1976 Pitt Football: A National Championship Run

Johnny Majors inherited a moribund Pitt Panthers program when he arrived in 1973. The Panthers last winning season was ten years ago. It didn’t take long for Majors to turn things around. He brought in a huge recruiting class in his first year and immediately began winning. Over the next three years, Pitt went 19-12-1 in the regular season, and split a couple of bowl games. The 1976 Pitt football season was the culmination of that effort—an undefeated season and the program’s only national championship.

The Panthers had a ball hawking secondary, with defensive backs Bob Jury, Jeff Delaney and Leroy Felder combining for 23 interceptions. Al Romano was a nose tackle who got All-American mention. The defense ranked seventh nationally for points allowed.

At quarterback was a future coach in Matt Cavanaugh. His 60 percent completion rate was excellent by the standards of the era and his 9.3 yards-per-attempt were outstanding in any era. He played mistake-free football.

But above all, what Pitt had was a running back by the name of Anthony Drew Dorsett.

Tony Dorsett was a local product, playing his high school football at Aliquippa, and the best player of that initial Majors recruiting class. He had been a 1,000-yard rusher each of his first three years at Pitt and in 1976, he went off the charts. Dorsett rushed for 1,948 yards in the regular season, averaging nearly six yards a pop and was a landslide winner of the Heisman Trophy.

Pitt opened the year ranked #9 in the country, and they wasted little time in showing what they could do. They traveled to South Bend to play 11th-ranked Notre Dame. In the first half alone, Dorsett ran for 122 yards. The tone was set quickly, the Panthers pulled away to a 31-10 win, and some chaos around the country got them vaulted to #3 in the polls.

They settled into a stretch of nine games against competition that can be generously described as less than difficult. None of the opponents would have a winning record in 1976. Pitt blew out Temple 42-14, and then went to Duke and won 44-31. They hosted Louisville and racked up a 27-6 win. A visit from Miami resulted in a 36-19 win. Pitt went down to Annapolis to play Navy and cruised home, 45-zip. They hosted Syracuse and won 23-13.  

The Panthers were up to 8-0 and had moved to #2 in the polls. But as the calendar moved to November, they still needed help. Michigan was #1, and the Wolverines were contractually bound to the Rose Bowl, where they would play a highly ranked Pac-8 champ.

On that first weekend of November, help arrived. While Pitt was putting a 37-7 beatdown on Army, Michigan was stumbling against Purdue, losing 16-14. The Panthers were #1 in the country. They responded by beating West Virginia 24-16.

There was one more hurdle left to clear, and it was a big one—a Black Friday game with Penn State that would be played at old Three Rivers Stadium. And in the meantime, bowl bids were being handed out. Where would Pitt go?

USC and Michigan were in the 2-3 spots and slated for the Rose Bowl. Maryland was undefeated and ranked #4. The Terps, like the Panthers, were not committed to any bowl. But that was also a problem. Prior to the emergence of the Fiesta Bowl as a major player in 1981, the prestigious bowls had at least one contractually committed conference champ.

Moreover, football in the East was not necessarily respected. Pitt really needed to play a traditional power conference champ to validate their #1 ranking. Georgia, sitting at #5 and having won the SEC, fit the bill. The Panthers would go to the Sugar Bowl to face the Bulldogs.

In the meantime, they still needed to beat Penn State. This wasn’t a vintage Joe Paterno team, but the Nittany Lions were still ranked #16 and a tough out. But that aggressive Pitt defense was ready to go. On a rainy day in the Steel City, they intercepted three passes. Dorsett got loose in the second half and Pitt pulled away to a 24-7 win. They were set to go to New Orleans and play for a national championship.

It was no secret that stopping Dorsett was the key to stopping Pitt. Georgia came out and stacked eight men in the box. Cavanaugh responded by throwing for 192 yards, a good number in this run-oriented era. And that box on Dorsett? The great running back still went off for 202 yards. The Sugar Bowl was never close, and Pitt won 27-3.

Pitt’s schedule might not have been great, but they had decisively beaten Notre Dame, Penn State and Georgia, and there was no doubt about their standing as the #1 team in the country.

Majors would leave for Tennessee after this season, but the beat went on. Jackie Sherrill, and then Foge Fazio, kept the winning going. Over the next seven seasons, the Panthers would finish in the national top 10 five different times, including a #2 finish in 1980. They produced a quarterback named Dan Marino that turned out pretty good. The late 1970s and early 1980s were the halcyon years of Pitt football, and the highlight was the 1976 national championship.