There’s been some very good debate on the “state of the program” here on the POV in the last couple of days. There are those that believe that the football program has reached its ceiling under head coach Pat Narduzzi, and there are those that believe that coach Narduzzi has built the foundation, and the program is poised to move to the next level.
This is a debate that will rage on well into the season, and I encourage that. After all, the Hegelian dialectic is what makes the Pitt POV great. (Although you might argue that the only synthesis we reach is “hey lets all go to Fran’s Pitt POV tailgate”)
With that being said, one of our pessimists (The illustrious Texas Panther) recently said that attending Pitt in the 1990’s was “the worst sports experience in the history of mankind”.
As you might expect, one of our optimists (the intrepid Major Majors) responded in kind, saying “I guess it’s a good thing you didn’t attend Pitt in the late 60’s when we had three consecutive 1-9 seasons…
And that got me to thinking, what was the worst decade in Pitt Football history? The program has certainly had it’s ups and downs, and how do the 90’s rank when compared to the 1960’s for example?
Fortunately there is an outstanding website, called sports-reference.com, that can help us answer these important questions.
For this analysis, I do want to put two ground rules in place.
First , I will go back 70 years. If you graduated Pitt in 1950 at the age of 21, you are 90 now, and I don’t think anyone older than that is following this blog. If you are, I have two things to say: Thank you for reading the Pitt POV, and thank you for your service to this country because your generation pretty much saved the world. Thank you.
Second, the measure of success is winning percentage. That is because over time the NCAA has expanded the season from 9 to 10 to 11 to finally 12 games since 1950.
Okay so now on to the analysis.
First, the 1950’s. The decade started off poorly with Len Casanova’s 1950 squad posting a record of just 1-8. That earns him the title of worst-coach-with-the-best name. John Michelosen pulled things together though, posing four winning seasons out of 5 from 1955 – 1959, along with three top-25 finishes. Go Pitt.
Games Played: 95
Games Won: 46
Winning %: .482
Avg SOS: 8.18
The 1960’s were kind of like the 1950’s in reverse. The first five years weren’t too bad. Michelosen was at the helm and he even delivered a top-5 finish in 1963, but for some reason he couldn’t keep it rolling, and he was replaced by Dave Hart in 1966. Hart’s tenure proved to be an unmitigated disaster, and resulted in the aforementioned three straight 1-9 seasons. Carl DePasqua did manage to move things in the right direction in 1969 with a four win season (which was still pretty bad), but overall if you do the math, Pitt won 10 games over five years, marking the latter half of the 1960’s as Pitt Football’s worst five-year stretch in modern history. Hail to Pitt.
Games Played: 95
Games Won: 34
Winning %: .358
Avg SOS: 7.32
Ahh the 1970’s. Carl DePasqua ushered Pitt into the decade with a whimper, but Jackie Sherril took us out with a bang. 1975 – 1979 were hands-down the best five years the program ever experienced. The team averaged 9.6 wins, notched three top-10 finishes (and one top 15) and brought home the Crown Jewell of Pitt’s football legacy, the 1976 National Championship. This is the level of prominence that all Pitt fans hope to achieve, and it’s the standard to which the pessimists hold the program. And honestly, the pessimists are probably right, the only way to achieve this is for the fans to hold the administration accountable. Of course these days that means dirty money and everything else that comes with it, as well as a huge increase in investment on the “clean money” side, and we all know that that’s not going to happen at Pitt. (So who is the pessimist now?)
Games Played: 113
Games Won: 70
Winning %: .620
Avg SOS: 6.10
The 1980’s were also pretty good. The Sherrill train was rolling for the first two years, and Foge Fazio looked like he could keep the momentum going for his first two years. But two bad seasons by Fazio mid-decade prompted quick action by the administration. Fazio was fired in 1985 and Mike Gottfried was hired, and that was the beginning of the end. Mike Gottfried brought Pitt football back through a combination of decent recruiting and softer scheduling, but apparently he was a tough guy to get along with, and he was fired in 1989, just prior to the Sun Bowl. The reason for Gottfried’s dismissal was “The differences in philosophy and the operation of his program”, according to then-athletic director Ed Bozik. A great article on the firing can be found here.
