(This is Part 2 of a three part series looking back at Pitt’s best decades of football play)
On Saturday we discussed the early years of Pitt football and the impact Jock Sutherland had on the football program. I venture to say there are not many living Pitt fans who can point back to that time and say they attended any of those games as adults.
The next best decade is for us older guys a more happy time because we lived through that winning period and we remember it fondly as we were either undergraduates or we were in high school and watching Pitt football with our friends and families back then. Well, some on here might have been in grad school or after also.
I’m speaking of the years 1974 to 1983.
Prior to that we went through a period of ball which saw us in a ten-year stretch of utter futility where we combined our wins and losses for a 28/68 record (28%). During that stretch we had four head coaches; John Michelosen, Dave Hart, Carl DePasqua and the newly hired Johnny Majors… sound familiar anyone? Like our last ten years maybe? As coaches go that is, we had a much better record over the last 10 years.
And as a topper we had one HC, Dave Hart, who went 1-9 for his three seasons at the helm.
Of course right after DePasqua is when we rose from the ashes – and for some stretches of play I mean ashes as shown above – and had Tony Dorsett, Hugh Greene and Dan Marino as our superstar players along with Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill as their head coaches.
Our parents had Jock; we had John and Jackie. No coaches have come close in terms of on the field success as those two in modern Pitt history have done… not even remotely close.
1076’s 12-0 season in that span was nice also – but perhaps the best football of that decade was the 33-3 record Sherrill racked up with Marino under center from 1979-1981.
Those are what we older Pitt fans call our ‘Glory Years’. In that singular decade we had 94 wins against 23 losses for a 80% winning percentage. Throw in that mythical National Championship for good measure and bingo!, you have a new life and new reputation for the football program.
It is hard to sit here and completely immerse myself in memories of that time period as I left Pittsburgh in the fall of 1978 and went directly to Boot Camp in Cape May and then over to Hawaii for three years. Needless to say I saw absolutely none of the ’78 season (my face was firmly planted in the push-up position) and then sparse Pitt play on TV with the exception of the bowl games and the Pitt-PSU matches over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Boy – those PSU games alone are worth an article. One especially if you can’t find a sharp stick to poke into your eye. But in that stretch I’d say that terrible PSU loss, which was our own 13-9 type game, was an aberration and truly overshadowed by the top-shelf play we had produced otherwise.
How did we pull off a decade like 1974-1983?
Well, there were a lot of moving parts but first and foremost I think you have to look at two factors; Johnny Majors’ hire and the unlimited amount of players you could have on scholarship back then. Now we limit the total scholarships to a total of 85 on the roster at any one time.
Here is a nice article written by Joe Starkey of the Trib-Review on that subject:
The first key to the renovation project was a change in the school’s scholarship policy. Previously, Pitt had been locked into the so-called “Big Four Agreement” with West Virginia, Penn State and Syracuse. It was designed to regulate the schools’ football programs and limited each to just 25 scholarships per year.
Then-Pitt chancellor Wesley Posvar and athletic director Cas Myslinski sparked the program’s revival by removing the self-imposed scholarship cap and by hiring the charismatic, 38-year-old Majors after the 1972 season.
They had an unlimited amount of scholarships at their disposal – 1973 would prove to be the last year of unlimited scholarships in college football – and started hounding players from Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Maryland and, of course, Western Pennsylvania.
Majors gave his staff a simple directive: “Bring in anybody who can help us win.” Sherrill, in a recent phone interview, described the staff’s philosophy as such: “We just put our heads down and our rear ends up and started digging.”
We Pitt fans love to put the blame for Pitt Footballs’ low fortunes on the various administrations but here is a real case that was directly opposite of what we believe was a firmly entrenched anti-football trend that went back to the resignation of Jock Sutherland.
