Minima Marino and “Send it in, Jerome”: Unbounded Personal Misery and Bliss via the Pitt Panthers

When I tell people that being a Pittsburgh sports fan has been a trying experience (to put it nicely), they often don’t relate. “Aren’t you from The City of Champions?” they ask me.

I suppose I am, but:
1. I’ve never watched a hockey game from start to finish in my life (unless you count playing Blades of Steel)

2. The Pirates have had more losing seasons in my life than the Washington Generals, and baseball is only a passing summer interest because the NBA and college football aren’t around.

3. I don’t root for the Steelers and don’t care much about the NFL.

4. We don’t have an NBA team and my habit of jumping on the bandwagon of underdog fast break-oriented teams has generally meant I inevitably watch them lose in the playoffs to a team with star players, tougher defense, and questionable officiating.

So when I say I’m a Pitt fan, I mean the University of Pittsburgh Panthers aka Pitt (basketball and football -- the two greatest college sports).

* * *

First, I will summarize the great history of Pitt football before I was born:

From 1915-1923, the legendary Pop Warner led the Panthers, and they claim national championships in 1915, 1916, and 1923. The 1915 team was known as the “Fighting Dentists” as over half of the team became Dentists or Doctors. The Spanish flu epidemic took so many lives of football players that much of that season ended up canceled, but they still claim a national title from those proud tooth-pullers. During this era, Pitt also played the first ever game broadcast via radio (thank you KDKA.) The increased interest lead to plans for an on-campus stadium and attracted a former Warner player, the Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie… whoops, I mean the Scottish immigrant, Dr. “Jock” Sutherland to take over as head coach.

"Jock" coached Pitt from 1924-1938. These years included three scoreless ties against powerhouse Fordham (Vince Lombardi being part of their “seven blocks of Granite” line), including one of the most controversial finishes in football of that era (if Fordham football was still relevant, I’m sure we’d debate it to this day.) Anyway, Sutherland’s overall record was 111-20-12, including 79! shutouts. His vaunted version of single wing offense helped make a star out of Marshall Goldberg and his “dream backfield”. Even better than the five national titles the University claims from this era for me is that Sutherland never lost to Penn State as a player OR coach (and only lost to West Virginia once.)

Pitt then deemphasized athletics by eliminating various subsidies, reducing practice time, and trying to have a more academic focus in student athletics. This lead to decades of decline, though there were still bright spots like star running back Jimmy Joe Robinson, the first African American player for Pitt; the play of Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Schmidt; and the first African player in a Southern bowl game against a Southern opponent, Bobby Grier. Pitt lost that game against Georgia Tech while protests persisted against the integrated Panthers taking their team to the Sugar Bowl on a controversial interference call. Mike Ditka and Marty Schottenheimer were other products of this extended period. And, actually, Pitt had one season with an outside chance for a return to national title glory, which was cut short by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The assisination lead to the postponement of the Panther's annual rivalry game against Penn State. Without the results of the Penn State game in place, and despite a #4 ranking, Pitt was not invited to any bowl games, and finished the season ranked #3, perhaps the best team in modern football not to get an invitation to a bowl game.

Johnny Majors was hired by Pitt in 1973, and quickly overturned the eastern independent “gentleman’s agreement” about limiting the number football scholarships handed out per year. Majors and his top rate staff went out and recruited roughly 100 players to one freshman class and put them through a brutal camp. He told them the football axiom, “those who stay will play -- and those who play will be champions.” Much of the team didn’t survive the summer work outs, but enough stayed to build the core of a team that went undefeated and win the 1976 national title and Tony Dorsett a Heisman trophy. This would however be Pitt’s most recent AP “mythical” national championship in football.

Overall, my point was Pitt had a proud history before I could enjoy it. I love studying it, but I didn’t get the emotional high that came through living vicariously through it that older fans did.

* * *

I was born in January 1980 at Magee Women’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. Strange and negative things started happening to Pitt around this time.

Another southerner, Jackie Sherrill took over for Majors. “Jackie” brought in incredible talent from Mississippi, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, the metro DC area, and beyond. His teams were loaded with future NFL stars like Dan Marino, Rickey Jackson, Hugh Green, Russ Grimm, Mark May, and Bill Fralic. The 1980 team sent 30 players to the NFL (23 starters!) and two more to the Canadian Football League and USFL. Bobby Bowden called the 1980 Panthers “the best college football team I’ve ever seen.”

