Johnny Majors’ reinvention of Pitt still resonates, as a memory for fans and target for today’s Panthers

Through examination of the team’s performance, one can try to understand how farcical Pitt football had become in the years before Johnny Majors arrived as head coach: no winning seasons in a nine-year period, eight losing seasons, four with just a single victory, a composite 22-68-2 record. It really helped to be there, though. The Panthers were like a decade-long slapstick routine, and few in the stadium took them seriously.

Then Majors arrived in December 1972 and started recruiting. There was little to sell.

“The locker room was dank. It was just in bad shape,” he told radio station WESA in 2016. “They didn’t have any sign of a weight room. They had one universal machine in the middle of the dressing room floor that three or four people could work on at one time.”

He landed Tony Dorsett, anyway. He got tight end Jim Corbett, quarterback Robert Haygood, linebacker Arnie Weatherington, center John Pelusi and defensive linemen Ed Wilamowski, Al Romano and Gary Burley. There were no restrictions regarding the number of players a program could sign; legend always had it there were 90 recruits in the 1973 Pitt class, but then-assistant Jackie Sherrill has said the number was 76. And four seasons later, Pitt football claimed the 1976 national championship.

In the modern history of college football, there never has been a turnaround so dramatic.

This achievement was not all Johnny Majors left behind, though, when he died Wednesday at age 85. He coached Tennessee from 1977 to 1992 and won three Southeastern Conference championships. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

He was described by former Panthers quarterback Matt Cavanaugh, during an interview with Pittsburgh radio station 93.7 The Fan, as a “master motivator. He had an enthusiasm, a sincere enthusiasm,” Cavanaugh told “The Cook and Joe Show.” “He could be a tough character, but when the curtain was down, he could pull you aside and make you feel pretty good.”

Majors was an All-American tailback at Tennessee who excelled in the single-wing offense and finished second in the 1956 Heisman Trophy voting to Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung. Majors’ Volunteers completed the regular season 10-0 but lost the Sugar Bowl to Baylor.

The 1976 Panthers avenged both of those defeats, in a sense. Dorsett became Pitt’s first Heisman winner with his magical 2,000-yard season. And the Panthers won the Sugar Bowl over Georgia to finish 12-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation

Pitt Stadium was so much different that year, not even a decade after I’d watched the team be shut out by Army in a hopeless November 1968 defeat.

With Dorsett the featured weapon in Majors’ veer offense, fans were electrified by such results as a 36-19 destruction of Miami, a 23-13 escape of Syracuse, a 37-7 runaway against Army and, on Thanksgiving night, a 24-7 victory over rival Penn State that broke a string of 10 consecutive losses and firmly established the Pitt-Penn State rivalry as a fixture on the college football landscape.

That game was played in a deluge at Three Rivers Stadium, with an icy rain pouring from kickoff to the final whistle and Dorsett struggling at first to get loose against the Nittany Lions defense. The score was 7-7 at halftime. Majors and his staff had the brilliant idea to switch to an unbalanced offensive line and move Dorsett from his tailback position to fullback, nearer to the line of scrimmage. He carved through the PSU defense for 173 yards after halftime.

“One of my biggest assets as a runner was to see things and react in a timely manner,” Dorsett told FSN in a documentary about the 1976 Panthers. “Man, I busted up there a few times and I don’t think Joe Paterno and that defense knew what hit them. It took us four years to beat them, but we finally got Joe.”

Majors returned to Pitt in 1993 to great enthusiasm but less-glamorous results, after he’d been forced out at Tennessee following a season in which he’d undergone heart surgery and then struggled to a 2-3 record subsequent to his return. It was a rather harsh outcome for a university legend who’d compiled a 29-6-2 record in his three prior seasons, and his return to Pitt was no kinder.

It was wonderful twice: On the day he was hired, when the athletic department handed out T-shirts that said, “Pitt Football: Back to the Future,” and when the Panthers came from behind to win on the road at Southern Mississippi in Majors’ first game back. He was hugged on the field at M.M. Roberts Stadium by some of the program’s big boosters, and so much seemed possible.

Persistent defeat did not appear to be one of those possibilities, but that’s what Pitt got. There were four losing seasons in a row, so the university moved on. That wasn’t good enough at Pitt anymore. But it wasn’t good enough because Majors had raised the standard, had elevated the program from joke to force.

Without Majors, no one would be wondering whether Pitt football ever could recapture its championship form. Without him there is no Dan Marino, no Hugh Green, no Bill Fralic and probably not a Curtis Martin or James Conner. All of them still would have been great football players, but they would have been great football players elsewhere.

Majors made Pitt football. That the Panthers had been great once — with Marshall Goldberg, Joe Schmidt, Mike Ditka and Paul Martha — was entirely irrelevant by the time he arrived on campus. Panthers fans still long to reach that level of excellence again. They have Majors to thank for such nostalgia, for better or worse.

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