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Rebuilding Project Project – Case Study #1: Pittsburgh

In our first case study of rebuilding projects, we take a look at the dramatic turnaround engineered at Pittsburgh when Johnny Majors came over from Iowa State in 1972, and five years later oversaw a perfect season and a National Championship for the Panthers.

Johnny Majors was a Tennessee alum and coach, but had his greatest success at Pitt
Johnny Majors was a Tennessee alum and coach, but had his greatest success at Pitt

When it comes to rebuilding projects, it's hard to top the job done by Johnny Majors at Pittsburgh starting in 1973. Pittsburgh - a once-proud program with a long history of success - had suffered through a long stretch of bad football. After a 9-1 showing in 1963 (their best season since the glory days under Jock Sutherland ended in 1938), the Panthers had suffered through 9 straight losing seasons. The lowlight in this stretch was the 1-10 record posted in 1972 under Carl DePasqua in his fourth - and final - season.

Stepping into this mess was Majors. Majors had been a star halfback at Tennessee in the mid-‘50's, placing 2nd in the 1956 Heisman Trophy balloting to Paul Hornung. After a brief career in the pros in Canadian Football League, Majors returned to his alma mater as a Graduate Assistant coach and then Backfield coach. After stints at Mississippi State and Arkansas, he got his first head coaching job with Iowa State. The Cyclones were a rebuilding project themselves, having gone 14-31-4 (.327) in the five seasons prior to his hiring. He didn't set the world on fire, but he did manage to take them to two bowl games in his final two seasons (the first bowl games in the program's history) and compiled a 24-30-1 (.445) record in his five seasons. That was enough to convince Pitt to offer him the job.

Pittsburgh was a program with a rich history; in 1907 they hired Glenn "Pop" Warner away from the Carlisle Indian School (where he had coached Jim Thorpe), and the move paid dividends as he led them to 4 undefeated seasons (three of them completely unblemished). When Warner left for Stanford in 1924, Jock Sutherland (a star on those three unblemished Warner-coached teams) took over and continued the success, including their only four Rose Bowl invitations.

In 1938, the school decided to de-emphasize football by no longer granting athletic scholarships, and that predictably led to a significant drop off in the fortunes of the program. The school reinstated athletic scholarships and recruiting in 1945, but success remained elusive. They found some modest levels of success under John Michelosen in the mid-‘50's, but he couldn't sustain it.

When Majors took over, there were so few bodies on the roster that he had one of his assistant coaches suit up at LB for his first Spring Scrimmage. Prior to his arrival, Pitt had limited themselves to just 25 scholarships per year. But there was not yet an NCAA limit on yearly scholarships (the first such limit went into effect the next year), and that first class was huge (anywhere between 65-100 depending on who you ask) and very talented, highlighted by local stud RB Tony Dorsett.

This significant influx in numbers and talent was combined with a mix of Majors' folksy, preacher-esque personality and hardcore conditioning and discipline (assistant Jackie Sherrill had learned under Bear Bryant at Alabama and brought some "Junction Boys" style training to the program). The results came right away, as Majors led them to their first bowl game in 17 years. The 6 wins he notched in his first year at the helm marked a 5-game improvement from the prior year. Dorsett led the way as a true freshman, earning All-American honors and rushing for nearly 1,700 yards (counting the bowl game).

Majors continued to bring in well-regarded recruiting classes (even with the newly imposed NCAA limits on scholarships), and the program improved by a win each of the next two years behind Dorsett.

With many of that massive 1973 recruiting class now Seniors (redshirts were still rare in those days), the 1976 season marked the ultimate culmination of Major's rebuilding job, as the Panthers rolled through the season undefeated (their closest call being an 8-point over rival West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl) and ranked #1, and played #5 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. A convincing 27-3 win clinched their first National Championship since 1937, and Tony Dorsett won every major individual award, including the first (and only) Heisman Trophy for a Pitt player. He also finished as the NCAA's all-time leading rusher (a record since broken).

The only blemish on the season was the decision by Majors to accept an offer to return to his alma mater to coach the Tennessee Volunteers. He was succeeded by his former assistant Sherrill (who had made his head coaching debut the year prior with Washington State).

Sherrill continued the terrific recruiting success begun under Majors, with notable signees including hall of famers Hugh Green and Dan Marino. Success continued on the field as well, as he reeled off seasons of 9-2, 8-4, 11-1, 11-1 & 11-1 before being lured away by Texas A&M.

Neither Majors nor Sherrill would be able to replicate the level of success they had at Pittsburgh, and both had inauspicious ends to their coaching careers. While Majors was reasonably successful at Tennessee, he found himself the victim of a palace coup when his assistant Phil Fulmer stole the job out from under him in 1992. Majors then returned to Pitt, but was unable to recreate the magic of his first stint and suffered four consecutive poor seasons before retiring.

Sherrill had some success at A&M, but was dogged by NCAA investigations and penalties and ultimately resigned. After a few years away from coaching, he returned to the sidelines with Mississippi State with mixed results on the field and more trouble with the NCAA rule book off of it.

Following Sherrill at Pitt was his DC Foge Fazio. He rode the arm of Sr. Dan Marino in his first season to a 9-3 record, but as the Sherrill-recruited talent graduated, Fazio's success dropped off and he was fired after four years.

The Panthers have had moderate success since the days of Majors & Sherrill, including a good run under Walt Harris from 1997-2004 that earned him a job offer from Stanford, but have mostly churned through coaches in an attempt to return to the consistent level of success that has evaded them since Sherrill left in 1981. Aside from Paul Hackett, every coach they've had in that span has compiled a winning overall record, but none of them have excelled (Mike Gottfried leads that list with the .622 record his posted in his four seasons).

Paul Chryst is the latest entry into the churn of Panther head coaches, and he hopes to improve upon his 6-7 rookie season lest he find himself the next to be chewed-up and spit out.

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