“After years of struggling with the University for sustained financial support, Sutherland resigned in 1938 because the school’s Chancellor, John Gabbert Bowman, instituted a policy of de-emphasis for the football program, eliminating athletic scholarships, student athlete stipends, and the recruiting funds. Bowman’s moves, which resulted in Sutherland’s departure, were controversial among students and supporters of the football program”
One complemented the other in perfect fashion to allow Majors to bring in a freshman recruiting class of 1973 that showed Pitt could actually knock the snot out of some of our opponents for the next four years.
Of course it all started with Hopewell’s running back Tony Dorsett who was not only the gem of that class but turned out to have the best four-year college career ever seen. That may be debatable but his high standard-setting production wasn’t; he set record upon record until he ended up with the Heisman Trophy.
Still, here is a good Sports Illustrated article to keep those memories fresh. This one is about Dorsett’s complete ownership of Notre Dame.
The fact that Majors left after that championship season was a hard thing to take when it actually happened, but in the long run it might have been one of the best things to happen with Pitt football as it allowed Pitt to bring back ex-Defensive Coordinator and Asst HC Jackie Sherrill to take over the team.
After a slight dip in the record following our 12-0 season, to nine wins in ’77 and eight wins in ’78, Sherrill recruited Danny Marino in the class of 1979 to be Pitt’s QB of the future. And there really wasn’t any doubt that Marino was going to be the starting QB sooner rather than later.
In Marino’s first year on the job he overtook starter Rick Trocano, first by injury then by his good play, and had a solid freshman year in going 130/22/ (59%) with 1680 yards and 10 TDs to 9 INTs.
But it wasn’t his arm that impressed back then really, although it was very strong; it was his command of the offense as a whole and his total control in the huddle at a young age that showed what he was to become in the latter years.
It was no coincidence that the string of 11-1 seasons started at the same time Marino put on the blue and gold. Of course Marino was surrounded by a supporting cast as good as Pitt had ever seen. Maybe better actually given that Marino’s Offensive Lineman almost all were All-Americans at one point or another when he was the QB.
Marino’s finest year was in 1981 when, as a junior, he threw for 37 TDs against 23 INTs (one thing – Marino was a gunslinger thus his TD to INT ration was horrible) and led the team to its last 11-1 season.
That year Marino was: 1st nationally in TDs with 37; 3rd in Passing efficiency with 143.1; 6th in Passing Yards with 2876; 8th in Completion Percentage at 59.5% and, unfortunately, 2nd in INTs with 23 .
We know what happened next – Sherrill leaves. Foge Fazio, a Pitt favorite son, fleets up to the HC job and Danny Marino has one of the poorer seasons a Pitt starting QB has had. We still pull out nine wins and end up 10th in the final ranking at year’s end but that was the end of the really great modern Pitt teams.
Thank you John and Jackie for those lasting memories. They were the Xs and Os men who crafted the team and won those games… but look who they had to help with that. Here are Pitt’s All-Americans during that decade:
|Tony Dorsett||Running back|
|Al Romano||Middle guard|
|Randy Holloway||Defensive tackle|
|Bob Jury||Defensive back|
|Hugh Green||Defensive end|
|Mark May||Offensive tackle|
|Jimbo Covert||Offensive tackle|
|Jimbo Covert||Offensive tackle|
|Bill Fralic||Offensive tackle|
|Bill Maas||Defensive tackle|
Of course some of those were multiple-year awardees such as Dorsett, Green,and Fralic. But look at the offensive linemen and the defenders we had then – starting with All-Everything (and almost Heisman winner) Hugh Green.
SI did a wonderful article on him when he was truly the best player in college ball.
Hell, Ricky Jackson was an awesome LB alongside Green and he never even made AA. I think they felt they were having too many Pitt Panthers on the AA lists… and I’m not kidding.
We may not see a run like 1976 to 1981’s 64 wins to 9 losses record again in our lifetimes. Here’s hoping we will and I guess if Narduzzi sticks around for another five years after his current contract ends maybe we will do so… but the greatest cards were dealt to Pitt 40 years ago in my opinion.
Marino’s Career stats:
Dorsett’s Career Stats: