Here is a piece on Pitt’s ‘modern’ history by our own Dr. Tom
That was quite a win by Alabama in the National Championship game last night. Roll Tide! it has been 38 years since Georgia played for a national championship. Good for them getting there in the first place; too bad they came up short.
Yep, us Pitt fans remember our own National Championships, that is, if you’re old enough! Pitt fans are probably no different from any other rabid fan base, although they’re probably a smaller brother/sisterhood than most college football programs that have such a storied history like the University of Pittsburgh does.
We fans therefore have expectations. After all, this is a program that claims nine National Championships with historical names of the past like Coach Jock Sutherland, Coach Pop Warner, Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, Larry Fitzgerald & Aaron Donald to just mention a few. So when our expectations fall short, many of us fans get frustrated by those less than the stellar results from our beloved Pitt Panthers.
That being said, even in the darkest of times when such prevailing attitudes permeate our psyche with gloom and doom there are still bright spots to savor, if one cares to remember them. Enjoying those moments when they occur provides both immediate pleasure as well as hope for the future.
That’s what this article is all about.
I was motivated to write this piece because I’m tired of reading that Pitt football is a dysfunctional, misfit program according to some commenters on this blog. Believe me, I am well aware of all of the shortcomings of this program over the 45 years that I’ve followed the Panthers. However, a gloom & doom attitude right now is not only overly pessimistic to entertain but it also permits such negativity to leach into our rational thoughts to allow our minds to rewrite history so as to suit our present attitude.
In that regard, what follows is a factual historical review over the last thirty years of Pitt Panther Football. Some have suggested that Pitt has sucked since the last glory days of Dan Marino. A pathetic bunch of losers led by an athletic department and University administration that is dysfunctional at best.
Although some of those accusations might be valid to some extent, such blanket denigration is unwarranted based on Pitt’s actual football history. Here are the facts. Enjoy the memories.
Lets begin in 1987, although just outside of that last 30 year period, it was a good season for Pitt football. Mike Gottfried was our coach back then, and a solid one at that. The season ended up 8-4, back when colleges played only 11 regular season games. We played all three of our rivals that season; West Virginia University, Notre Dame and Penn State & PSU… and we beat them all!
First off was close win of Pitt 6 – WVU 3 in a defensive struggle, then we played to a finish of Pitt 30 – ND 22 with an undefeated ND being ranked #4 at the time. Then we finished beating Penn State 10-0.
In that Penn State victory, shutting out the #18th ranked Nitters wasn’t enough, so we culminated that victory with a cherry on top, that being the Pick 6 interception by Billy Owens that sealed the deal. This was the game where Owens was immediately mobbed by the team beyond the field of play with a historical team pile-on right on the Pitt Stadium track.
It was led by Gottfried himself, running all the way down the sideline to congratulate Owens on this late back-breaking Pick 6 to end any hopes for a PSU comeback. In that game Craig Ironhead Heyward (may he RIP) ran for 160 yards on 32 carries.
Coach Gottfried got canned two years later, right before we played in the John Hancock Bowl against Texas A & M. We beat the 17th ranked Aggies 31-28 that day to finish the season 8-3-1 and handed Paul Hackett his first Pitt win. There wouldn’t be a whole lot more under his coaching.
But one of the few wins he did have was a Backyard Brawl to begin the 1991 season, soundly beating the Mountaineers 34-3 on August 31, 1991. That looked like hopeful beginnings to Hackett’s only winning season, but at 6-5 it was a disappointing one at best as it turned out.
On to the Walt Harris era.
Harris won Big East Coach of the Year honors both in 1997 & 2004 as well as the AFCA Coach of the Year in 2004 when Pitt ended ranked #19th in the country. Some highlights of his tenure have to begin with the nickname that was produced by two fantastic Pitt players.
The name “Wide Receiver U”, the players, WRs Antonio Bryant and the legendary Larry Fitzgerald, who of course has had his jersey retired here in Pittsburgh. They were good! Good enough for both of them to win the Biletnikoff Award, Bryant in 2000, Fitz in 2003. Fitzgerald also won the Walter Camp Award that year as well as being a consensus All American.