So what’s the problem? Well Sherrill had a streak of a 33-3 across three seasons but each of those three losses kept Pitt from winning an AP national title. One was a bizarre loss to Florida State in a game who's legend increases every time I hear about it. Various versions of the story include the idea it was played in a tsunami, that the Florida State punter averaged 90 yards per punt, and that the Pitt players recruited from the state of Florida had been so busy partying with family and friends that they were too hung-over to show up to the game. Other painful losses in the Sherill era included a dropped game against North Carolina, a blunder against Notre Dame, and probably the worst of all: a 48-14 ass whopping at the hands of arch-rival Penn State. Pitt had been ranked #1 in the land in 1982, but after the 48-14 debacle (a game in which Pitt had lead 14-0!), they have never been ranked #1 in football again.

After this 1973-1983 golden decade, Pitt started to become simply a bad team. Ultimate “Pitt man” Foge Fazio struggled trying to handle the head coaching job; Mike Gottfried was pushed out due to concerns about him fighting the improved academic standards the University put into place; and Paul Hackett proved a better offensive coordinator than head coach. A desperate rehire of Johnny Majors was a flat out disaster. I've heard there were even been whispers of dropping down to division I-AA. Pitt also joined the Big East conference, which it has henceforth never won outright.

A new chancellor and athletic director made the unpopular decisions to change from “Pitt” to “Pittsburgh”, dropped the classic “script” logos, and drew up plans to move away from their on-campus stadium. All three moves proved controversial to this day with the fan base, whatever their merits. But the hire of Walt Harris brought an improvement in the stature of the Panthers, as players like Larry Fitzgerald and Tyler "'I'm so f**king proud of this team' live on NBC" Palko became favorites of his pass-friendly offense.

After an embarassing loss to an undefeated Urban Meyer Utah team in their only BCS bowl, Harris was then pushed out for Dave Wannstedt, the mustached "yinzer" who couldn’t have been more proud of getting the job he had dreamed of ever since he saw the Cathedral of Learning from the steel mill he worked at as a young man.

During the Wannstedt years, I have had season tickets, attended every home game, and followed the team religiously so I'll go into a bit more detail here.

The "Wanny" era got off to a rough start. The very first game of his tenure was also the first of Charlie Weis’. And Notre Dame beat down Pitt at Heinz Field in a game I hope I can forget. But it got worse. It’s one thing to watch a football team lose 63-28 to a national power like Ohio State – but it was another to watch teams in the Wannstedt era lose to Ohio University.

But hope sprung eternal! Despite some embarrassing losses to schools that most teams put on their schedule for automatic wins, Wanny was recruiting like a champion. LeSean “Shady” McCoy was the sort of singular player that can make you feel upbeat about an entire program in a way I had never really felt before. The defensive line was stocked with the sort of talent Walt Harris couldn’t bring in. Pitt had NFL coaches and were producing NFL players again. A 13-9 defeat of West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl™ was the greatest moment of sports fandom in my life. The only thing I can remotely compare it to in terms of pure bliss is having a child.

So what happens when you get your hopes up for Pitt any time in the last 30 years, complete with a pre-season rank in the AP poll? You get them crushed. In 2008, after the excitement of the season was dashed by a home loss to BOWLING GREEN. The “Fire Wannstedt!” chants spread through the stadium. But Pitt managed to get my hopes back up by winning 9 games, beating West Virginia again, and advancing to the Brut Sun Bowl. So what happens when my hopes go up for the Sun Bowl and their first 10 win season since Jackie Sherrill? They lose 3-0 in one of the most frustrating games I’ve ever watched, complete with a Matt Cavanaugh offensive game plan of throwing deep fade passes in swirling wind.

2009 would have to be better, right? Picked to win the conference, the Panthers came out strong with a 9-1 record, and earned a #8 national ranking. Freshman running backs Dion Lewis and Ray Graham helped Pitt earn the reputation as an up-and-coming running back factory. All Pitt had to do to win their first outright Big East championship was beat West Virginia OR Cincinnati. This is where the real hurt began.

On the day after Thanksgiving, the Back Yard Brawl was again played in Morgantown in front of 55,000 drunk Mountaineers in Daniel Boone caps (and 500 sober Mountaineers in baseball caps.) Tied 16-16, West Virginia kicked a field goal as time expired to earn bragging rights.

Well, there is always next week, right? Surely Pitt could beat Cincinnati at home in the defacto Big East championship game. Especially in the snow. Especially with an extra day’s rest. Especially with a 7-1 all time record against the Bearcats. It sure seemed that way as the Panthers started the game up 31-10 and I began “over-rated!” chants against the visitors section next to me (Cincy came into the game with a small national title hope.) But the curse of my birth into Pitt fandom struck again as Tony Pike picked apart the Pitt defense. Dion Lewis’ 47(!) carries for 194 yards or his touchdown with 1:36 left in the game wasn’t enough. Tony Pike threw a 30 yard touchdown pass with 33 seconds remaining. Pitt had just missed an extra point on a bad hold on the previous touchdown, but Cincinnati made theirs to win 45-44. A friend texted me as she walked across one of Pittsburgh’s many bridges downtown that “I’m crying right now. It’s embarrassing.” I was crying too.

