In 1970, Pitt had an improbable comeback against West Virginia



During the second half of a college football game Oct. 17, 1970, between Pitt and West Virginia, much occurred which never could have been predicted.

A second-half Panthers surge that day in the Backyard Brawl at Pitt Stadium resulted in an improbable Pitt win and:

• Gave a swaggering, confident quarterback from Kennedy Township 15 minutes of fame he still can't outrun;

• Forced one of college football's greatest coaches to change philosophy;

• Left the losing quarterback probing for answers;

• Bemused a kid on Pitt's freshman team who could not believe the scoreboard;

• Convinced a young radio commentator to accept that anything can happen in this rivalry.

Oh yes, there also was the guy who, after seeing enough of West Virginia's whipping of the Panthers, left for a nearby bar to have a beer with a friend. He hustled back to the stadium when the game got tight in the second half.

At noon Friday at Heinz Field, the 103rd episode of this magnificent series kicks off.

The game in 1970, when Pitt trailed at halftime, 35-8, and stormed back to win is one of college football's most astounding comebacks.

Pitt didn't punt in the second half.

Pitt ran 67 plays in the second half.

Pitt scored two third-quarter and two fourth-quarter touchdowns, all while shutting down the Mountaineers' offense over the final 30 minutes.

It was homecoming at the football cathedral on Cardiac Hill and, when Pitt scored a touchdown with 55 seconds remaining -- then forced a fumble on the ensuing drive -- it had pulled off what had seemed unattainable: Pitt 36, West Virginia 35.

This is the story from several different vantage points of what happened during that day, 40 seasons ago:

The West Virginia coach

After winning his first five games with the Mountaineers, first-year coach Bobby Bowden lost to Duke the week before the Backyard Brawl.

Through the first half of this one, with West Virginia building an early 21-0 lead and riding on the back of running back Bob Gresham -- who had more than 100 yards by halftime -- things looked like a cinch.

The lead ballooned at the half as the Mountaineers' offense used the perimeter, running around the edge with tosses, sweeps and rolling out quarterback Mike Sherwood to give him throwing room.

"We had them 35-8 at the half and were killin' them," Bowden said many years later. "We were killin' them. The second half, we couldn't even make a first down."

Curiously, Bowden made the shift in the second half to a more inside offense, relying on a power attack.

Such a decision proved disastrous. It also changed the way Bowden, who won 377 games before retiring last season, coached the remainder of his career.

"I sat on it when we were ahead 35-8 and I said 'We are going to win this thing,' " he explained. "And we lost and I said, 'We ain't ever going to sit on this thing again.' And we didn't."

In 1993, a Florida State team led by Bowden won the national title. On the warpath to the crown were wins by scores of 57-0, 51-0, 54-0 and 62-3.

Then, in '99, Bowden's Florida State team won another national title by going 12-0. In seven of those games, the Seminoles scored at least 41 points.

Piling on? No way, Bowden said.

"I will tell you what, I learned something," Bowden said of the 1970 Backyard Brawl. "You never had me sitting on the ball again, did you? I'd get accused of running up the score. Well, you're darn right."

Bowden led West Virginia into Pitt Stadium twice more before leaving for Florida State. That day in 1970, though, West Virginia fans -- fed up with their coach already -- banged on the stadium's old metal doors as Bowden sat on a bench in the astonished postgame locker room.

"I would have liked to have died," he said. "It was the only time [his wife] Anne ever cried."

The Pitt quarterback

Dave Havern, from Montour High School, was 8-18 in his career as a starting quarterback at Pitt.

"But that game," he said. "It was my Andy Warhol moment."

Not the whole game -- just the second half.

During the comeback, Havern engineered an offense that never punted but also didn't produce any splash plays; rather, it ran out of a power formation, driving down the field and wearing down West Virginia's defense.

There was another side to it -- Pitt's defense.

"It wasn't like West Virginia punted on first down," Havern said. "They were trying to move the football. ... Everyone talks about the offense and what we did, but the job our defense did cannot be forgotten about."

On his side, on offense, Denny Ferris and Dave Garnett scored on touchdown runs in the third quarter and Tony Esposito scored on a short dive early in the fourth, while the defense kept West Virginia at bay.

With about nine minutes left, Pitt got the ball, behind 35-30, at its 30. Havern pushed his team downfield, making what he called "a dog throw, a bad throw" to Bill Pilconis for a 5-yard score on third-and-4 with 55 seconds left for the victory.

