Roles reversed this time around for Pitt and Florida State
September 1, 2013 4:00 AM
Long-time Florida State coach Bobby Bowden: That Pitt team "might have been the best team I ever coached against."
Dan Marino and Jackie Sherrill would help Pitt rebound to finish No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll.
By Sam Werner Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Monday night, Pitt will try to send shock waves through the college football world by upsetting No. 11 Florida State.
Thirty years ago, though, the roles were reversed.
On Oct. 11, 1980, the Panthers traveled to Tallahassee to take on Bobby Bowden's Seminoles. On a muggy Florida afternoon, Florida State beat Pitt 36-22 to hand the Panthers their only loss of the 1980 season and, ultimately, cost them a national championship.
The series, at least partially, came about because Bowden had just taken the Florida State job from West Virginia in 1976. Having coached against Pitt in the Backyard Brawl, he was all in favor of playing the Panthers. Pitt, eager to establish recruiting ties in Florida, was happy to oblige. It didn't hurt that Panthers coach Jackie Sherrill served as an assistant at Pitt from 1973-75 and coached against Bowden during those years.
The two teams had played four times over the previous decade, splitting them 2-2, but this one was different. Pitt came into the game ranked No. 4 in the AP poll. The Seminoles had started to make some waves under Bowden and were coming off their best season ever when they finished 1979 ranked No. 6.
"They were a great team, they were a very competitive team, physical team, which is the type of team we liked playing against," former Pitt defensive end Hugh Green said.
The Seminoles hadn't faced a team like this, though. The Panthers had Dan Marino at quarterback, Russ Grimm and Mark May on the offensive line, and Green terrorizing opposing offenses.
In his book "Called to Coach," Bowden wrote that the 1980 Panthers "might have been the best team [he] ever coached against."
So what went wrong that day against the Seminoles?
Sherrill blamed himself, saying that he shouldn't have let the players visit with their families before the game. The Panthers had 11 players from Florida, Georgia or Mississippi on the roster, so there were plenty of friends and relatives visiting for the game.
"That was a mistake because mentally we were not really ready to play," Sherrill said. "It took us some time, but we got beat. Certainly if I had done a better job, we would've won the game."
Green, a Mississippi native, emphatically denied that Sherrill's decision to let the players see their families before the game had anything to do with the outcome.
He felt that Pitt, as usual, controlled both offensive and defensive play, but was beaten badly when it came to special teams.
Indeed, Seminoles kicker Bill Capece made five field goals on the afternoon, including a 50-yarder right before halftime that put Florida State up 23-7 at the break.
"We controlled all entities except special teams," Green said. "This kid came in and kicked from all around the world to give them points. Fifteen points from their kicker."
The Panthers rallied in the second half with a pair of touchdowns, but it wasn't enough. Pitt outgained Florida State 386-290 in total yards, but Seminoles running back Sam Platt was the only running back to break 100 yards against the Panthers that year, and Florida State ran for 163 as a team.
"If we had more time in the game, I felt like we would've been able to come back," Sherrill said.
For Bowden, it was a landmark victory. It propelled the Seminoles to, ultimately, a No. 5 finish in the AP poll, their highest ever at the time.
"Three decades later, I am still trying to figure out how we beat them," Bowden wrote in his book.
Even though that win cost Pitt a national title, Green said it's not necessarily a painful memory to look back on. The Panthers also lost national titles with singular losses to North Carolina in 1979 and Penn State in 1981.
"You just wipe it off as it wasn't meant to be," Green said.
"It was just a pill to swallow."
While Green moved on to the NFL, the loss stuck with the program. The two teams were scheduled to play each of the next three years, so when Florida State traveled to Pitt Stadium in 1981, the Panthers had revenge on their minds.
"Even as a freshman, you knew the importance of that game," said former defensive end Chris Doleman, who joined the Panthers in 1981. "We were not going into a situation where we felt like they were just a better football team. That wasn't what happened."
Indeed, the Panthers showed that they were the better team that year, exacting revenge on the No. 11 Seminoles with a 42-14 pounding. The win propelled Pitt to No. 3 and kept the Panthers' national title dreams alive, though they would come crashing down in a 48-14 loss to Penn State in the last game of the season.
Pitt followed up that win over Florida State with two more wins in 1982 and 1983. The win in Tallahassee in monsoon-like conditions in 1982 solidified Pitt's place as the No. 2 team in the country.
"Pitt was one of the best programs in the nation, and we didn't shy away from anybody," Doleman said. "If you thought you were a good football team, we're going to set up a game and we're going to play you because we thought we were a good football team, too."
Monday night, the current Panthers have their own chance to write their own history against the Seminoles. While Pitt is certainly the underdog, the current players know the opportunity that lies in front of them.
"We're a scrappy team," receiver Devin Street said. "We're going to go out there, give it all we got, and we can definitely get after Florida State."
Green is in town to help celebrate the retirement of former receiver Larry Fitzgerald's jersey at halftime. Green's own No. 99 was retired in 1980 at his final home game.
He said he hopes to have the chance to talk to the team at some point this weekend.
"For a lot of them, this is their beginning," he said. "For some of their bruises and bumps they're going to get in their rookie year, I'd like the opportunity to see them down the line when they grow up."
Doleman won't make it up to Pittsburgh for Monday night, but he's looking forward to it all the same.
"It's a great time to re-establish Pitt football," he said. "I'll definitely be tuned in for it."