After those heart breaking losses, Pitt won their bowl game to have their first 10 win season in my adult life, just in time for me to get my hopes up for 2010. They were a near-unanimous media pick to win the conference for the second straight year. Then they started losing again: first to Utah, then to Miami aka "The U", then to Notre Dame. All three big non-conference tests were big failures. But hey, wins against Syracuse, Rutgers, and Louisville meant winning two of their last three games would make them BCS bound thanks to a weak Big East conference.

Then Pitt lost to Connecticut 30-28 in a shameful coaching performance and lost the Backyard Brawl in true tailspin mode. Wanny was then fired, leaving many of us feeling conflicted about a man who loved the job as much as anyone could, but who never accomplished his mission of returning Pitt to the level of glory he knew from the 1970s.

After Wanny was pushed out, Pitt went on to beat Kentucky in something called the "BBVA Compass Bowl" and hired Todd Graham from Tulsa. Graham threw together a last minute recruiting class, salvaging the future and raising my expectations for the team this year. I renewed my season tickets. I look forward to our first game. Graham has a touch of George W. Bush to his diction. So, Coach Graham: “Fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, I’ll get fooled again.” I’m a Pitt diehard and I can take it.

* * *

I’ll dispense with a lengthy history of Pitt basketball (both because I don’t know much about it and because it’s not really as glorious as the football history.) I do know my dad has had Pitt basketball season tickets as long as I’ve been alive and I can comment on how that has gone for us so far.

So jumping right in, 1988 was a special year for Pitt basketball. This was a heck of a team that coaches Roy Chipman and then Paul Evans put together. They had:

  • Charles Smith, one of the top players in the country (and future employer of a current writer!)
  • Jerome Lane, also a future NBA player who had led the nation in rebounding at roughly 6’4”.
  • An incoming class of five freshmen that ranked as the top in the country: point guard Sean Miller (currently coach of Arizona), shooting guard Jason Matthews (three-point specialist), swingman Darelle Porter (future coach of Duquense basketball and an excellent defender), and post-players Brian Shorter (who prop-48ed) and Bobby Martin.
  • A variety of other contributors, including the talented Demetreus Gore and a scorer later named academically ineligible in Rod Brookin.

Going into the NCAA tournament, the team was talented, deep, battle tested – and Coach Evans (fresh off successes with David Robinson at Navy) was well regarded as an up and comer.

Pitt finished the 87-88 season ranked #8 in the AP poll and advanced to the Sweet 16 round where they faced a Wil Perdue-led Vanderbilt squad (or “Wil Vanderbilt” as Michael Jordan mockingly called him.) This game shouldn’t have been a major problem. The Panthers had more talent, more muscle, and seemed destined to meet up with Danny Manning’s Kansas squad in the elite eight. Manning has since mentioned Charles Smith was the player he thought would be most challenging to match-up with in that tournament.

Pitt took a 67-63 lead with 12 seconds to go. A 4 point lead to defend in 12 seconds – no problem, right? Vanderbilt’s Barry Goheen rushed down the court to hit a three, to draw his team of future lawyers within one. After being quickly fouled, Charles Smith smoothly hit two more free throws, and Pitt now led 69-66 with only four seconds left.

Let me now stop to explain a rule that existed in the NCAA in 1988: at this time, if you fouled a player in the act of shooting, it did not matter if he was in front of or behind the three point line: it was only two shots. So the obvious thing to do is foul.

So what happened in reailty? Goheen again ran down the floor untouched and hit another three pointer to send the game to overtime. You can guess the rest: Vanderbilt pulled ahead of the emotionally crushed Panthers and won the game easily in OT.

Here is the video documentation of this absurdly frustrating ending:

Whose fault was it? It depends who you ask. From a 2008 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Afterward, Pitt coach Paul Evans said he had told his players to foul Goheen on the final drive of regulation, but many of the Pitt players disputed Evans' claim then and now.
"That's when I realized that we didn't have a coach," said Smith, who had 21 points and 10 rebounds in his final game. "We should have never let [Goheen] shoot that 3-pointer. We should have fouled him."
If you’re interested in learning more about this team, check out A Season Inside: One Year in College Basketball by John Feinstein. Overall it’s a really good read about 1988 in college basketball in a few programs.

