Smizik: Pitt football's biggest loss is Jackie Sherrill

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An historic week in the annals of Pitt football has just passed without so much as a mention -- and understandably so. Twenty-five years ago last week, the Pitt football program took a hit from which it is still staggering.

Early in the third week of January in 1982, a simmering feud in Pitt's athletic department, one laced with intrigue and backstabbing, came to a full boil when highly successful coach Jackie Sherrill, feeling disrespected, bolted for a big-money deal at Texas A&M.

Pitt football has never been the same.

No one realized it at the time -- people thought the program was bigger than the coach -- but Sherrill's departure was the beginning of a slow slide that became a full-blown avalanche by the end of the decade. A program that had not just been nationally ranked but nationally elite -- with a chance to win the national championship almost every year -- in a short time became one that struggled for winning seasons and one that can only dream of playing for a national championship.

For those too young to remember, Johnny Majors, a young, charismatic coach, was hired away from Iowa State in 1973 to resurrect what was quite possibly the worst football program in the country. When Majors took over, the Panthers had gone through nine consecutive losing seasons. In four of those seasons they had won only one game.

Majors put on a recruiting blitz -- one year before the NCAA placed a scholarship limit on freshman recruits -- and brought in a class variously estimated from 75 to 87 and included Tony Dorsett. In four years, Pitt won a national championship, after which Majors took a job at Tennessee, his alma mater. Sherrill succeeded Majors in 1977 and the wins came even more often. In five seasons, Sherrill was 50-9-1. In his final three seasons, he was a spectacular 33-3.

In nine years of Majors and Sherrill, Pitt had nine winning seasons and only once lost more than four games. In the subsequent 25 years, it has had only 11 winning seasons and lost more than four games 19 times.

Twenty-five years ago, Pitt was poised for another national championship run. There was reason to believe the string of 11-1 records would become 12-0. Dan Marino was returning at quarterback along with five other players who would be NFL first-round draft choices -- offensive tackles Bill Fralic and Jimbo Covert, cornerback Tim Lewis and defensive linemen Bill Maas and Chris Doleman. The Panthers, fresh off an historic Sugar Bowl win against Georgia, had no weaknesses and would be ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls.

Almost nothing could stop them: Except the departure of Sherrill.

Sherrill was disciple of Bear Bryant, regarded by many as the greatest college coach of all time. Like Bryant, he demanded and received discipline. His players liked him, respected him and even feared him a bit. He didn't say much, but when he talked, people responded in a positive manner. He had an uncanny eye for talent, in players and assistant coaches. His first staff included four assistants who later became head coaches: Jimmy Johnson, Pat Jones, Foge Fazio and Dave Wannstedt.

The program was humming outwardly, but Sherrill was concerned. Athletic director Cas Myslinski was being stripped of his power by upper-level university administrators. Sherrill saw the folly in that and wanted control, or at least a say, in scheduling -- if Myslinski wasn't going to be in charge.

As Pitt prepared for its Sugar Bowl game with Georgia, Sherrill wanted a meeting with Chancellor Wesley Posvar to discuss his situation. He couldn't get one. It galled him immensely that a coach of his success would be treated in such a manner.

Hours after the Sugar Bowl win on Jan. 1, Sherrill told Pittsburgh Press columnist Pat Livingston, in a story written after Sherrill's departure, "I get the feeling there are people at Pitt who don't want me around here any more."

Sure enough, on Jan. 18, less than 48 hours after rumors first surfaced, Sherrill was gone. A day later, Fazio, a popular choice, was named his replacement.

Months later, as Sherrill feared, Ed Bozik, the assistant chancellor and a man with no experience in athletic administration, forced out Myslinski and took his job.

Although almost all of Sherrill's assistants stayed to work with Fazio, the team struggled. The Panthers finished a disappointing 9-3 and, despite an abundance of talent, scored only one touchdown in their final two games.

With lesser talent, Fazio went 8-3-1 the next year but consecutive seasons of 3-7-1 and 5-5-1 cost him his job. Mike Gottfried was next and did well (27-17-2) but feuded with administrators and was fired. The program plunged downward under Paul Hackett (13-20-1) and a second run by Majors (12-32) was no better. Walt Harris (52-44) brought a return to respectability and more but he was fired after the 2004 season. In two seasons, his replacement, Wannstedt, has yet to produce a winning team.

There have been a lot of positives in the past 25 years, including a BCS game in Harris' final season, but nothing to rival the Sherrill-Majors era.

In a phone conversation last week, Sherrill, retired and living in Memphis, said he never wanted to leave Pitt. "But they gave me no choice."


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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