The handwriting was on the wall the prior year after Fitz had caught a TD pass in his 14th consecutive game to break that NCAA record. And of course he just keeps on going today in the NFL to at some point end his career in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The games? Let’s start with the unlikely win over a ranked Miami team on a nationally televised Thursday night game in which QB Pete Gonzalez got it done for the Panthers. He was a southern Florida boy and remarked in his post game interview that he wanted to have bragging rights when he got back home so he felt he had to beat the Hurricanes, right? He did: Pitt 21 Miami 17.
Towards the end of that season the Panthers had two more big wins: on Nov 22nd Pitt beat #19 Virginia Tech 30-27. That was the beginning of a stretch where Pitt just seemed to own VT every time they played each other for years to come.
On the following week the Backyard Brawl’s final score was Pitt 41 WVU 38 in a thrilling regionally televised, triple overtime nail biter played in Morgantown!
Now let’s move on to 1999, a mediocre season at 5-6 but it did have a bright spot:
That was on November 13th when in the last game to be played in Pitt Stadium the final score ended up Pitt 37 Notre Dame 27. The home crowd rushed the field, brought down the goal posts and tore up sections of the artificial turf for souvenirs! Who knew that was going to take place that day?
In 2000, Pitt played our home games at Three Rivers Stadium while waiting for Heinz Field’s construction to be completed. The season highlight besides, Bryant winning the Biletnikoff Award, was blanking Penn State again 12-0. A score that sat and festered in the Nittany Lion hide for the next 16 years! We also won another Backyard Brawl that season 38-28 to finish with a respectable 7-5 season record..
In 2001 we again finished with a record of 7-5, but this year was different from the season that preceded it. After Pitt began with a dismal 1-5 start the gloom & doom felt by the fans was palpable. The program was being left for dead that season. That is until a miraculous mid-season turn around occurred.
We handed another ass whooping, 38-7, to a 12th ranked Hokie team yet again, plus notched a 23-17 win over WVU for another Backyard Brawl victory. We earned bowl eligibility that season with our final game win over University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Our bowl game was against North Carolina State, played down in the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando Florida. The Pitt fans who traveled to be in attendance savored a 34-19 shellacking of the Wolfpack while enjoying some warm Florida weather in the middle of December. WR Antonio Bryant received the MVP for his efforts in that win.
2002 was also a very solid season; Fitzgerald was spreading his wings as already mentioned and once again we beat another highly ranked team during the regular season. Yep, the VT Hokies were our victims once again when they were ranked #3 and we beat them 28-21. But this time we did it in front of a hostile crowd in Blacksburg!
The PAC 10 provided our bowl opponent that year and on the day after Christmas, Larry Fitzgerald put on another one of his circus catch displays in helping to present the Pitt Panther faithful a late Christmas gift with a 38-13 victory over the Oregon State Beavers at the Insight Bowl in Phoenix Arizona thus ending our year with a 9-4 season record.
2003 was the last year for Fitz at Pitt and he did not disappoint. Winning multiple awards while helping the Panthers achieve a rather pedestrian 8-5 season that lacked any notable wins with the exception of one. You guessed it, VT.
VT was ranked #5 prior to us beating them yet again, this time by a score of 31 to 28 in a sold out Heinz Field on a day that ESPN Gameday decided to grace Pittsburgh with their presence. Hokies fans were learning how to hate Pitt even before we showed up in the ACC. It was a very good day to be a Panther Fan right then!
2004 came around and we another winning campaign. This time with back-to-back wins against the only two ranked teams on our regular season schedule. The first one was on Nov. 13th in a game played in South Bend that resulted in a victory over the #24 Notre Dame Fighting Irish by a final score of 41-38.
But it was what occurred after the game that made the headlines. Tyler Palko was a feisty QB for the Panthers; a player with more “want to” in his head than the “has got” that he actually possessed in pure athletic talent in his body. That flowed over into his attitude when he played and inti his rhetoric as well because he gave one of the bluntest interviews after the game on live TV that I think that I’ve ever heard.
Now that singular Irish victory is simply referred to, by those in the know around Pitt fandom, as “the best f____ing Notre Dame win ever!”
Haha! If you don’t get that joke here is what we mean. Tyler’s post-game answer in reply to a TV interviewer’s open ended question of “How are you feeling right now? was… “I’m so f___ing proud of this team right now!!!!” Ahhh, nuff said.
And just in case if you need to know whether Palko played well enough to back up his strong language his stats for the game were 334 passing yards with 5 TD passes sprinkled in for seasoning! Those five TD passes were a record against Notre Dame.