Coincidental side note: Moon, Pennsylvania native John Calipari was a Pitt assistant during this game and went on to have his own “why didn’t you foul?” moment in the Memphis – Kansas national title game a few years ago – though to be fair, the rules have since changed that fouling someone in the act of shooting a three is three shots now. But still, he was there on the bench for two of the roughest losses I’ve ever seen.

* * *
After this loss came “the dark years.” Paul Evans’ career took a nosedive to the extent that the last that I heard he was an assistant coach of a High School in Virginia. The new coach, Ralph Willard, had to deal with inferior facilities and hence tough times recruiting. I remember the team being so thin at talent that the team equipment manager, Oliver Antigua, played some limited minutes in a few games. Pitt lost a ton of basketball games during this time (and football for that matter.) When Ben Howland was hired, it generated little excitement among anyone I knew at first.

But Howland managed to raise our expectations almost over night. It was fun to watch a team rebuild so aggressively. Excellent perimeter defender Julius Page and hard working rebounders like Chevy Troutman, Jaron Brown and Ontario Lett set a new physical tone for Pitt hoops. But no player better defined the tough style of Howland’s teams than the gutsy Brandon Knight, now a rising star on the coaching staff.

So for March Madness in 2002, we got to see the best Pitt team in a good number of years advance to the Sweet 16, with only a 10-seed Kent State squad standing between the Panthers and the Elite Eight. I remember sitting in a bar in Johnstown Pennsylvania, watching the game on a TV with a coworker while we were supposed to be out working on the Bob Casey Jr. for Gubernatorial Primary against Ed Rendell. We sure knew how to pick a loser. Pitt lost to Kent State in overtime (“Five Dead In Ohio?”), and Casey lost to Rendell shortly after.

Pitt marched on. After this they had an understandable tournament loss against Dwayne Wade but still improved their profile. After Howland left for UCLA, the transition to Jamie Dixon saw no drop-off in most fan’s eyes: in fact, most would note the additional strides Pitt made under Dixon’s steady hand.

From 2002 on, Pitt hasn’t had a losing record against any other Big East team (thanks to the Pitt scouts message board community for this handy list):
Pitt vs. Big East opponents since the beginning of 2002, listed in order of winning percentage:

DePaul: 6-0 (1.000) Providence: 10-1 (.909)
Rutgers: 10-1 (.909)
Cincinnati: 8-1 (.889)
South Florida: 5-1 (.833)
Syracuse: 12-3 (.800)
St. John's 8-3 (.727)
West Virginia: 15-6 (.714)
Seton Hall: 9-4 (.692)
Georgetown: 10-5 (.667)
Villanova 9-5* (.643)
Marquette 6-4** (.600)
Connecticut: 9-7 (.563)
Louisville: 5-4 (.556)
Notre Dame: 7-7 (.500)

(Former Big East Members)
Boston College 6-0
Virginia Tech 3-0
Miami 2-1

Total conference record: 140-53
Home: 72-12
Away: 52-32
Big East Tournament record: 16-8
It started to almost feel routine to see Pitt put together an excellent Big East season, an excellent Big East tournament performance, and climb to higher and higher national ranking, including the first #1 basketball ranking in my lifetime. But for whatever reasons, Pitt couldn’t make it passed the Sweet 16 round.

In the 2009 NCAA tournament, Pitt finally looked ready to not only advance past the Sweet 16 (which they had gotten to five times in ten years/ten tournament appearances), but to make their first Final Four of my life! Then Scottie Reynolds happened:

Of course Jay Wright mentioned this play never worked in practice, but somehow it works against Pitt. This was an unbelievable blow, especially for a team filled with fan favorites like DeJuan Blair, the first Pittsburgh City League player on the Panthers since Porter in 1988.

Still, the 2010-2011 season was one of the three most hopeful in my life, along with the aforementioned 1987-1988 and 2008-2009. Pitt secured a #1 seed going into the tournament. In the second round, they faced the Butler Bulldogs. This was one of the strangest endings to a sporting event I’ve ever seen, and of course Pitt was on the losing end again.

But hey, Pitt has their second McDonalds All-American since that 1988 class coming in next year in Khem Birch. There is always reason for restored hope.

And I still keep a poster up in my office of that 1988 freshmen class (see below), the first sports team I ever loved. I won’t take it down until Pitt makes it to a Final Four. At that point, it’ll be time for a new poster.

Hail to Pitt!

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Anonymous said...

awesome article. Hopefully in 10 years we will have a new better chapter to write. NG

Tim M said...

Great article, even though I don't care at all about Pitt I smiled throughout it.

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