5:53 pm: I had to re-post this to accept comments. Used a friends laptop and it screwed it up…sorry.
As much as I love college football the one thing that is so frustrating is the popularity polls to determine who the Top 25 teams are on a week to week basis. It has gotten a bit better as far as crowning a national champion with the four game playoff system now in place though. I did some reviewing of the final Top 10 teams over the last few decades and I’d say that most of the ‘mythical’ national champions (MNC) that were named would have come from the final top 10 listing. So the pundits were in the ball park at least.
College football used to have two major polls to base these ranking on. One was the Associated Press (AP) poll that consisted of selected sportswriters across the country who voted by listing their personal top 20 teams.
The other Poll was the Coaches Poll that was run along the same lines except in lieu of sports writers there were selected Division I coaches voting for a top 20 list.
Therefore is was all a popularity contest and many times the results were based on very subjective criteria – one of which carried heavy weight was the college’s name and its football reputation, both past and present to the polling date. But the polls ruled the day and a look back at Pitt’s climb to the national championship shows just how very important it was for Pitt to get into that Top 20 if for no other reason than ‘present’ name recognition.
Nowadays we Pitt fans sort of joke about those eight national championships we won back in the 1920s and ’30s. Of course we are proud, but reasonable fans do understand that sports writers and college football writers in particular, are very short-sighted when it comes to teams who aren’t perennial contenders.
Everyone knows about the Michigans, Ohio States, USCs, Notre Dames and Alabamas. Those type of Big Dog programs could lose a game or two and still they won those mythical titles because, Well dammit!, they were just plain better than the less recognized programs.
And even with those eight MNC trophies Pitt had stashed in the bowels of old Pitt Stadium we certainly were one of those lesser programs when the 1970s rolled in. We were pretty horrid when it came to winning football games back in those days. Take a look at the 20 years prior to our 1975 season:
Because of all those losing seasons, 13 of them in the previous 20 years… including a 22-63 record in the ten years leading up to ’75… our reputation was as dark the darkest black on a moonless overcast night in the north Atlantic ocean in mid-January, or something.
We sucked according to anyone who meant anything in college football. But we fans know the Johnny Majors story, that of his coming onboard and reshaping the football programs into winners then eventually into national champs. We like to think it was all about how great Majors was as a coach and how wonderful our players were. He was and they were, especially Tony Dorsett, but that isn’t the full telling of that championship story.
That is where the popularity polls come in.
If we remember, and as you can see above, in 1973 and ’74 we had some good seasons, very good ones if you were a Pitt fan back in those days. We went from three consecutive 1-9 seasons to a solid, if not spectacular 6-5-1 in ’73 and actually won more games than we lost. Funny that even now with our string of rather average seasons over the last 10-15 years at Pitt we would look at 6-5 as a down year. But then it was like the sun finally shone.
What started the turnaround was a 7-7 tie against powerhouse Georgia on their home turf to open the 1973 season. That outcome, a tie against a good SEC team, was almost inconceivable just a year before and while we didn’t win that game it was an eye opener for Pitt fans that we could even stay in the game against the Bulldogs.
In the first game of the ’73 season, the Panthers faced the Georgia Bulldogs, who were 19-point favorites to win the game. Threatened by a frenzied Georgia crowd chanting Dawg food! Dawg food!, Pitt fought the Bulldogs to a 7–7 tie—an upset—and Dorsett logged his first of many 100-yard rushing games wearing the Blue and Gold. Three years later, the Panthers would face the Georgia Bulldogs again, with a national championship on the line.
1973 really was fun and I distinctly remember wondering, as did many Pitt fans and the newspaper pundits also, if we could really better that record over the next season. We did do just that and while the progress wasn’t spectacular it was steady.
On the strength of that winning season in ’73, on Majors growing reputation as a winning coach and with the advent of wunderkind running back Tony Dorsett, who racked up 1686 yards on 318 carries (5.3 ypc) and 13 TDs rushing as a true freshman, we went into ’74 ranked 13th in the preseason polls. That was the first time we had been ranked at all in many, many years.
Looking at that first year we have to understand that what Dorsett did then was truly outstanding especially given the fact that the NCAA had just started allowing true freshman to play in actual games:
Forty years ago, the NCAA freed freshmen from an obscure form of Monday night football. The decision unleashed the likes of Joe Washington and Archie Griffin for four-year reigns of terror on the sport.
Little Joe started at halfback that season at Oklahoma. At Ohio State, Archie Griffin was off and running toward two Heisman Trophy seasons. A year later, a Pitt freshman named Tony Dorsett was Heisman bound.
The 1972 NCAA decision to make freshmen eligible was — like most everything else — largely about money. Freshmen in every other sport except basketball had been playing varsity for four years. Meanwhile, colleges were straining under the costs of running separate freshman football teams and giving scholarships to players who couldn’t play on Saturdays.
Thank God for that because it started a run of Pitt football the likes of which we hadn’t seen in years and haven’t seen since then considering how Dorsett’s final year ended up. That being his all-time rushing leader title, scoring leader title, Heisman Trophy winner and a key member of a national championship team.
