Pittsburgh Panthers Heyday

If you are a new college football fan, you may not even know that the Pittsburgh Panthers were regularly one of the top teams in the country a few years back.


In 1973, the Pitt Panthers Athletic Director brought in Johnny Majors from Iowa State to resurrect the program. Majors and his staff were outstanding recruiters and they brought in some incredible talent right away, including and especially Tony Dorsett the NCAA all time rushing leader until the record was broken by Ricky Williams of Texas in 1998.

The Pitt Panther football team went from a one game winner in 1972 to 12-0 national champions in 1976.


Johnny Majors was an All-American Running Back at Tennessee in 1956 and when the Vols came calling  Majors left Pitt for a chance to resurrect his old school.

Tony Dorsett



Majors was replaced by Jackie Sherrill.

Sherrill had been an assistant at Pitt under Majors but had left  to take the head coaching job at Washington State. He posted a rather unimpressive 3-8 record at Washington State in the one season he was there and it’s almost  a wonder he was even hired at all.

Say what you want about Sherrill, but he brought in some serious talent for the school and the Pitt Panthers were one of the top college teams in the nation back in those days. They were certainly some of the most physically talented teams of those years.



1976: 12-0

1977: 9-2-1

1978: 8-4

1979: 11-1

1980: 11-1

1981: 11-1

1982: 9-3

1983: 8-3-1


In 1976, the Pitt Panthers roughed up the SEC Champion Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl, 27-3 and won the national championship.  Tony Dorsett finished up his college career with 6,082 rushing yards which was the NCAA career rushing record for over 20 years.


The 1977 season would see Pitt lose it’s opening game to eventual National Champion, Notre Dame, 19-9. They tied Florida at Florida and then lost a close 15-13 game to rival, Penn State, to finish up at 9-2-1. It was Jackie Sherrill’s first season as head coach of the Panthers. Jimmy Johnson of later Dallas Cowboy fame, was in his first season as Defensive Coordinator at Pitt.

This team’s highest drafted player was #1 pick Randy Holloway a DE and 2nd round pick Matt Cavanaugh the Pitt QB.


In 1978 Pitt went 8-4 as they struggled with the switch from Majors to Sherrill and losing a bunch of players. This was a pretty unremarkable season mixed in and Sherrill was bringing in his own talent.


The 1979 season got really interesting for Pitt again. DC Jimmy Johnson was named the head coach at Oklahoma State and was replaced by Foge Fogio. The Dan Marino era had begun at Pittsburgh.

Pitt started off at 1-1 after a loss to North Carolina but then won 10 straight games to finish at 11-1 and at #6 in the final polls.



The 1980 Pittsburgh Panthers were really loaded. Defensive End Hugh Green, Running Back Randy McMillan and Offensive Tackle Mark May were all 1st round picks. Linebacker Rickey Jackson went in the 2nd round and  they had 8 other guys picked in the 1981 NFL draft.

The Georgia Bulldogs were the national champions in 1980, but the Pitt Panthers were a strong #2. They did lose to Florida State, but finished 11-1 with a young Dan Marino at QB.  Florida State coach Bobby Bowden called this the most talented team he had ever seen even though the Seminoles did beat the Panthers.


The 1981 season was another 11-1 year for the Panthers. They did get humiliated by in state rivals Penn State, 48-14. That game was just one of those days for the Panthers. They took a 14-0 lead over the Nittany Lions and things just changed dramatically and everything went Penn State’s way.

Clemson was the national champ in 1981 but the Panthers finished anywhere from #2 to #4 depending on which poll you used.


In 1982 Pitt lost Sherrill when he was hired away by Texas A&M and they promoted Foge Fogio to head coach. They still had Dan Marino, but would go 9-3. This team had 3 1st round draft picks and 6 other NFL picks.


Dan Marino was gone to the Miami Dolphins in 1983 and Pitt went 8-3-1. Defensive Tackle Bill Maas was a 1st round pick off of this team. But, they had 5 other guys drafted.

They did beat Florida State, Tennessee and Notre Dame, but lost to rival West Virginia and tied Penn State. You’ve got to love today’s overtime system compared to the old days and those tie scores.



Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. It is now nothing more than a memory for a bunch of middle aged guys, but the Pitt Panthers were once a football powerhouse filled with NFL talent.


Tony Dorsett, Hugh Green, and Dan Marino were three of their bigger stars, but there were plenty of others.


The Pitt Panthers haven’t had a lot of success lately. Since Jackie Sherrill left, they have had quite a few head coaches and none of them have had much luck in turning the program back around.

The latest is Paul Chryst who has a 13-13 record during his first 26 games.

Pitt has excellent facilities that they share with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but they need to up the recruiting which is easier said than done.


Good luck, Paul Chryst.


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