Here it comes. At approximately 10:30 pm EST we PITT fans will experience the long awaited end of PITT’s membership in the Big East Conference. Has it been good for us and vice versa? Will we miss it? That depends on how you look at things in a historical perspective.
Undoubtedly PITT’s greatest successes on the football field have happened when the program had no conference affiliation at all. Eight of our nine national championships took place prior to 1939 when there were no formal football conferences as we know them today. Those championship years, from 1915 (Pop Warner as head coach) to 1939 (Jock Sutherland), are the bedrock of PITT’s football tradition. Hard enough to believe now but PITT was the standard of football excellence in the first third of the 20th century.
My father and mother, who were born in 1917 and 1919 respectively, were students at PITT at the end of that championship era. While I was growing up and attending PITT games I heard countless stories about Sutherland, All-Americans wide receiver Bill Daddio and the great Marshall Goldberg running the ball for scores. Great for them – they had a reason to brag about PITT football and they did.
It was a golden age for PITT but, as does tend to happen with us, it was also a precursor of hard times for the program. From 1939 until 1976 PITT had exactly one season with over eight wins. The hard truth is that most of those years were sub-.500 seasons and from 1966 until 1968 we racked up three 1-9 seasons in a row, and yes, we attended every home game regardless.
Then all of a sudden PITT was thrust back into winning seasons and a national championship year. Certainly the 1970s and early 1980s built up on that traditional bedrock to return the program back to national rankings. We all know about how Johnny Majors, Matt Cavanaugh and Tony Dorsett gave us a championship in 1976. It was a fantastic year and we looked to have a bright football future ahead of us.
That did come to pass for at least a little while. After Johnny Majors went back to his alma mater as the head coach of the University of Tennessee prior to the 1977 season we hired a guy who had been on Major’s staff at PITT and who was currently coaching Washington State; Jackie Sherrill. While Majors had to build a program almost from scratch as PITT had gone 1-10 the year before he arrived, Jackie Sherrill inherited a fantastic roster of football players. Cavanaugh, Elliott Walker, Tom Brzoza, Randy Holloway, Bob Jury and Gordon Jones were a great nucleus to begin his head coaching time at PITT.
With that material to work with Sherrill kept up the winning ways by going 50-9-1 during his tenure at PITT. What was even more impressive was that in his last three years he coached the team to an 33-3 record culminating in that almost perfect win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Of course Dan Marino had some say in the matter also.
So, great! PITT has a strong program and winning record coming off Sherrill’s time as head coach. When he left to become Chief Bull Ball Chopper at Texas A&M Sherrill left the next head coach with such players as Julius Dawkins, Sal Sunseri, Bill Maas, Jimbo Covert and Dan Marino. Not bad gifts to Serafino “Foge” Fazio huh? However, that was also the beginning of the end of that second phase of PITT’s being in college football’s rarefied air. From 1975 until 1983 we went to nine straight major bowls; in the 29 years after 1983 we have been in a total of 11 bowls – some of which were so minor they are unmemorable.
From 1890 until 1990, a solid 100 years, PITT played football as an independent program. That was back in the days when most major colleges were independent and could schedule whomever they wanted to play. For PITT our yearly goal, just as it was for PSU, WVU, Army, Navy, Syracuse, etc., was to win the Lambert Trophy given to the best team in the Northeast.
The Lambert Trophy was a very big deal back in the day and whoever won it had bragging rights over other Northeastern teams for the next season. PITT won it six times ending in 1980. Honestly, I think we got the screw job with this in 1981 when PSU won it on the strength of having beaten us in the regular season.
That long stretch of independence in football ended for us during the 1991 season when the Big East conference incorporated the University of Miami into the fold and started playing football conference matches. Up to that point PITT had been a Big East basketball member only.
But enough is enough. PITT wallowed its way through its Big East years at a steady and unimpressive pace over all. In the 21 years since joining that conference PITT has had exactly three seasons with nine or more wins. We averaged seven wins per year which is over .500 ball but not very satisfying. Our high water marks were being a co-Big East champion in 2004, resulting in a BCS game against Utah and another co-championship title in 2009 when we missed out on the BCS tie-breaker.
Now the Big East is just a shell of its former self and ironically our pending move to the Atlantic Coast Conference reunites us with most of our past primary Big East opponents. Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College left the Big East back in 2004 and 2005 taking with them almost all the prestige the conference had up to that point. It sort of goes full circle when you think about it.
Now, on the day of our last Big East football game, I think it’s safe to assume that PITT and our fans are happy with the move to the ACC being made. It is a new era of PITT football with new Head Coach Paul Chryst and a chance to begin new rivalries within the ACC. We are moving to a stronger and more competitive conference that puts more money in the athletic coffers.
While we don’t have a chance at a BE championship on the line tonight it sure would be nice to wave goodbye on a winning note. Beat USF, get to a bowl game and say goodbye to the Big East. That works for me.