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December 1, 2012

The Long Goodbye

Filed under: Big East,Coaches,Conference,Football,Players — Reed @ 10:29 am

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.

Let me add…. 30 years ago…
Didn’t have as many bowl games they do today.
These days are very easy to get to a bowl game..
I think 35 bowl games in 2013… very easy to make a bowl.
In 1980 perse, there were 15 bowl games. See link
link to

Comment by Joe D 12.01.12 @ 12:17 pm

Nice succint bio of Pitt football. My bothers were at Pitt during the lean times but I was lucky enough to be there for the glory years. My father worked the gates at old Pitt stadium and since my mother had too much of me during the week, I spent many Saturdays in the stands waiting for my father to be relieved of his duties so he could join me for the second half. Its made a lasting impression on me and it drives my expectations to this day. I’ll soon likely have a daughter follow in my footsteps. Unless she goes to Penn State.

Comment by PittStadiumShuffle 12.01.12 @ 12:18 pm

Funny that “brothers” came out “bothers”. Might be something to that.

Comment by PittStadiumShuffle 12.01.12 @ 12:25 pm

Both of my kids went to PSU. It happens.

Comment by RayHpgh 12.01.12 @ 12:33 pm

ACC stands for Already Cashed the Check! Seee ya Big East, it’s been an experience.

Comment by Dr. Tom 12.01.12 @ 12:44 pm

“Big Game ” saturday,whoes ready????

Comment by alcofan 12.01.12 @ 12:54 pm

Reed, you do a great job. My history goes back only to 1961 when I watched PITT beat Miami in the Orange Bowl (It was a regular season home game for Miami)with a statue of Liberty play; Paul Martha running for a touchdown in the rain. I transfered to PITT the next year, and then a year later enjoyed the “uninvited” 1963 team. The only loss was to Navy. Then nothing for ten years! We were not that big of an undergraduate school back then. It seemed like we knew everybody on campus.

Maybe we aren’t really a football school either. My sons both went to Syracuse. I am always amazed Syracuse isn’t a bigger rival. We have similar pasts. Syracuse doesn’t think of Pitt as a big rival. Maybe because when we lost our private school identity. One son also went on to Rutgers Law, again not a rival there.

I think we need Penn State back. So much for my rambling!

Comment by Old Pitt Grad 12.01.12 @ 1:05 pm

I find it hard to see the finality until the Big East basketball schedule and tournament are over. I realize this post is regarding football, but the impact won’t set in for me until the Big East is “all done” for Pitt.

Comment by Panther Pride 12.01.12 @ 1:06 pm

Went to the bank this morning. As the twenty-something guy working teller started to hand over my money, he pauses and looking at my cap asks “Did you go to Pitt?”

“Why, yes I did,” I responded.

To which I followed up with the natural next question “Did you go to Pitt?”

A smile crossed his face and he says, “No, I’m a Penn Stater.”

To which I immediately responded “Just make sure you’re giving me back the right amount!”

And yes, he was a YUPPIE!

Comment by PittofDreams 12.01.12 @ 1:25 pm

Panther Pride – I overlooked the fact that we are in the BE until the end of ALL the sports seasons. My interest is really on PITT football so I get tunnel vision.

Comment by Reed 12.01.12 @ 1:54 pm

Right on the amount of bowl games be watered down, no doubt about that.

However, even with 35 bowls or so and 70 teams going to a bowl, you certainly don’t want to be one of the 60 teams that don’t go to a bowl if given a choice.

Choice is on the line tonight, hope the coaches have them fired up!!!

Comment by Dan 12.01.12 @ 2:53 pm

I’m from Jersey. Pitt gave me enough of an academic scholarship that it was cheaper than going to Rutgers, so I went. College football might as well have not existed prior to 2006 in NJ. I have had no long term connection to PA, Pittsburgh, Pitt or even college football. Big East in my house meant basketball because my old man went to St. John’s.

My entire college football/Pitt fan experience really has only spanned a little over a decade. The greatest win from my time as a Pitt fan came from a team with a losing record. All I have seen is this program scrape the door of national relevancy and then go on to have some of the most disappointing losses of my time as a sports fan, many of which haven’t even occurred on the field.

I don’t remember any glory like older alumni or Pittsburgh locals do. I’m a lifelong Jets fan, which means I am hardened and cynical, but being a Pitt fan has much worse. The amount of potential this program has is fucking tremendous. That’s why it’s so difficult to watch.

The ACC is a great platform to realize that potential. Pitt can be better than FSU, Clemson, VT and Miami (As well as PSU). Playing national powerhouses like Miami and VT in the old Big East was great, the ACC will be better. I just hope Swofford can work his magic and get a grant of rights done before the top teams hit the exits. It would be so painful to have the rug pulled out from under us right when things seem to be headed in the right direction.

Comment by Chris 12.01.12 @ 2:53 pm

The only time I ever went to the old Pitt Stadium was when my dad took me to see Pitt play Navy when Roger Staubach played QB. We of course lost…

I did go to the Pitt – PSU game in 1976 at Three Rivers though…I still have the ticket stub. I got that ticket free from my boss…it was the first time Pitt beat Paterno.

