One of the more calming and somewhat obsessive things Pitt fans do is point our fingers back to the pre-World War II era and think about our eight national championship we won back them.
I call that “Old Pitt Days“. Some of us can actually remember our parents talking about those days just like we ourselves talk about the 1970s – mid-1980s as our own glory years. Of course fans even younger than I will look at Dave Wannstedt’s three year winning streak as their high water mark.
I kind of feel sorry for them because as nice as those years were nice as a 27-12 run but for many other programs that is an average or even in some cases a down stretch.
So what does this new generation have to look forward to as successes so they can turn around and point a finger back at this period and say “I was at Pitt when that happened“? We just finished an eight win season in 2015 and that could be the start of something great. Let’s hope so anyway, but the signs are there to feel reasonably confident that the winning seasons will keep rolling in.
That said, if we look back to what new Pitt head coaches did in their first three years we also see that constant winning is a not given by any means. Let’s use 1966 as the base for “Modern Pitt Days” and see what transpired since then with new leadership.
Dave Hart – He was at the wrong place at the wrong time at Pitt and he sucked as a HC. He was consistent though with triple 1-9 records before he was fired. These are the years I really started to ‘get’ Pitt football as I was going into my teens. Hart did not progress or regress after his first season at the helm.
Carl DePasqua – This is from an old message board poster, KayseSouze, and fits:
I feel Mr. DePasqua has been unfairly maligned. I know for almost all of you this is ancient history but I have to get it off my chest. As you know, from ’66 to ’68 we had three consecutive 1-9 seasons under Dave Hart. The university was reeling from financial problems and hired Mr. DePasqua. He then went 5-5, 4-6 and 3-8.
Obviously, that would be unacceptable today but after ’66-68, was miraculous. That 3-8 season included a thrilling 26-25 victory at UCLA to open the season against legendary UCLA coach, Tommy Prothro.
What ended his tenure was 1972’s 1-10 record. Consider that just four years after our worst all time single season, we became national champs. Still, the word on campus was that he had been flipping pizzas the year before we hired him. The truth is that he had been an outstanding fullback at Pitt and played in the Blue-Gray game, a post season all star classic for seniors.
His 13-29 record, in a vacuum, seems shameful. But as the saying goes,”Ya don’t get from New York to Mississippi without stopping in Atlanta”.
And he didn’t flip pizza. His calzone, however was unbelievable–Just kidding of course.
By far my favorite game at Pitt was 1973 at Athens, Ga. We saw the transformation in front of our eyes that first game after a lot of bad seasons. [The 7-7 score against Georgia was considered an upset]. I believe we carried 18 freshmen on that trip out of the 50 or 60 we took on the plane.
A big part of that group was still around and going into their senior year for the ’76 season. I remember before the season I called our seniors in. We had a great group of seniors. I said, ‘OK fellas, we have a chance to have a very good football team this year.’
I asked them if they had anything that they wanted to bring to my attention before we went into the season. I believe it was [tight end] Jim Corbett who spoke up and said, ‘Coach Majors, you just tell us what you want us to get done and we’re going to get it done.’ That’s one of the greatest leadership responses I’ve had. That was the general feeling of that entire senior group.
Jackie Sherrill – “The Castrating Coach“. His motivation tactics at Pitt were a bit more subdued that the ones he started cooking up as he looked at Pitt stadium in the rear view mirror. By inheriting fantastic players from Majors and then heavily recruiting the best the WPIAL had to offer he had the opportunity to field a team, the 1981 version, who some say was the best team there ever was in a 360° way.
He had a bit of a dip in the win column when he went from nine in his first year to eight in his second… but then he ramped up the program with that first of three 11 win seasons.
Foge Fazio – a Pitt favorite son and all-around likeable guy… which might have been his downfall in a way. He was very friendly with the players as staff coaches tend to do since they are with the kids all the time. The problem was that Fazio acted like he was still Pitt’s defensive coordinator after he fleeted up to the HC position and tried to micro-manage the defense.
His is a good example of the fact that sometime coordinators are fantastically successful at that job, as he certainly was as the DC under Sherrill, but can’t grasp the multitude of responsibilities a HC has to handle.
His going from 9 to 8 to 3 wins was horrid in comparison to the wonderful 33-3 run that Sherrill had left him.
Mike Gottfried – I was overseas stationed on a ship out of Alaska when Gottfried was coaching Pitt so I didn’t get a real pulse of what was happening with the program. I think I watched one game – a win if I remember correctly. But just look at what he did after taking the reins from Fazio.
Fazio’s last year, 1985, was a blah 5-5-1 season… which Gottfried mirrored in his first year at Pitt. But then he got the kids to win 8 games the next season before dipping back down to 6 wins in his third year.
But the very interesting aspect about Gottfried’s time with Pitt is what actually transpired with his firing and how it came about. Here is a good article describing just what happened back then. That move by Pitt is indicative of how the university’s administration has dealt with wayward head coaches for a long time.
The defining line is that what happens off the field is more important than what the HC dies on the field. We saw this with Gottfried, Walt Harris was fired under much the same circumstances the we saw it writ large in 2010 with Wannstedt’s firing.