What if that final throw had fallen incomplete and that drive stalled?

"One of the things I've thought about, is that I hope that game hasn't defined me as a person, hasn't defined my life," said Havern, who coaches football at Shady Side Academy. "I've thought sometimes, 'Would I have the same contacts in life? Would the same girl still have married me? Would my buddies still be my buddies?'

"You know, realistically, I don't know. I think I'd still be the same person, but it is something to think about."

The WVU quarterback

Throwing for more than 4,300 yards and 34 touchdowns in his Mountaineers career, Mike Sherwood is firmly established among the top 10 in most West Virginia career passing categories.

In the 1968 Backyard Brawl at Pitt Stadium, Sherwood threw for 416 yards in a win, a game that remains second best in Mountaineers history. Two seasons later, he helped his team build that big lead only to watch it melt away.

"I'll never forget it," said Sherwood, a retired school administrator. "Never, ever forget it. I can't.

"You just really can't because when you look at it, you only had so many opportunities to play so many games and when you let one get away that shouldn't get away, you never forget that kind of stuff."

Sherwood described the Pitt momentum like a water spigot that couldn't be shut off once it started pouring. Forty years later, he still has a difficult time believing that the Panthers thought they had a chance.

"I really don't think they were coming out thinking they were going to win," he said. "I think their thought was to run the ball and shorten the game as much as they can. I think if you asked anybody from Pitt, they couldn't tell you they thought they'd come back."

The radio guy

The young radio color commentator for WTAE-1250 settled into his cramped spot in the old wooden press box at Pitt Stadium next to play-by-play man Ed Conway.

On this day Conway was on his game -- that's what color commentator Bill Hilgrove remembers -- even through the first half, when the home side was getting shellacked.

"When the team is down, your call can get lackluster," Hilgrove said. "The quality can drop and you can start to search for answers. Ed's call never did that. It was perfect, from halftime and then the buildup through the comeback. Perfect.

"That game, I felt, was without a doubt Ed's finest moment as a broadcaster."

Hilgrove wasn't stunned as the Panthers clawed back in the second half.

Hillgrove, now the play-by-play voice of the Panthers, was just shy of 30 years old that day.

Two freshmen

Freshmen weren't eligible to play on the varsity in 1970.

But there were two freshmen -- one on each side of the rivalry -- who will play big roles in Friday's Backyard Brawl.

Dave Wannstedt was a freshman for the Panthers. Bill Stewart was a Mountaineers freshman at West Virginia. Both now coach their alma maters. During the 1970 game. Stewart stayed in Morgantown, but Wannstedt attended the game and watched from the stands with some other members of the freshman team.

"All I remember was I just kept looking up to the scoreboard," Wannstedt said. "I was trying to figure out how it was the fourth quarter and we were within 10 points of tying this thing up.

"Everybody talks about Dave Havern and the offense and Pilconis and all the guys who scored touchdowns," Wannstedt said. "But our defense that day rose up time after time after time. That gave the offense opportunities."

Stewart, when asked about that game, didn't want to talk much about it.

"It broke my heart for coach Bowden, I remember that," he said. "The guys were just sick. It wasn't pleasant on Monday in practice."

Mom and dad

The late Jack Havern -- father of the Pitt quarterback -- was a scrappy guy from McKees Rocks, without much patience for a smart-mouthed fan.

So in the first half, when Pitt dug itself a deep deficit and some patrons were verbally riding his son, Jack had enough and walked out of Pitt Stadium and down to pal Frankie Gustine's bar on Forbes Avenue, where Hemingway's is now.

"My dad figured, what the hell, he'd sit there with Frankie at the bar, have a beer and listen to the rest on the radio," Dave Havern said. "Then we kept scoring. And scoring. And we scored again."

That's when Gustine kicked Jack Havern out of the bar.

"He apparently told my dad, 'Get back up there, they're going to win,' " Dave Havern said. "And Frankie sees this cab outside, throws my dad in it, the first time my dad was in a cab in his life, and it drives him up the hill and the usher lets him back in."

Jack Havern saw the end of the game.

As for Havern's late mother, Janet?

"She stayed the whole time, watched us come all the way back," Havern said. "Maybe she knew something. Or, maybe it is just that moms don't leave."


Colin Dunlap: cdunlap@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1459. First Published November 25, 2010 5:00 AM


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