With all of the super-frosh Sherrill brought to Pitt in 1977 fully mature, the 1980 squad was a team for the ages, one that completed the 1980 season with the number one defense in the country, a number two national ranking, and a second consecutive 11-1 record. The blemish was the result of a mid-season, turnover-filled loss to Florida State. The Pitt Panthers stood out wearing their unique mustard shade helmets that now sported the same color facemasks instead of the former gray models, and for the stockpile of talented players they had accrued. An incredible nineteen members of the squad signed NFL contracts directly upon leaving college! Many experts rank this Pitt team as one of the top three collegiate collections of all time and they played as if they were, the seniors never letting down. Defensive end/linebacker Hugh Green finished his college career as a four-time All American, the Maxwell Trophy winner, second in the Heisman voting to winner George Rogers, UPI College Player Of The Year, and the NCAA all-time leader in sacks. Limited by knee injuries, Green was the number one pick of the Bucs and played a solid eleven-year career for them and the Dolphins. Second Team All American Ricky Jackson, the "other end" would have been a revered star on any other team and went on to an All Pro and Pro Football Hall Of Fame career with the Saints, finishing his final two years with the 'Niners. The talent seemed endless: Defensive linemen Bill Neil (Giants and Packers), Greg Meisner (eleven years with the Rams, Chiefs, and Giants), and Jerry Boyarsky (Bengals) all had productive pro careers. Linebacker Sal Sunseri played to the level of his teammates. Defensive back Carlton Williamson was a heat-seeking missile and then joined the Ronnie Lott defensive backfield of the Forty-Niners that helped to make them such great champions. Tom Flynn bullied his way into a starting defensive back spot by the fourth game of the season and young Bill Maas and others rotated into the front seven. The offensive line was led by All American Mark May who gave up zero sacks his final two seasons, won the 1980 Outland Trophy, and was voted to The College Football Hall Of Fame. May became the leader of the famous Redskins "Hogs" offensive line, an All Pro performer, and presently is a highly respected college football analyst. Emil Boures (Steelers), center Russ Grimm, and Jimbo Covert who overcame a 1979 injury, toiled productively with May. As expected, with this type of firepower in front of them, fullback Randy McMillan (Colts '81-'86) and running backs Rooster Jones, Joe McCall, and Artrell Hawkins (Bengals) were often unstoppable. Quartetback Dan Marino added to his two-year totals, throwing for a total of 3289 yards, to Willie Collier and others, and he still had reliable Rick Trocano (Browns) behind him. Pitt had become the unstoppable and the impenetrable at the same time.
SPOTLIGHT ON HUGH GREEN:
Despite what could only be referred to as a great defense and what very much appeared to be an NFL lineup, the one Pitt player that every team had to focus attention on was defensive end Hugh Green. As the first defensive player to win the Walter Camp Award, he solidified his standing as an all time great with a second place finish in the 1980 Heisman Trophy balloting, garnering the Lombardi Award, and the Maxwell Award. Even as a sophomore, his legend was established as he was named to Pitt’s All Time Team after but two seasons on campus. Not exceptionally large at 6’2”, 225 pounds, the North High School product from Natchez, Mississippi utilized great speed and uncanny instinct to place himself in front of ball carriers, contributing to Pitt’s ranking as the number one overall defense and best against the rush in his senior season. A Second Team All American as a freshman, Green followed his inaugural college season with three Consensus All American years before becoming the Tampa Bay Buccaneers first round draft choice. Although less publicized as a pro than a collegiate player, Green was a two time All Pro and was, in an eleven year career split between the Bucs and Miami Dolphins, considered to be an excellent, productive player. Named to numerous “All Time” and “All Century” college teams, Green remains not only one of the most revered players in Pitt history, but in college football history with a well deserved place in The College Football Hall Of Fame.
With so many talented players leaving for the NFL, predictions for the 1981 season were more restrained but again, the nation's leading defense set the pace for the team and Pitt finished number four overall in the end-of-season rankings. They would have again contended for the number one spot if it had not been for what the team felt was an inexplicable 48-14 drubbing by Penn State in the finale that resulted in an 11-1 finish after their 24-20 victory over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Still their incredible third straight 11-1 season was the envy of every other program in the nation. Sherrill rode this superb performance into the sunset at season's end, to a position as Athletic Director and Head Coach at Texas A&M with one of the fattest coaching contracts in the history of sports at that time. Quarterback Marino made his All American junior year one to remember with thirty-four touchdown passes. Julius Dawkins hauled in many of those throws to the tune of forty-six receptions for 767 yards and made All American. Grimm, who became another of the Washington Redskins famed Hogs, Jim Sweeney (Jets), and young Bill Fralic (Falcons number one pick) teamed with All American Jimbo Covert, the Bears first round choice in '83, leader of their Super Bowl team offensive line, and honoree of The College Football Hall Of Fame, for a formidable line but again, it was the defense that was the heart of the team. Sophomore Bill Maas, the Chiefs first round pick, Dave Puzzuoli who played with the Browns for five years, and All American linebacker Sal Sunseri were outstanding. Sunseri, team captain, was injured in the Steelers camp after a Consensus All American season, and became a highly respected defensive coordinator at a number of colleges, including the 2013 National Championship Florida State program. Tom Flynn later put time in with the Packers and Giants. The defensive stars perhaps were not as well-known as the '80 crew but they were as effective.
When Johnny Majors left Pitt with the 1976 National Championship and departed for Tennessee, there were the expected concerns related to a drop in talent and performance. An excellent year followed by a good year, followed by what was arguably three of the greatest years of Panthers football and a backlog of talent that would choke an NFL General Manager had the Pitt faithful chomping at the bit for the start of the '82 season. Former Pitt tough-guy center and current assistant coach Serafino Fazio, "Foge" in the Pittsburgh neighborhood he grew up in, was the new head coach and as a "Pitt guy" had everyone's support. With Quarterback Marino, center Jim Sweeney, nose guard Bill Maas, defensive end Chris Doleman, safety Tom Flynn, and sophomore offensive tackle Bill Fralic, this again looked like a "can't miss" team and they were pre-season favorites to win or at least make a strong bid for the National Championship. They ripped off seven straight victories and then stumbled against Notre Dame and again lost to Penn State. Upstart SMU defeated them in a close 7-3 game in the Cotton Bowl leaving a fine 9-3 record that was considered to be a disappointment. An 8-3-1 1983 which ended with a Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State, a terrible 3-7-1 year in '84 and a mediocre 5-5-1 despite having a steady stream of players go to the NFL marked the end of Fazio's tenure. Through the following three decades, Pitt football has not yet returned to the glory days of the mid-seventies and early '80's but the Panthers have moved into the Atlantic Coast Conference and retained their reputation of being always dangerous, and always filled with good, hard-nosed players.
SPOTLIGHT ON DAN MARINO:
As a first-team High School All American out of Pittsburgh's Central Catholic High School, Dan Marino could have attended any university in the country and under normal circumstances, probably would have quarterbacked Penn State to many victories. "Normal" circumstances at Pitt however, had changed with the stewardship of Johnny Majors and his assistant Jackie Sherrill and the in-state balance of power had shifted. As Marino was playing high school football, Tony Dorsett was winning the Heisman Trophy, Pitt was churning out All Americans and NFL prospects, and the thought of playing football five minutes from home must have seemed very appealing. He turned down an offer to play baseball for the Kansas City Royals and the Panthers won him and he in turn, took the starting job mid-way through his freshman year and won for the Panthers. At 6'4" and 218-pounds he was big and strong enough and had uncanny accuracy. Missing playing time with a knee injury his sophomore season, he still put up fourteen touchdown passes as a prelude to an incredible junior season. That storied year led to All American status, throwing for 2876 yards and an NCAA-leading thirty-four touchdown passes. Marino's career totals of 7905 yards and seventy-four touchdown passes made him the Dolphins first round draft choice in 1983. As the starter through the 1999 season, Marino re-wrote the NFL record book in a Hall Of Fame career. From Rookie Of The Year to nine Pro Bowls, Marino was the consummate throwing quarterback, known for his ability to put a pass anywhere on the field. He was the first player in history to pass for over 5000 yards in a season and he amassed forty-eight touchdown throws in an NFL MVP season. In thirteen of his pro seasons, Marino threw for more than 3000 yards and had thirteen games of four-hundred yards or more. As a member of both the College and Pro Football Halls Of Fame, Dan Marino remains the standard by which all Pitt quarterbacks are measured.
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