Games Played: 111
Games Won: 74
Winning %: .667
Avg SOS: 5.07
Per our friend the Texas Panther, the 1990’s were indeed bad. If consistency is your measure then the 1990’s were the worst decade for Pitt football. If relative performance is your measure than perhaps the 1990’s were indeed the Worst Sports Experience in the History of Mankind. Imagine coming to Pitt as a student in 1990. You’d grown up with Pitt being a national power. Sure they’d had some ups and down recently, and the coach had just been let go, but this was Pitt. They had been winning for the last twenty years. This was the house that Dorsett and Marino built, and they were back on track baby! But then…Paul Hackett. He won 12 games in three years. And then…Johnny Majors II. Majors won 12 games in four years. By the time Walt Harris was hired, Pitt’s football program had been completely obliterated.
Games Played: 111
Games Won: 37
Winning %: .333
Avg SOS: 2.31
The 2000’s saved Pitt football, and Harris probably doesn’t get enough credit his contribution. If Pitt had gone another three or four years with three or four wins, Pitt football might have been history. But Harris was the right man for the rebuild. Even though he was a marginal recruiter, he was probably the best offensive mind that Pitt has ever had. He got the most out of his mostly three-star offense, and when he had talent to work with (Larry Fitzgerald, Antonio Bryant, Tyler Palko) he made the most of it. Harris also was pretty good at hiring the right DC (for most of his tenure). The result was five straight winning seasons, an average win total of 7.8 and one shared Big East Championship / BCS bowl appearance. However, a combination of factors (a belief that Harris had ahem taken Pitt as far as it could go and Harris’ agent publicly talking smack about Pitt), led to Harris’ dismissal. It happened right after his Fiesta Bowl loss, which was also an 8 win season and a top 25 finish. That top 25 finish was Pitt’s second in 12 years. The other top 25 finish? Also provided by Harris, just two years before.
Dave Wannstadt took the helm with much fanfare in 2005 and promptly won 5, 6 and 5 games. He was the polar opposite of Harris – terrible at the x’s and o’s but pretty damn good at recruiting. The “jimmy’s and joe’s” strategy paid off in 2009 when Pitt posted their first 10 win season since 1981 (29 years…).
Games Played: 123
Games Won: 74
Winning %: .601
Avg SOS: 1.66
Enter the 2010’s. It all started with so much promise. Pitt was coming off their 10 win season. Wanny was a Pitt man, and Pitt legacy Tino Sunseri had just taken over the helm at quarterback. However, the team floundered to a 7 win season, and that was compounded by the fact that Wannstadt was the polar opposite of Harris in his ability to control his players and recruit guys who wouldn’t,, say…throw a guy through a plate glass window on the South Side. An unfavorable Sports Illustrated article and the reintroduction of “Smilin” Steve Pederson at DA were the final nails in Wanny’s coffin, and he was let go before “the first” BBVA Compass Bowl in 2010.
And that is really when Pitt’s current mediocrity began. Much of it was due to Pitt’s bumbling efforts to secure a stable head coach to replace Wannstadt. Todd Graham lasted one season. Michael Haywood lasted three days. Paul Chryst lasted until his uncle Barry called him home to Wisconsin. Pat Narduzzi finally brought some stability, and he’s entering his fifth year. Narduzzi has posted a very Walt Harris-esque string of win totals, against a strength of schedule that is higher than anyone since Mike Gottfried (and much higher than Wannstadt.). Still, Narduzzi is a polarizing figure, and as I said before, the jury is out on if he can get Pitt to the next level. And so Despite Narduzzi’s recent relative successes (two 8 win seasons and an ACC coastal championship), the 2010’s have been a decade defined my mediocrity. Our highs have not been too high and our lows have not been too low. Pitt football is currently stuck in purgatory, and while for some people that’s not so bad, for some people that’s just plain hell.
Games Played: 117
Games Won: 61
Winning %: .521
Avg SOS: 2.7
Hail to Pitt