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Times _ and teams _ have changed at Pittsburgh

August 29, 1997

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Fifteen years ago this week, Pittsburgh was top-ranked in college football. Dan Marino was in his senior season and the Panthers talked of a national championship.

They didn’t win one then _ they finished 9-3 _ and they most certainly won’t win now. Since that season, the Panthers have gone through five coaches, nine .500-or-worse seasons, a lot of nondescript players and a transition from one of the city’s top athletic attractions to a niche sport.

Back in 1982, the Panthers sold out virtually their entire season at 56,500-seat Pitt Stadium and one game at Three Rivers Stadium. They’ll be lucky to get half that for Saturday’s season opener against Southwestern Louisiana.

That’s one reason why new coach Walt Harris, a former NFL assistant coach, says the Panthers must quit living in the past if they are to return to national prominence in the future.

``A lot of moms and dads here know about Tony Dorsett, but maybe their sons don’t,″ Harris said. ``It’s more what have you done for me today.″

Lately, not much.

Penn State now dominates high school recruiting in Pennsylvania, making any Pittsburgh comeback all the more difficult. And guess who’s on the Panthers’ schedule next week _ No. 1 Penn State. On the road.

Who made this schedule, anyway? Certainly not new athletic director Steve Pederson, who talks openly of dropping such opponents and picking up a few more Akrons.

Until then, Harris must hope for gradual improvement every year _ in the record and recruiting.

The Panthers return 16 starters from last season’s 4-7 team, the last and the best during Johnny Majors’ second four-year stay as coach, but the question is whether that is good news or bad.

Harris says only three of his current players would have his two-deep depth chart at Ohio State last year _ right tackle Tony Orlandini, left guard Jon Marzoch and John Jones. He was the Buckeyes’ offensive coordinator.

So, when the Panthers show off their new uniforms, newly painted stadium and $1 million instant replay scoreboard Saturday, Harris will be wishing for something else new: some more players.

``We’ve been trying to teach the guys some things _ some have bought into it, some haven’t,″ Harris said. ``I’m looking forward to the game to see how the guys play, and I’m looking forward to next week, to look at the game film and be able to show the guys what we’ve been talking about.″

He’s certainly not looking forward to next week’s game, as Southwestern Louisiana understands _ it opened at national champion Florida last season.

For now, the Ragin’ Cajuns (5-6 in 1996) will be tough enough for Pitt, with its father-son combination at coach and receiver and an offense that could test what was one of college football’s worst defenses last season.

Coach Nelson Stokley’s son, Brandon, caught 156 passes for 2,281 yards in two seasons _ an average of 103.7 yards per game. He could threaten the NCAA career receiving yardage record.

``It’s been a great relationship for me,″ the elder Stokley said. ``Usually, as a coach, you don’t get to see your son grow up much.′

Pitt will counter the Cajuns’ passing with the running of Dwayne Schulters, who beat out 1994 Big East offensive player of the year Billy West at tailback, and a West Coast style offense designed to help rollout quarterback Pete Gonzalez move the ball when the running game is stalled.

``Our offense is designed for the quarterback to play well,″ Harris said.

Harris is no stranger to season openers at Pittsburgh _ his first game as a major college head coach, at the University of Pacific, was a 1989 loss at Pitt Stadium.

``That seems like a long time ago,″ Harris said.

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