It would not be an exaggeration to suggest Pitt football is mired in mediocrity. Consecutive seasons of 6-7, 6-7 and 6-6, with one game to be played, are ample proof of that statement.
Nor would it be an exaggeration to suggest Pitt has been mired in mediocrity for decades. Pitt football has had one period of sustained excellence in the past 75 years. That occurred between 1974-83 when the Panthers were 94-23-2 and for most of that time among the true elite of college football.
Since the 1983 season, Pitt is 172-177-5.
The question for day is this: Can Pitt recapture that glory?
The quick answer: Probably not.
For teams like Pitt, there might be occasional windows of opportunity for some degree of large-scale success. But there’s reason to believe the Panthers not only will never be a contender for the national championship, but that they also won’t make anything approaching frequent appearances in the top 25.
There are several reason for this:
The changing face of college football
It’s not exactly breaking news that the South -- the SEC in particularly -- is where the best college football is played. What is less in the news is the fact schools in the North are declining as the South ascends.
This is a list of Northern schools -- some former powers, others occasional visitors to the top 25 -- that are in some form of decline: Penn State (pre-sanctions), Pitt, West Virginia, Syracuse, Maryland, Michigan, Iowa, Purdue, Colorado, Nebraska and Washington.
A list of Northern schools ascending: Oregon, Stanford and Michigan State.
While long-time Northern powerhouses like Michigan, Nebraska, and Penn State slump, teams from the South that once were doormats -- Baylor, Oklahoma State and Louisville -- are making appearances in the top 10.
There are three major rankings of 2014 recruiting classes and Southern schools dominate the top 30 in all of them. In its top 30, ESPN has five Northern schools: Michigan (7), Ohio State (9), Notre Dame (12), Stanford (23) and Penn State (25). Yahoo lists seven Northern teams: Ohio State (6), Notre Dame (8), Michigan (18), Wisconsin (21), Stanford (24), Rutgers (29) and Penn State (30). CBSSports.com has six: Ohio State (5), Notre Dame (7), Michigan (11), Wisconsin (22), Penn State (24) and Oregon (28).
Pitt plays in the 14-member Atlantic Coast Conference, which is comprised predominantly of Southern schools. On the three lists, Pitt ranks no higher than 10th within the ACC.
When Pitt was going 94-23-2, its teams were built mostly with local talent but with an important Southern element. Many of the stars of those teams not only went on to the NFL, they went on to long and sometimes great careers. Included among the local players who brought Pitt back were Tony Dorsett, Randy Holloway, Gordon Jones, Jeff Delaney, Bob Jury, Dan Marino, Jimbo Covert, Bill Fralic, Jim Sweeney, Ron Sams, S Julius Dawkins, Dwight Collins and Tom Flynn.
That kind of talent no longer exists in the region. Nor is Pitt as good at keeping what premium talent there is at home, as Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill were in the 1970s.
Augmenting the local talent were players like Hugh Green and Lynn Thomas from Mississippi, Carlton Williamson from Georgia and Rickey Jackson and Cecil Johnson from Florida.
Players of that caliber no longer so freely leave the South, where not only are there more outstanding teams, but where schools like South Florida and Central Florida get the leftovers from Florida State, Miami and Florida. Thus, even lesser talents are kept in the South.
Plain and simple, the players that would allow Pitt to compete at a higher level are no longer easily available.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing from a university standpoint. There’s nothing wrong with keeping athletics in perspective. There is something wrong, though, with not knowing what you want from your athletic programs.
From 1983 until the present, there were only three times when Pitt had three or more consecutive winning seasons.
• From 1987-89, Mike Gottfried was 22-12-1. And was fired after the 1989 season.
• From 2002-04, Walt Harris was 25-13. And was fired after the 2004 season.
• From 2008-10, Dave Wannstedt was 27-12. And was fired after the 2010 season.
Gottfried and Harris behaved in a manner -- nothing illegal -- that might have merited firing. Nevertheless, at some places their outspokenness might have been overlooked because of their winning. It was not condoned at Pitt.
Pitt has hired three full-time head coaches since Wannstedt was fired. There is a plausible explanation for what transpired, but, nevertheless, such circumstances don’t usually happen at most school with major football ambitions.
In conclusion: For the reasons above, the path back to those those comparatively brief snapshots of Pitt glory is strewn with all kinds of nearly insurmountable obstacles.
The best course of action for Pitt fans: Keep the faith, but don’t expect too much.