The very next week, over the Thanksgiving holiday, we played another Backyard Brawl. This one I remember very well because I was at the game with my son at Heinz Field. But it seems to be a classic Pitt win that NO ONE remembers or reminisces about.
Pitt wins 16-13 over a ranked #21 in the country Mountaineer team no less. Palko is again the hero after the dust settled. WVU jumped out to an easy 10-0 lead that they carried into the 2nd Quarter when our FG kicker, Josh Cummings, goes to work after Pitt keeps coming up short on offense.
The Panthers can’t get into the end zone yet but Cummings kicks three consecutive FGs over the next two quarters to close the gap to 10-9. Their kicker adds a FG to make it 13-9 going into the fourth quarter. Pitt wins the turnover battle at the very end with a WVU fumble recovery and a final scoring drive late in the game with a short Palko run for a TD. This clinched the game at a final score of 16-13.
Funny, but when I watched Kenny Pickett run for that over the right-side TD against Miami in our final game this last season, my memory went immediately back to that same QB run situation with Palko on that day in 2004. Really funny how memories work isn’t it and probably why I’m recounting the memory with you guys right now!
In any case, after those two wins Pitt gets ranked as high as #19th in the country. So 2004 was a good enough year at 8-4 to get Coach Harris a second Coach of the Year award.
Fast-forward to 2007 and the Stash Era! I like Wanny and I learned to love him on December 1, 2007, after we played the 100th Backyard Brawl. A pitiful 4-7 Pitt team limps into Morgantown to take on the mighty Mountaineers who are looking past the Panthers to play for the National Championship.
As Lee Corso likes to shout, “Not so fast my friend”. The rest is history, and if you don’t know what 13-9 means and you call yourself a Pitt fan, well, then you need to turn in your Pitt Fan Club membership card then.
2008 was an even better year with Coach Wannstedt getting us to 9-4 record. But in reality it was a pretty forgettable season with mostly run of the mill football and a disappointing loss to Oregon State in the Sun Bowl to finish the year. That was the infamous 3-0 loss to the Beavers. Personally, I never want to lose anything to a Beaver. That is except for two highlight games for this 2008 season. First was a quality win over an unbeaten and 10th ranked USF team, victorious over them 26-21.
These were the Shady McCoy days remember and he was showing his stuff in that game for sure. He did it on National TV too. And then he had an even better game at South Bend when ND wasn’t anything special and unranked as well but it was still an interesting game nonetheless.In the longest game in ND history; a five OT loss to the Pitt Panthers 36-33, McCoy had 136 yards and a TD.
2009 was the real Wanny Year though. I went, with my son again, to the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte where we beat UNC 19-17 to culminate our first 10 win season in what felt like forever.
Dion Lewis was a beast in that bowl game & for the entire year, for that matter. Should be considered a great season right? Actually it wasn’t so much, because if you experienced it first hand and you know how the season played out, it was just another gut wrenching Pitt football season of “what could have beens”.
Coming off a great Notre Dame win by beating the Irish 27-22 we sat at 8-1 looking strong in the Big East and ranked nationally. What could go wrong? WVU that’s what. The next week they knocked us off 16-19 putting a damper on the year. But we still were able to play for the Big East Championship the next week when Cincinnati came to town.
Brian Kelly was coaching the Bearcats and they came in for the game highly ranked and undefeated. What a game! A cold snowy day, and what a game day atmosphere, the place was packed!
I’ll spare you the painful details but suffice it to say that we let this one get away also losing at the very end 44-45 in one of the most exciting Pitt games that I have ever attended, in a packed, electric filled atmosphere of Heinz Field. It can be done here!
Yeah, so 10-3 sounds good but a GREAT season was right there for the taking, we had 12-1 right there, we could have been a contender,,, a contender I tell you, but WVU and Cincinnati had to spoil our special season!
Now we go quickly past the Coach hiring fiasco period right into the current day “modern era” of Pitt Football, AKA “after Freddie Kruger”.
A quick tip of the hat to Fraud Graham, who did provide us with one solid bright spot, in his flash in the pan existence at Pitt. That being the drubbing we handed out to USF on a nationally televised ESPN Thursday night game on 10/19/2011. They were ranked #19 too. Beat them like at drum 44-17. Ray Graham churns out 226 yards on 26 carries in that one. It was beautiful.
