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College

Harris again responds to adversity

| Sunday, Oct. 17, 2004

Walt Harris limped into his postgame news conference Saturday after leading his team to a 20-17 overtime upset of Boston College at Heinz Field.

It was an almost symbolic gesture from a man who's absorbed his share of lumps in recent weeks. The eight-year coach has been criticized for his methods, the direction of his program and some comments made by his agent last week about the university's failure to renew his contract.

Through it all, Harris hasn't flinched.

He does not address questions about his job security and continues to stay the course. His one and only focus this past week was Boston College, a prohibitive favorite in yesterday's game, and his team provided a crucial win.

The Panthers upped their record to 4-2 and 2-1 in the Big East and are right in the thick of the conference title chase. Fifth-year senior Rob Petitti said controversy seems to bring out the best in his coach.

"When we start having problems and things are bad, he gets it going," said Petitti, who recalled the 2001 season, when the Panthers opened with a 1-5 record but came back to win six in a row. "He has this way about him. He'll call guys out more, tell them what they need to be doing. It's all the things a good coach does. He's actually been great through all of this.

"It's like we're having fun again. I know I had the most fun today than I ever had since I've been here. He's bringing that back."

Harris, who was limping because his foot was injured during the postgame celebration, has been doing his best to insulate his team from the criticism geared toward him.

"To be very honest, I never talked to our football team about anything else other than Boston College," Harris said. "They don't deserve to be part of anything but the best preparation we can give them."

Harris not only got his team revved up for the Eagles, but saw them out-physical a team that's built its reputation on controlling the line of scrimmage. The Panthers held the Eagles to only 56 yards rushing, while amassing 177 on the ground themselves.

"All the things going on this week really didn't affect me, honestly," Harris said. "I'm doing the best job I know how. I told people that I made a commitment to my football team and to myself, and that this would not factor in my mind. ... I have a special privilege to coach these kids. All that other stuff doesn't matter. It really doesn't matter. I appreciate the fact that our athletic director and chancellor are in our locker room on a consistent basis, regardless of the other stuff. They're all about the players, not about me."

Harris' players said they try to not to pay attention to what goes on in the newspapers and on the talk shows, but it is unavoidable.

"We all know what's going on," junior defensive end Thomas Smith said. "We're not stupid. We understand. People are going to talk and going to focus on other things. But whatever battles Coach has, he can handle them."

Smith said Harris has been more relaxed than ever.

"I've been here for a while now and I've seen him a lot, and he's been really calm," Smith said. "Being in that leadership role, he has to keep things steady. And one thing about Coach -- he has a little bravado in him. He has that attitude that if you don't want me, I'm going to find a new job if things come out that way. He just wants us to go out and play football."

Sophomore quarterback Tyler Palko, who's known Harris since he was an eighth grader, said the team is rallying for him.

"He's our football coach, and we're going to be behind him 100 percent," Palko said. "I'm not questioning anything and neither should anybody else. If this city was worth the sports background that it has, the bottom line is get behind the head coach and the football team and rally around those things. ... Whatever is said, is said, but he's our head coach and that's all that matters."

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