1982 Pitt football was a team of great expectation. It was the senior year for quarterback Dan Marino. After three straight 11-1 seasons, including a dramatic Sugar Bowl win over Georgia following the 1981 season, this was to be the year that Pitt won it all and Marino won the Heisman Trophy. It didn’t work out that way.
Even a coaching change—Jackie Sherrill left for Texas A&M and defensive coordinator Foge Fazio took over—didn’t stop the high expectations and Pitt was ranked #1 to start the year.
There was no shortage of talent. Jimbo Covert and Bill Fralic were both All-Americans on the offensive line and both went on to good NFL careers. Defensive tackle Bill Maas was another All-American. Bryan Thomas rushed for 955 yards and Marino had a good group of receivers led by Dwight Collins.
But the quarterback himself struggled. Marino threw 23 interceptions and his 6.4 yards-per-attempt was nowhere near Heisman-caliber. The problems showed up right away in a high-profile game against North Carolina to open the season. The Tar Heels were ranked #5 and this was a Thursday night game (a rarity then) in Three Rivers Stadium.
Marino threw four interceptions and Pitt only scored seven points. Fortunately, the defense bailed him out. They held UNC’s talented running back Kelvin Bryant to 58 yards and Pitt led 7-6 late in the game. North Carolina reached the 21-yard line late in the game, but rather than play it safe, they tried to throw the ball. Maas came up with the big sack and the drive was turned back.
Pitt may have survived, but they were down to #2 in the polls. And with North Carolina going on to a seven-win season, this wasn’t the elite opponent that was perceived at the time.
The Panthers came up with a more impressive effort at Florida State ten days later, winning 37-17 against a team that would win eight games. Pitt then beat seven-win Illinois by a 20-3 count.
On the first Saturday of October, the Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia renewed in the Steel City. This was a good Mountaineer team, one that would go 9-2 and it showed here. The Panthers trailed 13-0 going into the fourth quarter. But they scored one touchdown with 10:52 left, and then Marino connected with Julius Dawkins to get a 14-13 lead.
Maas came up clutch again, sacking WVA quarterback Jeff Hostetler in the end zone for a safety. West Virginia made one last charge, but a tying a field goal attempt hit the crossbar. Pitt was still undefeated, and while Marino wasn’t lighting it up, the team was still beating good opponents each week.
Pitt blew out subpar teams in Temple, Syracuse and Louisville and were back to #1 in the country when October came to a close. Then came the fatal visit from Notre Dame on November 6, where the Panthers played poorly against a team that would struggle to a 6-4-1 finish. A 31-16 defeat sent Pitt plummeting to #8.
They bounced back to beat losing teams in Army and Rutgers and were back up to #5 for the season finale against Penn State. The Nittany Lions were playing for a crack top-ranked Georgia in the Sugar Bowl for a national title. Pitt would need help to make it all the way back, with SMU and Nebraska also ahead of them in the polls.
But a victory over the Lions would heal a lot of wounds, particularly the ones that had opened the previous year when Pitt’s national title hopes had come crashing down in a 48-14 humiliation. It was time for one more disappointment though. Pitt lost 19-10 and went to the Cotton Bowl ranked #6 in the country.
The Cotton Bowl was a what-might-have-been game. SMU was the opponent and they had been #2 while Pitt was #1. This could have been a national championship battle in Dallas. But the Mustangs played Arkansas to a tie. So tonight’s Sugar Bowl between #1 Georgia and #2 Penn State was for the national title. The Cotton Bowl would be for pride and redemption.
It would also be a great talent showcase. SMU was built around their Pony Express backfield, Eric Dickerson and Craig James. Both would join Marino as future pros and Dickerson joined Marino as a future NFL Hall of Famer.
A cold rain and the defenses slowed things to a halt though. Pitt trailed 7-3 in the fourth quarter when Marino led the Panthers on a drive, hoping for a second straight New Year’s Day game-winning drive—albeit this one with eight minutes left. But his pass into the end zone bounced off the hands of one Mustang player and into the arms of another. The 7-3 final held up.
There was no sugar-coating that this was a disappointing year for Pitt and they have not been in the national elite since. The biggest beneficiary of Marino’s disappointing senior year was the Miami Dolphins. Having gone to the Super Bowl in 1982, but still needing a quarterback, they watched as Marino plummeted to the 27th pick in the first round. It’s safe to say Marino put the disappointments of 1982 behind him. The same can’t be said for the Pitt Panthers.