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Pitt’s Big Fall: From Dorsett and Marino to 72-0 Defeats

October 17, 1996

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Where have you gone, Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino?

Only 20 years ago this fall, Dorsett ran wild as the greatest running back of his era and Pitt was the unquestioned king of college football. A few years later, Marino passed the Panthers to three consecutive 11-1 seasons.

Now, six coaching changes and a whole lot of losing later, Pitt football is the pits, an embarrassment to a long-proud university and a stain upon Pittsburgh’s long excellence of football excellence. Watch Pitt play _ and, these days, not many do _ it’s hard to believe this is the same city where the Super Bowl Steelers dwell.

``I follow Pitt enough to wince when I see the scores,″ said Marino, the Miami Dolphins quarterback.

These scores tell the story of the disintegration of what was one of college football’s super powers: 72-0 (Ohio State). 55-7 (Syracuse). 45-0 (Miami). 34-0 (West Virginia). Even Temple _ Temple! _ scored 52 points on Pitt in a 53-52 loss that left Owls coach Ron Dickerson so discouraged that he quit on the spot, although he returned a day later.

Despite that victory, inglorious as it was, this is another Pitt season lost. The Panthers are 2-5 with Virginia Tech and Notre Dame yet to play, and the talent is so thin that running back Billy West, the one star player, is forced to play on special teams. The defense is ranked in the bottom three nationally.

And coach Johnny Majors, the man who raised Pitt from the ashes once but now seems incapable of doing it again, faces growing skepticism that he will return for the fifth and last year of his contract.

If he doesn’t, Pitt will have to search not only for a new athletic director, new coach and new direction, but a way to regain the tradition of excellence that may be gone forever. Athletic director Oval Jaynes resigned this summer and no replacement has been named.

``It’s do or die for Pitt,″ said Beano Cook, the ESPN radio college football analyst and one-time Pitt sports information director. ``They’re on the edge of the cliff, and they could go either way. ... They’ve got to get the right athletic director and the right coach, or they could go over.″

Majors has not commented on his future plans, except to say, ``I’ve been embarrassed on other occasions in my playing and coaching career, but I didn’t quit.″

Pitt football has known downtrodden times before, such as coach Dave Hart’s 3-27 record from 1966-68. But as late as 1989, when the Panthers were 8-3-1 and nationally ranked under coach Mike Gottfried, this slide would have seemed incomprehensible.

Yet the numbers don’t lie: A program that was 77-17-1 and went to seven bowl games from 1974-81 under Majors and Jackie Sherrill is 10-30 since Majors returned in 1993 and 22-51-1 since 1990.

How could a team that was so good turn so bad so fast?

``It’s like a cancer. It’s kept growing and it keeps getting worse,″ said Gottfried, now an ESPN analyst. ``There’s been some questionable decisions made there.″

Many point to Pitt’s hurried decision to replace Sherrill, who was 50-9-1 from 1977-81, with former defensive coordinator Foge Fazio as the beginning of the end.

Rather than conducting a nationwide search, Pitt took less than 24 hours in 1982 to promote Fazio, the defensive coordinator who was popular among the players but had never been a head coach. The Panthers were top-ranked for seven weeks that season, but lost three of their final five and finished 9-3.

Within two years, Pitt was 3-7-1. By 1985, Fazio was gone.

``He was in the right place at the wrong time,″ former Pitt All-American lineman Bill Fralic said. ``Foge has proven to be a very good coach at a lot of levels, but, at the time, it didn’t work.″

Gottfried replaced Fazio, and Pitt won eight games in 1987 and 1989, but he was fired following several run-ins with then-chancellor Wesley Posvar. And while Gottfried’s 26-17-2 record did not compare to Sherrill’s, he recruited better and beat more quality opponents than Fazio or successor Paul Hackett (12-21-1 in three seasons).

``Look at the (future) NFL players we recruited. We signed quality guys: Sean Gilbert, Alex Van Pelt, Orlando Truitt, Mark Spindler, Curvin Richards, and we had a couple of more coming,″ Gottfried said. ``I felt we were lined up to take a run at the national championship.″

But since Gottfried left, Pitt’s once-endless pipeline of talent from surrounding western Pennsylvania has dried up. So has the long line of former assistant coaches who moved on to head coaching jobs: Sherrill, Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wannstedt.

Now, Penn State has a virtual lock on the Pittsburgh area’s top players, routinely getting commitments even before a recruit’s senior season.

To try to reestablish an edge, Pitt now offers scholarships to top players during their junior seasons, but with indistinguishable results so far.

``It’s just a matter of regaining the confidence of the high school kids and coaches in that area of the country, because there’s a lot of talent in western Pennsylvania,″ Marino said.

Said Gottfried: ``I’ve always said you could stand outside Pitt Stadium, throw a rock and hit six prospects. What they’ve got to do is get them to come to Pitt.″

And while Penn State and West Virginia lure prospects away with new or rebuilt facilities, Pitt still plays in historic but outdated Pitt Stadium, a 70-year-old concrete shell carved out of a treacherous valley on Pitt’s urban campus. The sidewalk surrounding it is so precipitous it is nicknamed Cardiac Hill, and it is not a stadium that attracts recruits.

Some Pitt critics also rail that the school’s relatively few points-of-entry for freshmen _ only five, including engineering and nursing programs, compared to 10-11 for most Division I schools _ and tough academic standards make it difficult to attract quality players.

Still, despite the succession of on-field losses and a $11 million athletic department deficit over the last three years, there is no measurable move at Pitt to deemphasize football.

``I can’t believe Pitt can’t get it back,″ said Fralic, who lives in Atlanta but still follows his alma mater. ``They need everybody pulling in the same direction _ from the equipment manager to the assistant coaches to the athletic director _ and I don’t think they’ve had that in a while.″

``I believe Pitt can get back,″ said Gottfried, who has talked little about Pitt since his firing. ``Pitt still has a good reputation nationally. And I saw better (recruits) there this season than I’ve seen in awhile. But they’ve got to make a commitment. They’ve got to start measuring themselves against Ohio State, Penn State and Notre Dame. They’ve got to want to be good again.″

End advance for Oct. 19-20

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