If one man can literally make a college football program, Pitt had the distinction of having two of the all time greats of the sport shape its fantastic early history. Glenn “Pop” Warner held the coaching reins from 1915 through 1923, finishing with a 60-12-4 record and a winning percentage of a very impressive .816. When he moved on to Stanford and later completed his College Football Hall Of Fame career, few could have known at that time, that his successor would do just as well. Former Pitt player John Bain “Jock” Sutherland was born in Scotland and played for Warner’s Pitt squad as an All American guard in 1917. He joined the US Army Infantry for the latter stage of World War I and returned to the collegiate ranks as the head coach at Lafayette College. Upon completing his professional degrees and training as an Oral Surgeon at Pitt, he became a professor of dentistry at the university and also took over the head coaching position from Warner in 1924. As one of the recognized innovators and experts on the Single-Wing offense, Sutherland developed what came to be known as “Sutherland’s Scythe”, a Single-Wing attack that was so innovative and effective that even his mentor Warner stated that “He put more punch into it than any other coach.” Almost always described as “dour”, Sutherland was unmarried and put inordinate amounts of time into perfecting his football schemes. He created a monster at Pitt, a successful program that served to provide one of the only entertainment highlights and sources of positive pleasure for the city during the Great Depression. Playing an intersectional schedule that was annually considered to be the most difficult in the nation, Pitt games almost always outdrew all other football and sporting events across the entire country. Sutherland’s juggernaut lost but eleven games in the ten year period between 1929 and 1938. The coach has been credited as the creator of the two-team system, a first team that played the first and third quarters and a second team, almost as talented, that played the second and fourth. He was the first to have what he termed his “Specialty Teams,” groupings of players that went onto the field for kickoffs, kick returns, punts, and extra point plays as well as goal line stands. This was the forerunner to the modern offensive and defensive platoons with specific special teams players.
With the Rose Bowl as the only major bowl for most of Sutherland’s tenure, the honor of being invited fell to Pitt four times and an invitation was extended for a fifth, easily a valued record. However, Sutherland and his Pitt players were insulted that in the January 1, 1937 Rose Bowl game, the opposing University of Washington players were each given $100.00 in expense money while the Pitt team, most of whom had given up their holiday and work income for the practice and travel period, were offered nothing. The coaches scraped up enough out of their own pockets to donate $17.00 to each of their men but Sutherland and his squad did not forget what they considered to be their shabby and inequitable treatment. After a superb 9-0-1 1937 season that left the Panthers ranked as the number one team in the nation, it was akin to a national scandal that Pitt and the coaching staff, after receiving a reinforcing vote from the squad, rejected the bid to play in the January 1, 1938 Rose Bowl game. This was the beginning-of-the-end of the relationship between the University’s administration and Sutherland. The recently formed Golden Panthers booster club, whose motto was “Not One Cent For The Chancellor-Everything For Football”, strongly supported Sutherland and the players, but they too were helpless in the face of a deteriorating situation. The results of the in-fighting took a significant downturn when Athletic Director Don Harrison, already feuding with Sutherland, was replaced by Whitey Hagan who under orders of the school administration, immediately reduced the football budget, staff income, allowable practice time, and eliminated all recruiting activities and athletic scholarships. Thus began the descent of the proud Pitt program, one that would last for decades. After the 1938 season, another successful 8-2 affair with all-time great halfback Marshal Goldberg and the nationally revered “Dream Backfield” leading the way, Sutherland and his assistants resigned with the acclaimed head coach stating that “I will never field a team that has no chance to win” and his prediction was true as the program went into an immediate slide towards mediocrity and at times total ineffectiveness until the mid-1970’s. Sutherland remained successful, first coaching the professional Brooklyn Dodgers, entering the Navy as an officer during WW II, and then taking over the head coaching post and as Vice President of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He took that moribund team and made them a winner, tragically dying from a brain tumor in April of 1948. Sutherland’s legacy of innovation and his 111-20-12 record at Pitt made him an easy choice for The College Football Hall Of Fame but the de-emphasis of the sport and his departure in conjunction with the problems caused by World War II would literally cripple the proud Pitt Panthers until few recalled its glory days.
years would be marked by Sutherland’s absence, the entry of the U.S. into World
War II, declining attendance, a lack of funds, cancellations in the football
schedule, transportation difficulties, and the discontinuation of scholarships,
all of which served to leave Pitt football in major trouble. Without the benefit
of having service trainees assigned to their campus, the team was forced to use
those deemed to be unfit for military service and classified as 4-F. The squad
was filled out by seventeen-year-old freshmen not yet old enough for the
military draft. Following Sutherland, four head coaches came and went resulting
in eight of ten losing seasons. As noted by Pittsburgh sportswriter Jack Henry,
“Pitt wooed national supremacy so ardently that few suspected the courtship
would ever end” but end it did almost immediately after Sutherland’s departure.
Charley Bowser was the first to follow the great coach, a former Sutherland
center who knew the system and who had been a Sutherland assistant before
coaching at small-time Grove City College and Bowdoin in Maine. He had been
absent from coaching and working in the insurance industry when tapped for the
Pitt head coaching job. He benefited from Sutherland’s holdovers and went 5-4 in
1939 and then plummeted to three consecutive three win seasons. As the proud
Panther program headed toward mediocrity through 1940 and started the ’41 season
with five consecutive losses, they faced off against undefeated Fordham
University, ranked third in the nation. With halfback Edgar “Special Delivery”
Jones leading the way and guard Ralph Fife playing at a level that made him
Pitt’s last All American selection for many years, the Panthers 13-0 upset
knocked Fordham from a Rose Bowl bid and gave Pitt what has remained perhaps
their greatest upset in the program’s history.
After the 1942 season concluded, the student yearbook stated that “Coach Charles Bowser’s last season at Pitt was neither pleasant nor good” and this aptly described the 3-6 result that began with a 50-7 loss to Minnesota and included a 59-19 pasting by Ohio State. Bill Dutton and Tony DiMatteo provided some positive play but Pitt was no longer a good football team. “The Bowman Code”, a series of stipulations set forth by Chancellor John Bowman that imposed extreme restrictions upon all students with additional requirements for athletes, made the US Navy seem like a better choice than the Pitt head coaching position and after the 1942 season, the forty-four year old Bowser entered the service. A “major plus” for Bowser was his 1941 introduction of what were new, Tenite plastic helmets, first developed by the John Riddell Company in 1939. Switching the players out of their formerly worn Navy blue leather headgear and insuring that almost all of the Pitt Panthers were attired in these recently introduced helmets made them one of the earliest squads to adopt this brand new equipment innovation. The Navy blue shell with a contrasting one-inch yellow center striped helmet was continued through the ’42 season.
If interested in any of these Pittsburgh helmets please click on the photos below.