Comment by Jackagain 12.01.12 @ 3:02 pm

Of course there’s more to the BE than football…I remember more the hoops years, and rooting for the BE teams in the NCAA Tournament. Now I have to root for (gulp) the ACC…

I’ll never forget when Pitt finally won the BE Tournament at Madison Square Garden for the first time….I was kinda in shock….Pitt had been so snakebit through the years I thought they’d find a way to lose.

Anyway, here’s a good article about that win against PSU in 1976.

link to

Comment by Jackagain 12.01.12 @ 3:33 pm

Thanks for taking the time to write, nice recap.

I’ll also point out that although the W-L record has been modest over the past 5-10-20-30 years, we have seen some fantastic athletes wear a Pitt uniform. I think that is a factor that keeps the fan base engaged and excited. HTP

Comment by pittbluegold 12.01.12 @ 3:37 pm

pittbluegold – you are correct and that even makes being a PITT fan more frustrating. We continually watched BE teams with lesser talent finish up higher than us in conference play.

Comment by Reed 12.01.12 @ 3:52 pm

@Chris, great post. Ya, it’s tough, but we gotta hang in there, what else can you do. When your heart belongs to a team, you just can’t say “ok, I’ll cheer for so and so instead”, doesn’t work that way.

Hopefully better days ahead.

You are correct about the ACC. Not just you, most of us have spoken about the ACC lately with a little trepadation.

You don’t want to cry the sky is falling, but we’ve all kept up on the expansion crap for several years now, and know all the rumors.

Hopefully Swofford has the presidents all on board and committed. It would be very painful to have the rug pulled out after all we’ve been through.

HTP!!! Let’s get a win!!

Comment by Dan 12.01.12 @ 4:15 pm

“i”!!! I know I didn’t have to post, anil about my own spelling!! Ok, now I feel better!!! LOL

Comment by Dan 12.01.12 @ 4:16 pm

Great piece Reed. Being a history person anyway, I just love PITT’s history in football. For me it’s the ONLY thing that gives me hope that someday we shall reclaim our place among the nations elite.

There are very few programs with more history than PITT no doubt, it’s just that most of it is from the first third of the 20th century. Ah, if we only had HG Well’s Time Machine, to have watched Pop Warner teams around 100 years ago win several National Championships. The team known as the Fighting Dentists go undefeated in 1917 with player then,End Jock Sutherland and can you imagine that all the starting positions were manned by dental students. Incredible.
The first live radio football game broadcast in America was PITT vs Wvu in 1921. Amazing

Jock would come back to PITT in 1924 and become Head Coach and would then lead Pitt to incredible success in the late 20’s and thruout the 1930’s.
Pitt played in the Rose Bowl in 1927, 1929, 1932,
1936 and were invited to the 1937 Rose Bowl game, but we became the first university to decline a Rose Bowl invitation. Yes only at Pitt. As there was some friction between Sutherland and Pitt’s administration of Chancellor Bowman and AD Hagan which would eventually lead to these two start a program to de- emphasize the football program.

And even though, as Reed pointed out, PITT was THE National Power of the late 1920’s and 1930’s, this meddling by Bowman & Hagan was the beginning of the end of PITT’s national prominence in college football. And just like after the 1938 season Sutherland resigned as HC after winning 9 National Championships. PITT football would never be the same for almost 40 years. And would never reach those lofty heights of the Pop Warner and then Jock Sutherland Era’s.

Pitt had placed their athletic programs in 1939 under the supervision of the BIG 10 Conference as some sort of probationary program before being accepted as a member to replace the University of Chicago. And I am betting this de-emphasis of football lead by Bowman & Hagan was at the behest of the Big 10 conference. As yes they would take PITT but only after it’s dominant football program was no longer as dominant(PITT was so dominant in this period, Notre Dame refused to schedule us). Pitt’s membership into the Big 10 was blocked by Ohio State (go figure), which led to them eventually taking Mich State in 1949 instead of us. By that time our football program had been wrecked and only achieved an occasional good season here and there but no sustained success.
As in the 1955 Sugar Bowl season and then the 1963 9-1 # 3 ranked team, the famous No Bowl Team

So now are in the 21rst century, ending a mostly dismal run thru the BigEast conf after 20 years. I for one will be quite happy to leave this conference in the dust.

We can still be that team that dominates, given the right leadership, as history has proven.

It’s all about leadership !

Hail to Pitt !
Veritas et Virtus

Comment by Emel 12.01.12 @ 4:47 pm

Great article, Reed. My Dad was born in 1909 so he was around for all our national championships. He was at Pitt during the Sutherland era and worked games at the stadium after graduation. He was with us at the Sugar Bowl when we walked on the Dawgs to win our last national championship.
I grew up during the Independent era so conferences don’t mean that much to me. My freshman year we were 9-1 only losing to Staubach and Navy. Saw every home game of the Majors-Sherrill era.
The end of both our great eras was caused by the administration’s arrogance and cheapness. We have suffered under the “Curse of Serafino” since 1982.
We will be back on top where we belong. I just hope we don’t have to wait too long.

