushing back. Whatever Harris feels, he always will have Flacco to thank.
The painful tale unraveled on a cold day at Pitt football practice when Flacco, a backup quarterback during the 2003-04 seasons, fired an errant pass.
The football flew toward Harris, who was the Panthers' head coach at the time. Worried he might break a finger catching the football, Harris raised his foot to deflect it.
“It had so much velocity and it was cold and it hit me in just the right way, but I guess it was wrong way,” Harris said, laughing.
It hurt, of course, but pain from the small break that quickly healed is nothing compared to the pride Harris feels this week with Flacco preparing to lead the Baltimore Ravens against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday.
Harris brought Flacco to Pitt in 2003 as a largely unheralded but talented three-star recruit from tiny Audubon (N.J.) High School.
But it also was Harris who kept Flacco on the sideline for two years. And it was Harris' successor, Dave Wannstedt, who tried — but failed — to convince Flacco to stay after the 2004 season.
“He was still learning the nuances (of the position),” said Harris, who presided over a quarterback competition in '04 that included West Allegheny's Tyler Palko and Steel Valley's Luke Getsy but not Flacco.
“He was behind those guys,” Harris explained, without apologizing. “It was their third year on campus (Flacco's second). They were from (high school) programs that were a little more sophisticated than what Joe had in high school.”
Palko won the job, prompting Getsy to transfer to Akron and elevating Flacco to second string. Palko led Pitt to a share of the Big East championship and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl by throwing 17 touchdown passes and averaging 305.5 yards per game over the final six regular-season games of the '04 season.
Flacco threw just four passes all season.
“I was a young quarterback there, and I'm sure I got just as fair a shake as anybody else did there,” Flacco said. “Tyler was the starter, and I think (he) deserved it and that's the way it ended. I didn't think I was going to beat him out.”
Still, Harris, who exchanges text messages with Flacco to this day, did not want to lose him.
“I was excited about having that in my hip pocket,” he said.
Flacco came to Pitt's attention when assistant recruiting coordinator Matt Williamson received a video of Audubon's games, watched with interest and moved it up the chain of command.
“The arm strength jumped off the screen,” said Williamson, a Mt. Lebanon High School graduate who went on to scout for the Cleveland Browns and now analyzes NFL talent for ESPN.com.
So special was Flacco's arm that former Audubon coach Ralph Schiavo abandoned the school's Wing-T offense to open up opportunities in the passing game.
“It was nothing I had ever seen out of a high school kid, for sure,” Schiavo said. “I played with all-state quarterbacks, and they weren't even close.”
By the end of his three high school seasons, Flacco had thrown for 5,137 yards, but only Pitt, Rutgers, Akron, Temple, Central Florida and Virginia Tech showed interest.
Harris saw more than just a guy who could throw hard.
“You are always looking for a young man who has talent and is also responsible,” he said. “Joe was mature and very settled down as a person. That was very attractive.”
At 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, Flacco also played free safety and wide receiver at Audubon where he used his superior height and athleticism to catch fade passes for touchdowns.
But it was the arm — the strongest in the NFL today, according to Williamson — that set Flacco apart in high school.
Nonetheless, Palko's success as a sophomore left little room for Flacco, and he lasted only a few months with Wannstedt, who replaced Harris after the season. At the end of drills the following spring, Flacco transferred to Division I-AA Delaware.
“I did everything I could to block him from going,” Wannstedt said. “Selfishly, I wanted him at Pitt. I knew he was going to be an outstanding player.”
Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh traveled to New Jersey for a meeting with Flacco and his father.
“We exhausted every avenue that we could,” Wannstedt said.
Wannstedt refused to sign off on the transfer, forcing Flacco to sit out the '05 season while paying tuition.
Flacco said Wednesday he understood the situation at Pitt, and he left seeking a chance to play.
“I figured if I stayed there, I was going to have to wait around until my fifth year, senior year, and then compete with somebody that was their guy,” he said. “It would be a pretty tough situation.”
In two seasons at Delaware, Flacco threw for 7,046 yards and 41 touchdowns, leading the Blue Hens to the FCS national championship game in 2007. He was the Ravens' first-round draft choice in 2008.
After the Super Bowl, he likely will sign a contract extension that will surpass the $102 million the Steelers are paying Ben Roethlisberger. Less than a decade ago, he was sitting on Pitt's bench.
Asked what might have happened had Flacco stayed to compete with Palko, Wannstedt said: “My track record at Pitt has always been to play the best player. It would have been very interesting. He had everything you were looking for in a big-time quarterback.”
Yet, Wannstedt knew it would be difficult to unseat Palko.
“You do the fair thing,” he said. “Until (Palko) did something to show us he wasn't the starter, he was going to start.”