Let's Learn From the Past: The 1976 Pitt Panthers
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Hopewell High School tailback Tony Dorsett rejuvenated a winning spirit at the University of Pittsburgh when he chose the Panthers over nearly 70 other colleges.
Coming off a 1-10 season in 1972 -- Pitt's ninth consecutive losing season -- first-year head coach John Majors recruited a group of freshmen that later became the core of one of the best teams in college football history.
Three years later, those star seniors earned the blue and gold a preseason No. 9 ranking entering the 1976 season.
In the first game of the season at Notre Dame, Dorsett -- then considered by many to be the best running back in college football -- ran for a 61-yard touchdown on the team's first play from scrimmage, sparking a 31-10 Pitt win and a run at college football's prestigious Heisman Trophy.
Despite losing quarterbacks Robert Haygood and Matt Cavanaugh to injuries in subsequent games, the Panthers didn't miss a beat and jumped out to a 4-0 start.
With third string quarterback Tom Yewcic taking snaps, Dorsett began to dominate the competition as he compiled 227 yards against Miami, 180 yards at Navy, 241 yards at Syracuse, 212 yards against Army and 199 yards against West Virginia, propelling Pitt to a 9-0 record and the No. 1 spot in the rankings.
Pitt put its undefeated record on the line in the final regular-season game against rival Penn State, which the Panthers hadn't beaten in 10 years.
The Nittany Lions stuffed Dorsett in a hard-fought first half that ended in a 7-7 tie. Coach Majors altered the lineup for the second half, inserting Dorsett at fullback for the first time in his four years at Pitt. Dorsett sealed his campaign for the Heisman Trophy, racking up 173 yards in the second half en route to a 24-7 victory and the eighth undefeated season in Pitt history.
The top-ranked Panthers accepted a bid to play in the Sugar Bowl against the fifth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs for the national championship.
More than 75,000 fans packed the Louisiana Superdome to see the Panthers jump out to a 21-0 halftime lead. Dorsett compiled a Sugar Bowl-record 202 yards as the Pitt Panthers won, 27-3.
Fans can meet 1976 coach of the year John Majors and take pictures with the 1976 national championship trophy and Tony Dorsett's Heisman trophy at the "Federated Investors Parade of Champions," a Pittsburgh 250 event at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum June 20-22. Visit www.pghhistory.org for tickets and information about the three-day fan festival celebrating Pittsburgh's sports history.
First Published June 12, 2008 12:00 am