Well, say hello to Mr. Potato Head. I’m joking because Paul Chryst saved Pitt Football IMO. That big guy served as ballast to stabilize a program that was listing badly at the time. Chryst provided some sparks too during his tenure albeit not all good ones. Who could forget the definitive Pitt loss to YSU to start the party which started another Gloom & Doom time for the program. It got better though, but only after we got embarrassed by Cincinnati again the next week to start 0-2.
Right on cue, what shows up? Another trusty win against a ranked VT team. So we beat the Hokies yet again to shock start our season but still ended up a mediocre 6-7 with a bad loss to Old Miss in our bowl game. If you could have seen the Pitt villagers with the pitchforks and torches drawn after the Cincy game, you would have never bet Chryst makes it through that season.
Now it’s 2013 and the ACC welcomes us into their conference with open arms, kinda. We feel like we have to go sit at the back of the bus to begin with, but at least we’re on the bus.
Chryst did well putting together a decent season with transfer QB Tom Savage who comes in and, lo and behold, we start off 3-1. Then all of a sudden VT figures out how to beat us and slaps us back to reality. All of a sudden a few weeks later we’re mediocre again at 4-4 with a ranked Notre Dame team coming to town for a nationally televised home night But it ends up being another great Pitt win 28-21! Can you say Aaron Donald? He was a beast that night on the defensive line.
We ended the season with another nationally televised win against the MAC Champs Bowling Green University in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl at Ford Field in Detroit. The heroes of the game were QB Chad Voytik, RB James Conner and WR Tyler Boyd.
Voytik came in after Savage was hurt and plays through the 2nd half. Boyd runs back a kick return for a TD and Conner says “Hello World” finishing his play with a dominating 229 yards on 26 carries the Bowl MVP award. It was a great way to finish the season even if our record was only 7-6 in HCPC’s only winning season.
The following seasons should still be fresh in our memories if you’re a Pitt fan. The highlight was DT Aaron Donald just cleaning up by winning the Lombardi Award, the Bronko Nagurski Award, the Chuck Bednarik Award and the Outland Trophy. He was also a consensus All American as well. Then he went off to the NFL to continue to play like a man possessed.
Now the Narduzzi Era is upon us. We’ve seen the trials and tribulations of James Conner both on and off the field. Him going down in the first game of 2015 opened the door for RB Qadree Ollison to grab the ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year Award while Safety Jordan Whitehead won his own by being named the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year as well.
2016 let us share in Conner’s storybook return to the football field. With his strong will, along with great play from the rest of his team they together beat a good Penn State team in Conner’s second game back from beating Cancer. It was a great way for Pitt to renew the PA interstate rivalry after a 16 year hiatus.
Then later in the season, that same Pitt team proves that it was no fluke by going into Death Valley and handing the #2 ranked Clemson Tigers their first loss of the season and on their Senior Day no less!
Fast forward to the Miami game of 2017 played after a heartbreaking loss to VT just the week before. Please tell me who can’t score from the one yard line with four downs to play? Apparently Pitt can’t and didn’t.
So that same true freshman QB who was in for that devastating loss has his first college start and puts away an undefeated Miami team who was toying with visions in their heads of playing for the National Championship the very next week. Who in the hell out there in Pittland saw that one coming???? (Edit Note: Reed did)
So there we have it. The last thirty years of Pitt Football. Are we elite in any of those seasons? Nope. Are we even good? Not really in any consistent way, but one thing we are, is Pitt Panthers and to me that means a football team that IS, when it decides to be, a team that can play with and beat any team in the country on any given gameday; like even right now, like today.
That’s the enigma of Pitt football. If we just really got it together from top to bottom; from the Pitt Board of Trustees all the way down to the equipment managers, we might just get back to having that elite status again. I lived that top of the mountain experience once for a whole decade and I liked it. It was quite an experience and a lot of fun. But then again, so is every season and if you’re a true fan you simply have to learn to appreciate the bright spots when they occur.
The good goes with the bad though. Those frustrations and the heartbreaking losses that we try to forget only act to make those unexpected wins taste twice as sweet to me when they come around… but that’s just me talking.
However, no matter how you personally view your reality, tell me truthfully, after reading the above, tell me that Pitt football isn’t a fun roller coaster ride? So please, please don’t bore with us propositions that Pitt football hasn’t done anything good in the last thirty years and diss on the school which you’re supposed to be a fan of. That is unless you just have to be a contrarian, because frankly that kind of nonsense is, well that’s just bull, pure and simple.