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In 1973, a group of young men began their first football practice in the wake of a one-win season the year before. Those who survived the new head coach’s intense drills formed one of the best college football teams—ever. This year marks the 30th anniversary of a stellar season in Pitt football history.


A Season to Remember


Bo Schwerin


  Jim Corbett, a member of the 1976 championship team (photo courtesy Pitt Department of Athletics)
 

The players aren’t even off the buses, but they’re already sweating. The head coach stands at the front of a school bus and looks down the aisle, past the nervous, shiny faces of fresh recruits, through the rear window to the line of buses beyond. There are six buses in all, and within them sits the future of the University of Pittsburgh football program.

It’s the summer of 1973, and newly recruited coach Johnny Majors has brought the returning members of last year’s team (with its dismal record of 1 win-10 losses) to Pitt’s Johnstown, Pa., campus. He also has brought along nearly a hundred new recruits. Majors intends to forge a team that will wipe out nine years of losing records. His plan is simple: He will work this team harder than any team he has ever coached. He has enough recruits to make the competition at each position three, four, even five players deep, and he will subject the players to punishing drills in sweltering heat. The ones who don’t quit will be the toughest, best-conditioned, and most dedicated. With temperatures close to triple digits, the fields of Pitt-Johnstown form the perfect crucible.

The days burn through. Majors works his plan, prowling among wide receivers who dart through crossing patterns and hovering near offensive linemen as they lower their shoulders into blocking pads. He’s everywhere. Shrill whistles and barked orders from assistant coaches tunnel through the heavy summer air. Majors chews on chunks of ice, a habit that cools him during practice—and helps him keep his cool on the sidelines on game day. The players he intently observes will eventually form the nucleus of a team that ESPN.com will, in 2001, rank among the best ever. But now, most are just struggling to put one foot in front of the other.

“I called my dad and said, ‘I think I’m over my head here,’” recalls nose tackle Al Romano (CAS ’77), a new recruit in ’73. “My brother was in the Marines. After I finished with Pitt, I thought the Marines had nothing on us.”

 

Over the course of the camp, Romano, a gangly six-feet, four inches and well under 200 pounds, bounced around from position to position before his predilection for flattening offensive linemen landed him on the defensive line. Other recruits settled into their positions as well and began to show signs of promise: Tight end Jim Corbett (CAS ’77) hauled in pass after pass from quarterback Robert Haygood after solid snaps from center John Pelusi (GSPIA ’79, CAS ’77). Linebackers Arnie Weatherington (CAS ’79) and Cecil Johnson (CAS ’76) rumbled through blockers. Kicker Carson Long (CAS ’80) consistently banged 40-yard field goals through the uprights. Romano launched out of his three-point stance alongside fellow defensive linemates Don Parrish (CAS ’76), Ed Wilamowski (CAS ’77), and Gary Burley (CAS ’76). Then there was tailback Tony Dorsett (CAS ’77), whom Majors’ recruiting coordinator saw as the best high school player in western Pennsylvania.

Majors watched, grinning, as Dorsett juked a defender and blazed upfield. When he first saw Dorsett play in a high school game several months before, Majors had shouted, Yahoo! We have ourselves a tailback! By the end of that summer, shaping players the way a blacksmith shapes iron, Majors had himself a football team.

“After that camp, everybody was on board,” says current Pitt head football coach Dave Wannstedt (EDUC ’76G, ’74), who sweated out the days alongside the recruits as a senior captain and offensive lineman. “Those who were left were committed to the cause.” That cause was to bring pride back to Pitt football.

In the first game of the ’73 season, the Panthers faced the Georgia Bulldogs, who were 19-point favorites to win the game. Threatened by a frenzied Georgia crowd chanting Dawg food! Dawg food!, Pitt fought the Bulldogs to a 7–7 tie—an upset—and Dorsett logged his first of many 100-yard rushing games wearing the Blue and Gold. Three years later, the Panthers would face the Georgia Bulldogs again, with a national championship on the line.