Starting 1974 at #13 nationally and having the bones of what could be a very good team we went through the season with a strong showing… but it wasn’t enough for the people who were the final decision maker in the rankings. We opened with two wins against solid programs by beating Florida State and Georgia Tech and climbed up to #8. Then we hit a two game snag and those losses dropped us out of the Top 20 for a while.
The team finished out of the final polls due to two big losses at the end of the year to #5 Notre Dame by 14-10 and then to Rival PSU in a lopsided 31-10 game. Remember that Notre Dame score though, even though we lost, it gave us the feeling that we could play against anybody.
The 1975 year was an up and down season and during it, actually going back to 1974, we started our frustrating tendency to lose the games that we go into as a nationally ranked team. We didn’t do that in all our games when ranked but we began a real trend toward that disappointing action back then. We blew good standings three times that ’75 season – as 15th we lost to Oklahoma; later as 17th we lost to Navy and then again as 17th we lost to Penn State (a heart breaker with a 7-6 score). (We still love you Carson.
But in between those games we pulled off what I believe is one of the most important wins we have had in the modern era of Pitt football. Let’s set that stage. On November 15th, sitting at 6-3, we hosted The Notre dame Fighting Irish at Pitt Stadium.
It was a day that will live forever in the hearts and minds of Pitt fans.
But with that is an interesting fact that makes the old polling system even more suspect and shows the strong media biases at the time. Notre Dame came into Pitt stadium for the game ranked #9 nationally – even though they had a 7-2 record. Get that? Just because they were The Fighting Irish everyone and their brother thought they were great and even with two losses put them in the top 10.
Pitt on the other hand with our three losses couldn’t even sniff the Top 20. But that changed on the Saturday afternoon that stunned the many ND fans in attendance and really pissed off Paul Hornung in the radio booth high above the field.
What happened was indisputably the best game a college running back produced since Walter Camp started slaughtering pigs for their bladders. Instead of me trying to describe what happened that day I’ll steal this description of the game and Dorsett’s performance and show it to you:
Dorsett’s rushing performance broke his own school record of 268 that he had set in a game against Army earlier that season. Dorsett’s biggest runs of the day came in the first half. He rattled off a 57 yard gain on the first drive before quarterback Matt Cavanaugh punched it in from the three yard line.
Dorsett’s next big run was his longest run of the day. It was a 71 yard sprint to the end zone that gave his Panthers a 14-10 lead. After the team traded field goals Dorsett was on the receiving end of a Matt Cavanaugh flip pass that he took 49 yards and opened the Pittsburgh lead to 24-13 to cap off the scoring in the first half.
As he headed to the locker room Dorsett had racked up 161 yards on the ground. He would rumble for 142 more in the second half as Pitt ran away with the big victory. Both teams came into the game with a 7-2 record (edit: we were actually 6-3), with Notre Dame being ranked #9 they had a major bowl bid on the line and because of the loss they were eliminated from consideration.
On the other hand, Pitt secured themselves a spot in the Sun Bowl thanks in large part to their running back that ran wild on the Notre Dame defense.
That wasn’t the end of this story though. Famous ND Hall of Fame player Paul Hornung couldn’t believe the way Dorsett shredded the Irish defense; he was truly horrified and embarrassed by it. Hornung was angry and vowed it would never happen again.
The effect of what Dorsett did that November afternoon at Pitt stadium, and then again in South Bend the next year, is summed up well by this quote:
A year after Dorsett ran for 303 yards, Hornung told a crowd at a pep rally the night before the game at Notre Dame Stadium that he would jump out of the press box if Dorsett gained 100 yards. Dorsett reached 181 by the fourth quarter of a 31-10 Pitt victory when Majors pulled him from the game. “They tried to grow the grass long, but it didn’t work,” Dorsett said.
Months later, Pelusi ran into Hornung and asked him how he was able to survive the fall.
“He just walked away,” Pelusi said.
Those polls we talked about earlier? Even with that nice 1975 season that propelled us to preseason #9 ranking in 1976 there were still a lot of skeptics about the Pitt football program. Part of that had to do with our poor reputation before 1973 of course but another factor was the fact that we didn’t belong to a big football conference back then.
We were an Independent, which was not an uncommon designation back in the ’70s but most of the really strong programs did reside in conferences. USC was in the PAC-8, Michigan in the Big 10, Texas in the SWC, etc. Only Penn State and Notre Dame were truly highly regarded as Independents with other schools like Pitt, Navy, Army, Syracuse and WVU bouncing in and out of the national rankings every so often.
Even after we beat Army in 1976 to go 10-0 and finally get ranked #1 I distinctly remember a national sportscaster on a post-game show saying “The polls might say Pitt is #1 but I sure don’t”.
To which we fans said “Go screw yourself!”
That 303 yard game was the real beginning of the Tony Dorsett legend in my opinion. It was a performance for the ages and I have to say we Pitt fans have never since seen a single game from one player that was as well done as Dorsett did that afternoon.
It gave us a reasonable belief that we could be champions… and then we went out and did it.
P/S: JoPa – To answer your question, here’s a bunch of ways you can say Dorsett’s great: