Pitt Magazine Homepage Table of Contents
FEATURE

CAN PITT PLAY FOOTBALL?
AN INSIDER'S GUIDE TO THE PANTHERS, PAST AND FUTURE











REMEMBRANCE
OF THINGS PASSED
WRITTEN BY LARRY ELDRIDGE JR.


The moment was fleeting, but telling nonetheless. It was the evening of December 10, 1992. Snow was dusting the frigid night air in Pittsburgh. Sitting in an Oakland restaurant, Johnny Majors was sharing warmth with some friends from the old days, from the first time.

The following morning Majors would be introduced at a press conference in Pitt Stadium as the Panthers' 32nd head football coach. Nearly 20 years to the day earlier, he had been similarly introduced to the Pittsburgh media as Pitt's 27th head football coach.

Although the atmosphere was laced with irony, the conversation around the table was cheerful and optimistic. Fond memories of Pitt's run to the national championship under Majors in 1976 were revisited.

At one point, Majors grew pensive. Those intense blue eyes stopped twinkling, just for a moment, and flashed instead with familiar passion. The sting from his recent and unexpected dismissal as the head football coach at the University of Tennessee clearly still weighed on him, but the emotion he was feeling most at that moment was gratitude.

Majors was 57 years old. He had had major heart bypass surgery just a few months earlier, and acknowledged this would almost certainly be his final coaching position.

"I feel very fortunate that Pitt is giving me this chance," he said. "But I don't feel there is anything I have to prove to anyone. That's not why I'm coming back to take this job. To be honest, right now I wouldn't have taken a coaching job at any other school.

"Pitt is special to me. There are a lot of great people here. And I'm not going to let them down. We'll turn this thing around. We can be great again.

"If this is going to be my last roundup," he said, the eyes twinkling once again, "we'll make it one to remember."

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

Nearly three years ago, amidst drum rolls, snappy slogans, and other fits of fanfare, Johnny Majors was beckoned to the University of Pittsburgh once again to lead its football program out of the wilderness.

The slogan that greeted both the media and Majors at the press conference to announce his return was "Back to the Future." It was perfect. Pitt was reaching back to the architect of one of its most glorious eras of success to help it construct a better future.

Certainly Pitt football needed to get back to something. Back to anything. The program that had raced toward greatness in the late '70s and early '80's had four flat tires and a burned-out engine, and was in need of major bodywork.

Majors' impact when he first arrived on the Pitt campus in 1973 was like Professor Harold Hill's effect on the tiny Iowa town of River City in The Music Man minus the flimflam. There was no bamboozle in Johnny Majors. Instead he was and is an exciting person who stirred things up, gave people a reason to dream, and then four years later made the dream come true by leading Pitt to a perfect 12-0 season and the school's ninth national championship.

Things weren't all quite the same when he returned in 1993, of course. Seventeen years had passed since Majors had heeded the clarion call to return as head coach at Tennessee, where he was still revered for his heroics as an All-American tailback for the Vols in the mid-1950's. Some hard rain had fallen during some of those 17 years, both on Majors and on Pitt.

"It hurt to leave Pitt," Majors says. "I remember exactly how it felt. Except for Tennessee, I don't think there was another program in the country I would have left Pitt for."

Majors admits that during his early years at Tennessee, he was envious of the phenomenal success being enjoyed by the Pitt football program he had rebuilt. From 1977-81, Tennessee was barely keeping its head above water. Pitt, meanwhile, under former Majors lieutenant Jackie Sherrill, was on top of the football world. The Panthers went 50-9-1 in that same period, including a 33-3 run in one memorable string from 1979-81. They went to five straight bowl games and won four of them. As he had done at Pitt (and at lowa State before that), Majors eventually turned Tennessee into a Southeastern Conference force, leading the Vols to 11 bowl games in 12 years.

In August 1992, Majors underwent bypass heart surgery. He recovered quickly and reappeared on the sidelines just 26 days later, only to find his power had been usurped. In an unexpected and bizarre turn of events, Majors' contract as Vols' head coach was bought out.

The strange soap opera in Knoxville was particularly fortuitous for Pitt. There was perhaps no other coach in the country who could have restored such instant credibility to a program so desperate for it.

But after the initial giddiness surrounding Majors' return had subsided, he delivered some sobering news: This latest rebuilding project was going to take a while, and it was not going to be easy.

Majors, sometimes a great kidder, wasn't kidding. And, as usual, he was right.

COACH DU JOUR

The almost surreal atmosphere surrounding Majors' return to Pitt in 1993 could not mask one harsh reality: The football program was in trouble. Major's presence alone, and the immediate transfusion of his enthusiasm and optimism, stopped the hemorrhaging. But Majors later admitted even he was shocked by just how sick the patient was.

"The program was in worse shape than the first time I was here," he said. "And it was pretty bad then." (For those with hazy recall, Majors' first stint came on the heels of a 1-10 season in 1972, and, at that point, Pitt hadn't had a winning season in 10 years. )

Where had it all gone wrong? How could a program that had soared to such dizzying heights lose so much ballast so quickly?

In the 17-year period from 1973-1989, Pitt averaged eight wins a season while compiling a 135-57-7 record. The Panthers went to 12 bowl games, winning seven. They won a national championship. They had a Heisman Trophy winner (Tony Dorsett), a Lombardi Award winner (Hugh Green), an Outland Trophy winner (Mark May), and the program produced a pipeline of talent to the National Football League unmatched by any school in the country.

Dan Marino, Russ Grimm, Jim Covert, Rickey Jackson, Bill Fralic, Bill Maas, Carlton Williamson, Randy McMillan, Jim Sweeney, Tim Lewis, and Chris Doleman were among the stellar players from the Sherrill era who went on to achieve stardom in the NFL. All five players on Pitt's defensive line in 1980--Green, Jackson, Jerry Boyarsky, Bill Neill, and Greg Meisner--became starters for the NFL in their rookie seasons. Nineteen from that team signed NFL contracts.

Even when the annual march to major bowl games stopped during the mid-'80s, there was still an impressive array of marquee talent on hand. Craig (Ironhead) Heyward, Mark Stepnoski, Burt Grossman Marc Spindler, Ricardo McDonald, Sean Gilbert, Steve Israel, Louis Riddick, Jeff Christy, Tony Siragusa, Keith Hamilton, Alex Van Pelt, Jerry Olsavsky--all of whom played after the l986 season--were among the 24 former Panthers on NFL rosters last year. This past spring, All-American tackle Reuben Brown became the 16th first-round draft pick since 1981 (and the seventh since 1985).

But in the early 1990s, things turned sour on the field. Pitt found itself losing games to Temple...Rutgers...Maryland...East Carolina...Louisville--the kinds of teams the Panthers used to beat just by showing up. Games against Top 20 teams changed from showdowns to put-downs.

Recruiting was in decline, attendance at home games was sagging, and the alumni were restless--an unlucky trifecta. Something had to give, and as the team continued to slide closer to the abyss, that something was head coach Paul Hackett.

Much of the finger pointing about Pitt's collapse has been aimed at Hackett, whose three years as head coach ended in a flood of defeats in the 3-9 campaign in 1992. But fissures had been forming in the foundation erected by Majors and Sherrill for nearly a decade.

When Sherrill departed Pitt in l981 for more power and money at Texas A&M, popular Foge Fazio, Sherrill's defensive coordinator and a terrific recruiter, took over.

But the program slipped a few notches under Fazio, and although he had an overall record of 25-18-3 and went to two bowl games in his first two years (losing both), he was fired following the 1985 season.

Kansas head coach Mike Gottfried was chosen to replace Fazio, and, like his predecessor, he achieved some success on the field. Gottfried recruited well. His teams beat Penn State twice, Notre Dame twice, and were 2-1-1 against West Virginia. The Panthers earned a pair of bowl invitations in four years under Gottfried.

Gottfried missed the second one, however. Despite leading Pitt to an 8-3-1 record in 1989, he was fired for feuding with the University's academic community and committing other public relations gaffes 15 days before Pitt faced Texas A&M in the 1989 Hancock Bowl.

Gottfried's successor Paul Hackett, an offensive guru whom Gottfried had imported from the Dallas Cowboys a year earlier, lasted just three years. Like Gottfried before him, he didn't make it through the last game of his final season. The trap door opened just days after a mortifying 57-13 loss at Penn State.

Fazio, Gottfried, and Hackett were each fired for different reasons, but the cumulative effect of the coaching merry-go-round was disastrous, underscoring one of the grimmer realities in Pitt football's history. The single most important requirement for sustained success in college football, stability at the head coaching position, continued to be elusive.

Since Jock Sutherland's glorious 15-year tenure from 1924-38, Pitt has had 16 different head coaches. The average length of service for Pitt head coaches since Sutherland: 4.2 years.

Unsteadiness at the top spot seeped into every corner of the program. Repeated wholesale changes in philosophy, method, and style--not to mention assistant coaches--caused frequent confusion, turmoil, and some wrong turns. During one 10-year period beginning in 1985, Pitt had a different tight ends coach every season. That was hardly helpful when it came time to recruit tight ends.

But imagine for a moment a parallel universe, in which Johnny Majors had never left Pitt to return to Tennessee. In that universe, it's pretty easy to imagine Pitt remaining a Top 10 team, carving out a modern dynasty, perhaps winning three or four more national championships.

Put it this way: Is there any reason to think that couldn't have happened?

POP, JOCK, & COMPANY

Through lean periods and times of trouble, the soul of Pitt football has remained intact. And there is no getting around one thing: Pitt football has a tradition, a transcendence, that has withstood all of the many tests it has faced--including the test of time.

Beginning in the early 1900s under the school's first great coach, World War I hero Colonel Joe Thompson, and continuing throughout the 1920s and '30s under Pop Warner and Jock Sutherland, the two coaching legends who turned Pitt into a football colossus, the program developed a distinctive personality.

Legions of great players throughout the decades have helped form a continuum of achievement enabling Pitt's football reputation to reach across generations of fans and alumni. Early football idols such as Tex Richards, Bob Peck, George McLaren, Tommy Davies, Charles Hartwig, and Gibby Welch set the stage for the later heroics of Marshall Goldberg and the Dream Backfield, Edgar "Special Delivery" Jones, Joe Walton, Joe Schmidt, Mike Ditka, and Paul Martha. Then came the gold rush of modern-day stars: Tony Dorsett, Matt Cavanaugh, Hugh Green, Dan Marino, Rickey Jackson, Jim Covert, Russ Grimm, Bill Fralic, et al.

Statistics don't always lie, and a few are revealing about Pitt's place in college football's overall landscape:

  • Pitt has produced 82 first-team All-Americans, and also ranks sixth among Division 1-A schools with 39 consensus All-Americans.
  • Only 14 schools have more victories than Pitt's 569.
  • Seventeen men associated with Pitt football--players and coaches alike--have been elected to the College Football Hall of Fame--and more are on the way.
  • There have been approximately 200 former Panthers who have played in the National Football League, while 11 men have coached in the league--including Ditka, of course, and two current head coaches: Kansas City's Marty Schottenheimer and Chicago's Dave Wannstedt.

There are some other reasons Pitt has always been one of the more fascinating programs in the country

"When Pitt has been successful, they weren't just good, they had periods of extended greatness," offers ESPN commentator Beano Cook (Arts and Sciences '54).

"Another thing is that Pitt has always played a national schedule. They played UCLA. They played Washington. They played USC. Notre Dame. They played Nebraska, Oklahoma, and all the teams in the Big 10."

Pitt's greatest players for the most part also have been valuable ambassadors for the program, through thick and thin. Mike Ditka probably represents the essence of Pitt football as well as anyone.

"Pitt means everything to me," he wrote in the introduction to the recently published book, Greatest Moments in Pitt Football History. "I owe my life to the experiences I had playing football at Pitt."

NOW WHAT?

It is now Year Three in the second Johnny Majors era. "Back to the Future" has already faded into memory. For anxious supporters, impatient fans, and other restless followers of Pitt football, the future is now. So here it is, the $64,000 question: Is Pitt football ready for a breakthrough?

Though the complexion of each of the past two seasons has been vastly different, the bottom line has been the same each time: 3-8. For everyone involved, last year's 3-8 journey was a more bearable experience than the previous season's torment, which included horrifying bombardments with scores such as 63-21 (Virginia Tech), 63-28 (Ohio State), 44-0 (Notre Dame), 35-7 (Miami), and 33-0 (Boston College). Except for a rousing (and unexpected) victory at Southern Mississippi in the opener, the whole year was pretty much a drag.

Things were noticeably better last year. For one thing, the defense began stopping people. Midway through the season, junior quarterback John Ryan won back the job he had lost in the preseason and wound up as the Big East's top-rated passer. Sophomore tailback Billy West, a backup at the start of the season, took over for injured senior Curtis Martin in week two, rushed for 1,358 yards, and was named Big East Offensive Player of the Year.

The team improved markedly throughout the season and with a break here or there, possibly could have finished 5-5-1 or maybe even 6-5. A missed two-point conversion in the final minute was all that kept Pitt from tying Texas in the opener. At Louisville the Panthers had two different nine-point leads in the third quarter before letting the Cardinals escape with a four-point win. Pitt lost a heartbreaker to West Virginia in the final seconds. Incredibly, with a minute left to play, the Panthers were just 30 yards away from upsetting mighty Miami at the Orange Bowl, falling by a more-than-respectable 14-9 margin.

But 3-8 is 3-8, and nobody will be very happy if it happens again. That includes Johnny Majors, who, although he has weathered this storm gracefully, is weary of losing.

"I guess I hate to lose about as badly as any human being that has ever lived," he admits. "But I am also a realist, and I knew this would be a long, tough process. Football is a game of inches. Injuries are always a big factor. Last year we were in games in the fourth quarter that we weren't in the year before, and that was our goal: to be in games and have an opportunity to win in the fourth quarter. This year, our goal is to win those games. The leap from the 3-8 plateau to the 6-5 plateau is a big jump. I would love to see us attain that this year."

For that to happen, an offensive line must be erected that will keep quarterback John Ryan off his back and open up holes for Billy West to blast through. The fullback, tight end, and wide receiver positions should all be improved, and although there is inexperienced depth at tailback, West so far has been as durable as he has been productive.

The defense could be the best it has been in years. Some seasoned veterans and an infusion of impressive new talent on the defensive line, a good corps of linebackers led by Tom Tumulty and converted safety David Sumner, and an improved secondary with better speed should allow Pitt to take another step forward. Whatever Pitt does on the field this season will occur in full view of television audiences around the country. ABC selected Pitt's September games against Texas and Ohio State for regional broadcasts, and ESPN will nationally televise the Panthers' Nov. 24th game at West Virginia. With several additional Big East telecasts, as well as the opportunity to be selected during the season for another regional or national telecast, Pitt will have plenty of chances to make a coming out statement to the football world.

FORMULA FOR SUCCESS

From the moment Majors stepped back on the Pitt campus, it has been an article of faith on the Oakland campus that his second coming would result in the restoration of power to Pitt football.

No one is more confident of this than Majors himself.

"We have a system and a formula and a program that works," he says. "I am confident we will have success, even though there are some outside variables today that weren't present 20 years ago that affect the schedule and timetable of the formula."

Some of those variables, such as NCAA scholarship limits, Majors was aware he would have no control over when he came. But one of the first things Majors did when he returned to Pitt was to begin campaigning loudly, for new and improved facilities. Since his first stint in the '70s, many of Pitt's competitors had been significantly upgrading and modernizing their facilities--in some cases even building new stadiums.

Back in 1976, Syracuse was playing in ancient Archbold Stadium; now the Orangemen play in the dramatic Carrier Dome. West Virginia's old and creaky Mountaineer Field begat a thoroughly modern venue, Mountaineer Stadium. Boston College improved and expanded Alumni Stadium. Rutgers built a new on-campus stadium. Penn State expanded Beaver Stadium and added some palatial ancillary facilities.

Pitt did add a much needed indoor workout facility, the Charles L. Cost Center, in 1990, as well as the George Stewart Auditorium, which provided improved meeting room facilities. But compared to its primary competitors, Pitt was jogging in place.

Majors knew that in order to recruit successfully, Pitt had to start catching up. Midway through the 1993 season plans were announced for a multi-phase, $19-million project to renovate the Pitt Stadium football complex.

The first phase, completed in early August, features a new, enlarged equipment room, a more spacious home locker room, and new training and weight facilities. Future phases will accommodate new academic support service facilities, a new complex for the band, greatly expanded office space, a new video suite, team meeting rooms, and reception areas.

There will be immediate logistical benefits from the completion of the initial phase, and already there have been some recruiting dividends. Five local high school stars have announced verbal commitments--before beginning their senior years--to attend Pitt.

"It's the first time in my coaching career we've had that many players commit to us so early," Majors said. "It's a very positive sign, and it demonstrates a growing confidence in the program we are building at Pitt. It can only help us recruit better in Western Pennsylvania this year and in the future."

Recruiting. Eventually, everything comes back to recruiting. Without the right players, a coach has no chance. And with teams such as Ohio State, Texas, Washington State, and UCLA appearing at different times on the schedule during the rest of the decade, not to mention the renewal of rivalries with Notre Dame in 1996 and Penn State in 1997, respectively, the Panthers need to load up with high-grade talent. Quickly.

"I don't think our recruiting has set the woods on fire so far," Majors candidly admits. "It has gotten better each year, but we need to continue to improve."

Translation: Majors is hoping for, and expecting, a bonanza recruiting class this year.

TOM TERRIFIC

Pitt did not have a bonanza recruiting class in 1991. That year, however, the Panthers did land linebacker Tom Tumulty, a Parade All-American from Penn Hills High School. Like Bill Fralic, another Penn Hills great from a decade earlier, Tumulty had his pick of colleges: Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, Florida State, and Michigan State were among the many top programs who vigorously recruited him. Like Fralic, Tumulty chose to stay home and attend Pitt, with visions of a great career that would include many memorable victories, championships, and bowl games.

It hasn't worked out that way.

Tumulty's career did begin in stirring fashion. In a nationally televised upset victory at West Virginia, Tumulty became just the sixth player in modern Pitt history to start the first game of his freshman season, joining the fast company of Tony Dorsett, Hugh Green, Bill Fralic, Marc Spindler, and Ricardo McDonald. Tumulty, a 6-4, 240-pound sinewy tornado of football fury, was all over the field in that game, tearing the bark off every Mountaineer player in reach while recording a team-high 11 tackles.

As the season progressed, Tumulty continued to thrive. He was named Big East Rookie of the Year, and was selected to the Football News second-team Freshman All-America squad. But the Panthers, after winning their first five games and looking like a serious contender for a bowl game, skidded to five losses in their last six games to finish 6-5 and out of the postseason picture.

In the opening game of the 1992 season, Tumulty suffered a freak injury, tearing a pectoral muscle while lunging for a ball carrier. The injury shelved him for the rest of the year, and he was forced to endure the agony of that 3-9 season--Hackett's last--from the sideline.

"The worst part was watching teams run up the middle against us," Tumulty says. "I'm a proud kid, and I knew that was the spot where I would have been, and I knew they wouldn't be beating me on isolation plays up the middle.