 
Pitt coach Johnny Majors (photo courtesy Pitt Department of Athletics)  
 

In a mere three seasons, Majors built a team with championship aspirations. Pitt began the 1976 season ranked No. 9 in the nation in college football. The freshman recruits of ’73 had developed into star seniors, led by Dorsett, who was considered by many that year to be the best running back in college football. In the first game the Panthers faced a Notre Dame squad only two years removed from a national championship. The grounds crew at South Bend, Ind., let the grass grow long with the hopes of slowing down Dorsett, who had torched the Irish for 303 yards the year before. It hardly mattered, as Dorsett dashed for 61 yards on Pitt’s first play from scrimmage. Game over. Pitt won 31–10, and Dorsett’s “run” began for the annual Heisman Trophy—college football’s most prestigious award and highest
individual honor.

The season’s second game brought what could have been a death blow to Pitt’s nascent title hopes. Against Georgia Tech, senior quarterback Robert Haygood—who, Dorsett once said, had “some of the sweetest moves I ever saw”—was lost for the season with a knee injury. Backup Matt Cavanaugh (CGS ’80, ’79) entered the game. With two touchdown passes, one touchdown run, and a resounding victory, it was clear the Panthers wouldn’t miss a step. Two games later, Cavanaugh exploited his opponent’s fear of Dorsett to pass for 339 yards and a Pitt-record five touchdowns against an overmatched Duke team.

But then disaster struck again when Cavanaugh broke his leg against the Louisville Cardinals. Third-string, non-scholarship quarterback Tom Yewcic (CAS ’78) was pressed into service.

“I doubt there’s ever been a national championship team that lost its top two quarterbacks during the season,” says Majors. But the Panthers refused to buckle. They defeated the Cardinals, and, the following week, trounced the Miami Hurricanes. Yewcic’s able play earned him a scholarship in his first start.

“We had the right group of guys who were motivated to play their best football every Saturday,” says Cavanaugh. “Somebody was going to have to play great football to beat us. If one of our players went down, we knew another guy would come in and pick up the slack.”
In the next game, against Navy, Yewcic made perhaps the most important handoff in Pitt football history. Dorsett only needed 4 yards to break Archie Griffin’s NCAA major-college rushing record of 5,177 yards. Never one to go for short yardage when long would do, Dorsett took the ball from Yewcic and broke loose for 32 yards and a touchdown. The Navy cannon thundered a salute as the Panthers mobbed the new record-holder in the end zone.

“It felt like I should’ve bought a ticket to the game,” says Cavanaugh of the constant entertainment Dorsett’s play provided.

But the hard work, good luck, and big dreams almost ended one Saturday afternoon in Pitt Stadium. The Syracuse Orangemen were on the field, hoping to knock off the undefeated, No. 2-ranked Panthers.
Fourth down and inches. Nose tackle Romano’s eyes are fixed on the football nestled on the Pitt 11-yard line like a huddled rabbit. Syracuse quarterback Bill Hurley has been running wild on the Pitt defense, almost single-handedly keeping the Orangemen in the game. It’s late in the fourth quarter, and Syracuse is down only 7 points. The score is 20–13, and the Orangemen are threatening to score again. A vague sense of panic is beginning to set in among the exhausted Panther defense.

Syracuse lines up for the play that could upend Pitt’s so-far magical season.

Now weighing in at 254 pounds, the mustachioed Romano—an Omar Sharif double, a Doctor Zhivago in shoulder pads—has grown into an All-America talent, a leader on a defense that is the backbone of a Pitt team with national championship ambitions. But right now, he knows that if the Orangemen move the nose of the football just a few blades of grass forward, a golden season could be quickly tarnished.