Fans like to believe in the Pitt administration’s “Next Level” myth but it just isn’t true. Otherwise you wouldn’t fire your three winningest coaches in the last 30 years. We have heard that mantra each and every time Pitt dumps a coach they no longer want to be associated with.
At Pitt you toe the party line or you are gone regardless if you just won 7 games (Gottfried), 8 games (Harris) or had the best three year run in a long time and racking up 27 wins (Wannstedt).
Paul Hackett – Hackett was Gottfried’s offensive coordinator at Pitt then was hired as the HC when Gottfried was fired. He had one winning season (6 wins) bracketed by two losing ones (3 games each year).
Johnny Majors II – Back to the Future. ‘Nuff said – tragic. But here is the situation he was facing on his rebound to Pitt… dire straits for sure:
Four days before the Pitt Panthers opened their season by defeating Southern Mississippi 14-10, Johnny Majors was at a table in a plush hotel, bidding on items at an auction.
The sale was to help an athletic department that needs scholarship funds to stay afloat. “We’re close to Chapter 11 here,” Majors said. The Pitt budget for men’s and women’s sports is about $14 million. At Tennessee, where Majors used to coach, the budget was some $11 million more.
Dinner for six at Majors’ university-provided house netted $9,000 in the auction. Majors’ bid won the original painting of the 1976 Pitt media guide, the year he coached the Panthers to a national championship. He bid $650 for a year’s supply of gasoline.
Someone seated nearby asked, “Coach, don’t you get your gas free?” “Oh, yeah,” Majors said. Too late. His bid won.
When you’re into a massive rebuilding job, when you’ve got money to raise, players to coach, meetings to attend and speeches to make, it’s easy to overlook a detail or two.
(Sad) Walt Harris – He inherited a program that was reeling and in poor shape talent -wise. He didn’t have a winning season in those first three years; 6-6 was the best he did. However, from his fourth year on he did this in the win column: 7, 7, 9, 8 and 8. He was the only HC that played in a BCS bowl game as a Big East champion.
He was very much the offensive mindset and had two of the best QB Pitt has ever had in Rod Rutherford and Tyler Palko. Take a look at this website that lists the Top Ten Pitt players per skill position… Palko is # 4 in the Top Ten and Rutherford is #5. Oh Wow! Will you look who is #3!
Dave Wannstedt – He started off slowly with a first season that left Pitt fans very disappointed. There are differing opinions on just what shape the program was in when he came onboard but I don’t think any fan can say they expected a drop from 8 wins to 5 wins in his first year.
Much like Walt Harris DW’s initial three years was one winning season (6-6) with losing seasons on either side. After those three years he got the team winning and went on that ‘best’ three year record we had seen since Jackie Sherrill back in the ’80s.
Big Dave has tried his hand at other football jobs since getting the boot at Pitt and the latest is a gig as a color man on some network.
Paul Chryst -Chryst was hired by Pitt to stop the bleeding from the negative incidents and circumstances Pitt found itself in since the beginning of 2010. Chryst replaced Jumpin’ Todd Graham, who had replaced slap-happy Mike Haywood, who replaced a befuddled Dave Wannstedt (if only for a few days).
It was not a pretty time for the reputation of Pitt football in any way, shape or form.Chryst had a mandate from the Pitt administration to change the culture of the program and to cull out any players on the roster who would be non-conducive to a calm and well-functioning clubhouse.
He did that to the tune of a 28 roster players turnover in his first three years.
As far as actual football went Chryst inherited a roster that had, in essence, lost a whole recruiting class after DW was fired. That disappearing 2011 class was chock full of 4* and good 3* kids who would have made big impacts on the team… and in the win column.
He put up a rather mediocre won/loss record of 19-20 with one winning season, a 7-6 record, in the middle of two 6-7 losing ones.
Pat Narduzzi – Which brings ups to our current “Great White Hope” (as Pitt tends to have in theri hiring processes for HCs save one in Handsy Heywood . We fans hope Narduzzi break Pitt tradition and have a second winning season, to go along with his rookie 8-5 record, in his first two years. But that may be tough to do.
As far back as I can remember we Pitt fans all thought things would progress well in each HC’s first three years. Sometimes it did – mostly a long while ago – and sometimes not. You’ll notice I colored coded the above listed HCs’ three year record. It is pretty obvious that the green text means a winning record and the red is a losing record..
Of the 11 coaches listed (less Narduzzi) only four are marked in green – Majors 1, Sherrill, Fazio and Gottfried and they are sequential coaches whose runs encompassed the 15 years from 1973 until 1988.
That sounds great… until you realize it hasn’t happened again in the last 18 years.
I hope we see Narduzzi break this trend and bring us two more winning years. I think we may but then again I don’t see a talent level on this 2016 team that is so high across the board that it guarantees a 7 win season, especially given the formidable season we have ahead of us.
I don’t make season predictions until the opener’s two-deep is made public, but I will say this – it wouldn’t shock me at all to see lesser wins in ’16 than in ’15… and even a .500 year is possible.