Comment by Houston Panther 12.01.12 @ 5:45 pm

Thanks Reed. I was the second in my family to go to Pitt after my Uncle. After me, my brother and little sis followed. My father was a half Nitter. He dropped out and got drafted and was sent to Vietnam. Always loved Pitt. Was devastated when Notre Dame beat Pitt in 1977 I believe. I remember that game even being only 7 at the time. Devastated again when Penn State beat us in 81 I believe when Pitt was number 1. No way I was ever going to Penn State. Not sure why I rooted for Pitt over Penn State. I guess Pitt was always in my blood.

Comment by TX Panther 12.01.12 @ 5:59 pm

Given the coaching openings on the NCAA this year let’s hope no school courts coach Christ. HTP!

Comment by MariettaMike 12.01.12 @ 6:07 pm

Don’t worry… Chyrst is NOT on anyone’s short or long list… lol

Disappointed Mark Stoops went to Kentucky… what was he thinking? Pitt could have had him for the same amount they are paying Chryst. I hear Kentucky in the 1.5-2.0million range… joker philips was 1.7million. Stoops, Stoops, Stoops.

Comment by Joe D 12.01.12 @ 6:20 pm

Beautifully written piece!
Time for us to move on. Just wish it had happened earlier when my folks were alive and living in Chapel Hill.
They, Pitt season ticket holders also, would have loved it.

Comment by SFPitt 12.02.12 @ 6:27 am

Looking forward to the ACC. Now our AD needs to start working on the non conference schedule. Long term deals w/
WVU and PSU.

Also understand the issues with scheduling FB however
why aren’t we playing WVU and PSU in hoops?

Comment by JR 12.02.12 @ 7:18 am

I am not a Pitt student or alumnus, but I adopted them as my college team when I was a kid growing up in Northeast Ohio. OSU meant nothing to me and neither did the rest of the Big 2 Little 8. OSU-UM was boring. Pitt-PSU was exciting.

My dad grew up in Washington, PA (Little Worshington). He went to see the games at Pitt Stadium when Mike Ditka played.

I remember that magical season of 1976 – Bob Haygood went down for the season with a knee injury, then Matt Cavanaugh was knocked out with an injury. Tom Yewcic played quarterback. Pitt beat Notre Dame again, avenged a 1975 defeat to the Hoopies, beat PSU the night after Thanksgiving and whipped Georgia and the Sugar Bowl. Pitt was a worthy #1.

The 1980 season featured the best Pitt team ever, but the stinking bowl setup with the conference tie ins finished Pitt. they went to the Gator Bowl. The Sugar Bowl wanted Notre Dame, who found a way to lose to the worst undefeated team of all time, the Georgia Bulldogs with Buck Belue at quarterback.

My first game at Pitt Stadium was a Saturday night in September 1988. Pitt destroyed Ohio State. What a night!

I was there for the 1994 homecoming game against the Hoopies. We were in the Hoopies section because my friend’s girlfriend was from Paden City. It was all we could do not to bust out laughing when the PA announcer told everyone about the tractor with West Virginia license plate EIEIO had its lights on.

I saw the last Pitt game at Three Rivers in 2000. Pitt could have scored 60 points that day.

Good bye to the Big East in Football. Underachievement and turmoil are the two “hallmarks” of Pitt’s BE football tenure.

Comment by Penguins Fan 12.02.12 @ 11:22 am

@Penguis fan
Great story line and timeline. My is a near parallel but Rae earlier.
I was thinking…Pitt was independent as were most eastern schools. anyone recall the Lambert trophy?
What would happen today if PSU, Miami, Pitt, ND, WVU, Syracuse, RU, VT, UCONN and say GT were to split themselves and form a conference? It would be a damn fine conference.
Or, if all of these schools went the independent route again?
As I recall, GT did not join the ACC until the mid seventies.
I’ll check. I’ll also check the ’75 game against Pedophilia State…I think it was turkey night itself.

Comment by SFPitt 12.02.12 @ 4:22 pm

Great recap on history Reed, H2P

Comment by JtownGoldenPanther 12.02.12 @ 5:59 pm

Reed Said:
Panther Pride – I overlooked the fact that we are in the BE until the end of ALL the sports seasons. My interest is really on PITT football so I get tunnel vision.

Don’t get me wrong Reed. I wasn’t be critical of your blog post (which is very good BTW). I’m just saying that for me personally, I won’t see it being over until it’s completely over. I’m a football season ticket holder and it was kinda weird realizing that the BE football part is over. I was ecstatic to be their at Heinz, freezing my arse off a couple weeks ago as they beat Butgers. It’s been a roller coaster season as well as a roller coaster time in the Big East over the years.

Comment by Panther Pride 12.03.12 @ 1:02 pm

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