"In a way it was tougher not being in there while we were losing, because I kept thinking I could have helped stop what was happening."

Tumulty's quality play and fiery leadership have been bright spots during the rebuilding process under Majors. Tumulty, a fellow you would want next to you in a foxhole, plays the game at the boiling point. He has been told his football demeanor reminds some people of Mike Ditka's. A more apropos career analogy might be made with Joe Schmidt, Pitt's All-American linebacker in the early 1950s who later became a Pro Football Hall of Famer with the Detroit Lions.

Like Tumulty, Schmidt's career included some serious injuries, and Schmidt also had to endure losing seasons and coaching changes. Pitt was 1-8 in Schmidt's sophomore year and 3-7 when he was a junior. Not until Schmidt's senior season in 1952 did he experience a winning season (6-3), but he never made it to a bowl game at Pitt.

Time is also running out on Tumulty's dream of leading the Panthers to a bowl game. Along with the other seniors on this year's team, he has one final chance.

"The players on the team this year want to win," he says, "but so did the players last year. The big difference in attitude I sense is that we are approaching this season expecting to win. That has not been true during the past couple of years.

"I'm not about to guarantee a bowl game this year. But there is no way we're going to have a losing season. No chance. I'll die out there on the field before that happens."

GOAL TO GO

The sights and sounds of the construction work being done at Pitt Stadium this summer provided both a manifestation and a symbol of the rebuilding process of Pitt football under Johnny Majors, Part II.

There is hardly any aspect of the program that is not in the process of being updated, upgraded, and improved. From the speed in the secondary to the color of the uniforms, Majors is once again shaping the face of Pitt football in his own remarkable image.

We're not talking about face-lifts and cosmetic changes. We're looking at a radical transformation. In Majors' world, there is no place for mediocrity, and no room for negativity. If something needs to be fixed, it gets fixed. It's that simple.

Two years ago Pitt was forced to cancel its summer football camp when only about 30 kids enrolled. This summer, more than 800 campers eagerly signed up for the chance to learn techniques and get pointers from the likes of Tony Dorsett, Bill Fralic, Matt Cavanaugh, and, of course, Johnny Majors.

Eventually, it all comes back to Majors.

Majors knows what a successful football program can mean to a university. He knows the roar of the stadium can unite a campus and a community like nothing else can, pulling them into a living, beating oneness.

"I've coached at Tennessee, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Iowa State, and Pitt." he says. "I've never yet encountered a medical school or an engineering school or a business school that was hurt by a great football team.

"If you've been successful, when you go to alumni meetings most of the people will say, 'Hey coach, I'm glad you won the championship.' You will rarely hear someone say, 'I graduated from the business school in 1941, and I wish you hadn't won the Sugar Bowl, I wish you hadn't won the national championship. It really cheapens my degree.'"

It would be hard to find many people at Pitt--or anywhere, for that matter--who aren't pulling for Johnny Majors to wave his wand and weave his magic one more time. For the record, he has no plans to fail.

"In one sense, I guess I have been fortunate because I have faced adversity early just about every place I have ever played or coached, going all the way back to my freshman year in high school. I was the quarterback, and we lost our first game 75-6. Then we lost the second one 65-7. Our third game we lost 33-0. I will never, ever forget those games as long as I live. To this day I can remember the exact scores.

"When you lose you can't run and hide, or duck the press, or act like a kid and throw chairs around. You just have to show up after the game and show up the next day, and deal with it. You have to keep coming back more determined than ever to win."

Majors is an uncompromising competitor. He has spent a lifetime building and rebuilding football programs. He believes in his own ability, and he believes in Pitt.

"I have a strong belief in Pitt's future," he says. "I also have always had a strong desire not to let down people who are counting on me. And I know people are counting on me."

Those who know Majors well know that is why Pitt football is in good hands. Again.


Pitt Magazine Homepage Table of
Contents