On the sidelines, Coach Majors chews ice with a vengeance. Wannstedt, now a graduate assistant with the team, paces behind him. On the field, Pitt offensive lineman Joe Stone jogs up alongside Romano to bolster the defensive line. The pair anxiously watches the Syracuse players. On the previous down with one yard to go, the Orangemen had tried running the ball through the left side of the Pitt defensive line, but Romano and linebacker Weatherington had stuffed the runner for virtually no gain. Listening to the Syracuse quarterback’s chatter, Romano and Stone reach a quick realization: They’re running the same play. Before the play begins, Romano grabs Weatherington and drags him up behind the line. He frantically shouts and gestures, pulling in players to fill in any gap a runner could slip through.

“I’m going low!” Romano yells to Stone. “I’m going to take their shins out!”

But when the ball is snapped, he goes high. Two Syracuse linemen dive at him, trying to take his shins out, but Romano launches over their backs. He hits the Orangemen ball carrier waist high. Weatherington, Stone, and the other defenders pile on.

No gain. Pitt takes possession of the ball. Minutes later, victory is secured, 23–13.

The Syracuse game was as close as the Panthers came to losing that season. The next week, they captured the No. 1 ranking, annihilating Army with Cavanaugh returning to lead the offense. Then it was on to establishing regional dominance, sending West Virginia packing before rounding off an 11–0 regular season with a whipping of Penn State, Pitt’s first victory over the Nittany Lions since 1965.

A few days later, Dorsett ran away with the Heisman Trophy by one of the largest margins in the award’s history. His Pitt career totals: 44 games; 18 NCAA records tied or broken; and 6,082 rushing yards gained—at the time the most by any player at any level in the history of college football.

By comparison, the result of the season-ending Sugar Bowl championship seemed almost anti-climactic—almost. January 1, 1977. New Year’s Day. In the futuristic Louisiana Superdome, the Panthers lined up once again opposite the Georgia Bulldogs—the team against which Pitt began its football renaissance. Georgia boasted a fearsome defense nicknamed the “Junkyard Dogs,” but it was Pitt’s defense that snagged four interceptions in the first half alone, and Dorsett and Sugar Bowl MVP Cavanaugh sent the dogs running, tails between their legs. The Panthers wouldn’t be “Dawg Food” this time, either.

“We were pumped,” says Romano. “Everyone was on the same level for that game. We were at about as high a level as you could get.”

The dominating 27–3 victory was the perfect cap to the perfect season. The national championship belonged to the University of Pittsburgh. Perhaps it had been on its way since the scorching summer of 1973, when a coach pushed his players harder than he ever had—and they answered the challenge.

Tony Dorsett: Heisman Hero

Maybe it was the 10 visits Pitt Head Coach Johnny Majors made
to the player’s Aliquippa, Pa., home. Maybe it was the three visits each week Assistant Coach Jackie Sherrill made for six straight months. Maybe, even, it was the homemade rhubarb pie Sherrill’s mother hand-delivered to make sure the player didn’t go hungry during recruiting visits. Ultimately, the attention that Pitt paid to high school star tailback Tony Dorsett paid off: He turned down 67 other schools to play for the Panthers.

Dorsett ran for 101 yards in his first Pitt game and never looked back. By the end of his freshman season he was an All-American and labeled “the greatest freshman running back in college history.”

“He could take over the game with one handoff,” says Matt Cavanaugh, the ’76 quarterback and now the Panthers’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. “You never knew when it was going to happen. Every time he touched the ball, everyone was waiting for a big play to happen.”

As the unfailing engine of Pitt’s 1976 national championship team, Dorsett ended his college career with more rushing yards (6,082), more points (356), and more rushes (1,074) than any other player in the history of the game, among other records broken or tied. His 1976 Heisman Trophy remains the only one awarded to a Pitt player.

Dorsett went on to make his mark at the professional level as well, crafting a Hall of Fame career and leading the Dallas Cowboys to a 1978 Super Bowl victory in his first season as a pro. Though he succeeded at every level, Pitt fans will always remember him, first, as key to the Panthers 1976 football triumph.

 

 

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