The 1980 Pitt football team fit the profile of the kind of team the program put out in the years from 1975-83. It was the best stretch of Panther football since the days of Jock Sutherland in the late 1930s. It included a national championship in 1976 and it included a long line of notable players coming through Pittsburgh. Perhaps never more so than 1980.
To go through Pitt’s starting lineup in ’80 is to read a who’s who of future NFL talent and eventual inductees into the College Football Hall of Fame (and in some cases, to Canton). The offensive line was led by Mark May, Russ Grimm and Jimbo Covert. All three would be NFL stalwarts and May won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best interior lineman.
Bill Maas, an exceptional defensive tackle was in his freshman year and already making an impact. Rickey Jackson, who enjoyed a long career in the pros was at one defensive end. The defensive backfield had future NFL starters in strong safety Carlton Williamson and corner Tim Lewis.
And the quarterback? A guy named Dan Marino, in his sophomore year, was taking snaps. Marino completed 52% of his passes for 7.2 yards-per-attempt and the final TD-INT ratio was 15-14. While those numbers may look ugly to a modern reader, they were good in 1980.
Marino had good targets, starting with tight end Benjie Pryor. A second-team All-American, Pryor caught 47 passes for just over twelve yards a pop. On the flanks, Willie Collier and Dwight Collins could stretch the field. Randy McMillan was a steady running back who rushed for nearly 700 yards while averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
It all sounds like a pretty good team, right? We haven’t even gotten to the crown jewel. Hugh Green was at defensive end and was the most physically dominant football player in the country. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. At the time it was the highest a defensive player had ever finished.
That was eventually eclipsed in 1997 when Michigan corner Charles Woodson won the award. But considering Woodson enhanced his resume as a kick returner, it’s fair to say that Green has the highest Heisman finish of any pure defensive player.
So the Panthers were loaded and everyone knew it. They were ranked third in the country to start the season. And they won their first four games. A 14-6 home win over a respectable Boston College team got the ball rolling. They knocked off mediocre teams in Kansas and Temple, then blew out a pretty good Maryland squad, 38-9. Pitt was poised for its first big test of the year in Tallahassee.
Florida State had enjoyed a breakthrough year in 1979, reaching the Orange Bowl under a young head coach named Bobby Bowden. The Seminoles were undefeated again this year and the October 11 showdown with Pitt was a big national game. But the Panthers weren’t ready for prime-time. Marino threw three interceptions. They lost four fumbles. They allowed FSU to get a ground game going. And they lost 36-22.
Pitt fell to #11 in the polls and disappeared from the national championship conversation. Then Marino got hurt early the next week in a home game against West Virginia and was gone for the year.
Fortunately, head coach Jackie Sherrill had some experience to fall back on. Rick Trocano had been the quarterback prior to Marino. Trocano’s passing could be erratic, but he was a good athlete who played safety while Marino was under center. And Rick Trocano helped get Pitt’s season back on track.
The Panthers erupted for 28 second-quarter points in the 42-14 blowout of the Mountaineers. Then they went to Tennessee to visit their old friend Johnny Majors. It was Majors who rebuilt the program in the early ’70s and then left for Knoxville after the championship year of ’76. The Vols still had a ways to go and it showed in this game, as Pitt won 30-6.
The Panthers cleaned up on mediocre teams from Syracuse and Louisville, averaging over 40 points per game. They went to West Point on November 15. Army was the weakest team on the schedule and Pitt blew out the Cadets 45-7.
The Panthers were back up to #4 in the polls and the season’s biggest game was at hand. Joe Paterno’s Penn State was ranked #5 and also 9-1. The winner of their Black Friday battle in State College would go into the bowl season with a chance at the national championship.
Pitt started slowly and trailed 3-0 in the second quarter. Trocano flipped a screen pass to running back Randy McMillan, who picked up 32 yards. Trocano then looked for Pryor in the end zone and found him for a 16-yard TD pass. It was 7-3 at half. The Panthers recovered a fumble at the Penn State 36 early in the third quarter. They turned the short field into another touchdown, a nine-yard bootleg run from Trocano.
At 14-3, with the Pitt defense dominating, it looked like a blowout might be in the offing. But Penn State rallied. They got into the end zone, although Pitt stopped the two-point play to keep the margin at five points, 14-9.
Penn State made two drives inside the Pitt 40 in the closing moments and both times it was Williamson coming up with the big play. The defensive back stuffed Lion running back Curt Warner on 4th-and-1 to end the first drive. And Williamson picked off a Todd Blackledge pass in the closing minute to seal the win.
Pitt was up to #3 in the polls. Bowl commitments were made by mid-November in those days, so they weren’t going to a major bowl. But they would get to play #18 South Carolina and Heisman Trophy-winning running back George Rogers in the Gator Bowl on December 29. And a path to the top of the polls did exist.
The Sugar Bowl had a matchup of #1 Georgia facing Notre Dame, who was 9-0-1. But the Irish had one more game to play, at USC. Florida State was #2 and headed for the Orange Bowl to face a really good Oklahoma team.
Pitt’s formula was simple—they needed Notre Dame to lose at Southern Cal. They needed to take care of business in Jacksonville. And they needed Notre Dame to turn around knock off Georgia, while Oklahoma knocked out Florida State.
On the first Saturday of December, USC gave western Pennsylvania some hope with an easy 20-3 rout of the Fighting Irish. Pitt was up to #3 going into the bowl games.
The Gator Bowl was no contest. Pitt forced a Rogers fumble on his first carry and turned the short field into a quick touchdown. They were ahead 17-3 by halftime and won 37-9. Rogers’ final numbers of 116 yards look respectable, but it took him 27 carries to get there and it was well below the 150-160 he routinely churned out.
Pitt’s hopes on January 1 came close to being realized, but not quite. Notre Dame missed a number of good opportunities in the Sugar Bowl and Georgia sealed the national title with a 17-10 win. Oklahoma nipped FSU in a thrilling Orange Bowl, allowing the Panthers to move up to #2 in the final polls.
Even without the national championship, it had been a tremendous year in Pittsburgh. The good news is that Marino would get back healthy and lead this program to major bowls in both 1981 and 1982. The bad news is they wouldn’t get a second national championship to go along with the banner from 1976.