Harris, Bryant enter new season with ‘strengthened” relationship
There they sat, side by side. Walt Harris and Antonio Bryant faced the media Friday for the first time since a charge of receiving stolen property against Bryant was dropped eight days ago.
Sometimes, player and coach were serious. Sometimes, they were light-hearted. Together, they displayed a bond that progressively strengthened since the morning of July 23, when Bryant was arrested at Pittsburgh International Airport for allegedly using a stolen debit card number to purchase an airline ticket.
It was later determined that Bryant had no knowledge of the fraudulent use of the debit card, that organizers of a charity clinic he attended in Florida were responsible for the purchase of the plane ticket.
Harris, in his fifth year as coach at Pitt, spoke first about his All-America wide receiver on the eve of fall football camp, which officially begins at 8 this morning at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex.
‘Antonio’s been through a lot because he’s a guy who cares,’ Harris said. ‘Whatever he’s into, it’s 110 percent. Nothing is halfway. We’re in a process where I feel that ‘coach’ is another word for dad, or mentor or big brother. I feel that way about all of our guys, that we’re one of those three people to them. If I look at (Bryant’s) situation, I know what kind of young man he is. We spent a lot of time together, and I’ve been with his loved ones, too. I’ve been with the people he looks up to in his family, the people he listens to.
‘I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, as well as a belief in him. And things came out the right way for him.’
Bryant, a junior who has not always seen eye to eye with Harris in his three seasons at Pitt, acknowledged that his relationship with the Pitt coach strengthened during his recent ordeal.
‘It most definitely did,’ Bryant said. ‘I used to say that it seems like coach knows where I’m coming from. But now I feel like he knows more about where I’m coming from, as far as my attitude and the way I carry myself and how I attack things. It’s just been a tremendous blessing that he’s been there for me.’
It wasn’t so long ago that Harris and Bryant had their differences. Harris suspended Bryant at the opening of spring drills in April because the latter missed some winter conditioning and later argued with Harris about it. Then, Harris suspended Bryant for the final two spring practices and the Blue-Gold game for fighting with two teammates and arguing with an assistant at a scrimmage.
But threats of suspensions and the like were not what Bryant needed during his most recent situation. He needed support, and Harris was there from the start.
‘I’ve only been able to, under certain circumstances, show tough love to him,’ said Harris, whose team is coming off a 7-5 season and a berth in the Insight.com Bowl. ‘It was love, but it was tough love. But I think in this last instance I was able to show him some form of true love, show him that I really do appreciate and respect him. And I think it’s exciting for both of us, because, number one, I’m sure he doubted that I had it in me, and, number two, that it really happened.
‘His words were straight and honest to me the whole time, and we all know it was a very unfortunate (situation). It’s a great lesson for all of us, especially our football players who are really in the limelight.’
Harris added that Bryant and the rest of the Panthers must be more aware of the activities they get involved in, particularly clinics and camps. Bryant did not inform the coaching staff or the university that he was making the trip to Florida for the clinic, and, as things turned out, it was a poor decision, albeit an unfortunate one.
‘Some of this could have been prevented if we had a little more communication on this end, to prevent a gray area from happening,’ Harris said. ‘But it’s a good lesson for all of us. We’re taking it in a positive vain, and we’re glad the press has been fair to Antonio.’
Harris said there have been no findings as to whether Bryant’s trip to Florida violated NCAA rules.
‘I think that information has not been finalized yet,’ Harris said. ‘I know from Antonio’s part there was an effort to check it out with the University of Miami (compliance office).’
Bryant, meantime, still is getting over the reactions he encountered during the past three weeks. He said a lot of so-called friends and associates rushed to judgment before the facts of the case were known.
‘This was a learning process,’ said Bryant, a Heisman Trophy candidate and reigning Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation’s top receiver. ‘It showed me a lot of things about people, about certain people and their attitude toward me. Now, I just know my place with those people. They say one thing when my back is turned and they hear things about me, but they don’t take the time to come back to me and ask what really happened. Then, when things get cleared up, it’s another story – ‘Oh, yeah, he’s great again. He can catch passes again.’ – It’s a funny thing.
‘You see where the roots are strong and where they’re weak, as far as how people perceive you. You expect the media to (report) because that’s their job, and I expect people to sit back and talk about it and stuff like that. … But everybody was walking around and looking at my face and they were surprised I didn’t have a worried look. I had my trust in the Lord. I knew everything was going to be all right because I didn’t do anything wrong. So, I just sat back and said I’ll have my turn when all the negative becomes a positive for me.’
Despite all he has been through, Bryant said he would continue to work at clinics, insisting that he has a calling to help children.
‘That’s what the devil wants me to do,’ said Bryant, when asked about giving up outside activities. ‘He wants to stop me. … I’m not like that.’
Bryant did concede, however, that he would be more careful in the future.
‘You can’t trust everybody,’ he said. ‘The procedures I took (to work the clinic) were not unusual. I’ve been doing this type of thing all summer. … I might be more aware of organizers and things like that, but I’ll never quit working for the kids. There’s a lot more to me than just playing football and helping people out is one of them.
‘This is just another chance for me to learn. I’m glad I got to get closer to coach Harris through this. And I’m glad that I got through another obstacle that’s only going to make me better in the future. The Lord was with me the whole time.’