In the year the nation celebrated its bicentennial, the Pitt Panthers heading into the college football season with some lofty expectations. Head coach Johnny Majors had one of his best teams and the Panthers started the year ranked in the AP top 10 for the first time since 1960. It was a long time coming, but with Tony Dorsett at running back and a defense equipped to make their own steel curtain similar to the glory days of the Pittsburgh Steelers at the time, the Panthers were ready to pounce on a national title.
The 1976 season opened with a bang. No. 9 Pitt defeated No. 11 Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana by a score fo 31-10 on national television. The new polls bumped the Panthers up to No. 3 and the national title race was officially on for the Panthers. A blowout win at Georgia Tech and a home-opening victory over Temple moved Pitt to 3-0 with the defense allowing no more than 14 points in each of the first three games of the season. The defense had their hands full on the road against Duke, but the Blue Devils were unable to ruin a magical run.
After things went off the rails a bit on the road against Duke, Pitt continued their undefeated run with the defense anchoring down the rest of the way. Only three teams managed to score in the double digits against the Panthers after Oct. 2, and Dorsett went on a run to take home the Heisman Trophy along the way.
Dorsett cleaned up on the award circuit in 1976. In addition to the Heisman Trophy, Dorsett took home the Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award and the UPI Player of the Year. Dorsett rushed for 2,150 yards in the 11-game regular season to finish his collegiate career with 6,082 rushing yards. At the time, that stood as the new NCAA career rushing record and it lasted until 1998 when Ricky Williams of Texas eclipsed the record mark.
The strength of schedule argument was not a great one for the Panthers in 1976 with the regular season being bookended by the only ranked opponents on the schedule (the previously mentioned Irish and No. 16 Penn State in the regular-season finale). A 24-7 victory over the rival Nittany Lions capped a perfect regular season for No. 1 Pittsburgh, setting them up for a chance to play for the first national title in school history since 1937. In an era long before the College Football Playoff, or even the BCS, Pitt was pair3d up with No. 5 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. The Rose Bowl featured No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 USC, and the Cotton Bowl got to feature No. 4 Maryland against No. 6 Houston. That left the Sugar Bowl to feature the top-ranked Panthers and No. 5 Georgia, champions of the SEC. Dorsett once again shined and helped Pitt remain undefeated to claim its first national title since 1937. Leading 14-0 in the second quarter, Dorsett took off to put Pittsburgh up by three touchdowns with a run off to the right side of the field. There was no coming back from that for the Bulldogs.
Generations have come and gone since Pitt’s national championship victory, and the landscape of Pittsburgh football has certainly evolved along with the entire college football landscape. Here’s a look at what was going on the last time the Panthers won it all.
Last National Championship: 1976 (43 years and counting)
Who was President?
Gerald Ford was in his final year in the White House. With Bob Dole as his running mate, Ford would lose the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter.
Current president Donald Trump was a year away from marrying his first wife, Ivana Zelníčková. In 1976, Trump began his run in Manhattan real estate with a 50 percent stake in the Commodore Hotel, paid for in largely by a loan from his father Fred Trump.
What was on TV?
Heeeeeyyyyyyy. The Fonz was leading the TV ratings with Happy Days being the nation’s top-rated TV show, followed by Laverne & Shirley. M*A*S*H was in its prime during the middle of its run on TV as well.
America was also tuning into shows such as The Six Million Dollar Man and Three’s Company.
Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michael went on the air to try getting The Beatles together for a reunion. His (satirical) efforts would go unrewarded, although the offer of $3,000 for the reunion was fun while it lasted. 1976 was the second year Saturday Nigth Live was on the air live from New York.
1976 also marked the second year on the air for popular game show Wheel of Fortune. But one other popular game show that went on the air for the first time in 1976 was Family Feud.
Cable network Showtime went on the air for the first time, although only in California.
What movies were hot?
Sylvester Stallone was a big winner on the big screen in 1976 with “Rocky.” Not only did “Rocky” revolutionize the training montage, but the film went on to dominate the top spot in the box office and win an Academy Award. And before we can continue, it is mandated that we must share one training montage.
There were certainly some other notable movies in 1976 as well, including “Taxi Driver” and the first remake of “A Star is Born.” Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, “Family Plot” was release din 1976 to bring a close to the legendary filmmaker’s career. It was also the end of an era for John Wayne, who appeared in his final film, “The Shootist.”
As far as sports movies go, “Rocky” led the way, but we also got “The Bad News Bears” on the big screen too.
Filming on a science fiction movie also began in 1976 directed by an early George Lucas. That movie would end up being “Star Wars.”
What else happened in 1976?
The conference championship picture in 1976 was messy around the country. Other than the ACC (Maryland) and Pac-8 (USC), there were split conference titles all over the place. The Big Eight had a three-way tie with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado. The Big Ten title was split between Michigan and Ohio State. Georgia and Kentucky shared the SEC title, and Houston and Texas Tech split the Southwest Conference title. BYU and Wyoming shared the WAC championship and Brown and Yale split the Ivy League championship.
Current Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi was 10 years old. Current Alabama head coach Nick Saban was coaching up the linebackers at his alma mater, Kent State, in his fourth season as an assistant head coach. Former Pitt tight end Mike Ditka was in his fourth season as an assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys. He would be named head coach of the Chicago Bears six years later.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were the reigning Super Bowl champions heading into the 1976 season after their victory over the Dallas Cowboys, but the Oakland Raiders were on their way to a Super Bowl title over the Minnesota Vikings during the 1976 season. The NFL also expanded with the addition of the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Each has won a Super Bowl more recently than Pitt own the national title.
The Big Red Machine of the Cincinnati Reds swept the New York Yankees in the World Series. Also taking place in Yankee Stadium that year was Muhammad Ali topping Ken Norton in 15 rounds for the World Heavyweight title.
Can Pitt still be it?
After winning it all in 1976, Majors returned to his alma mater of Tennessee to serve as the head coach of the Vols until 1992. His replacement, Jackie Sherrill, kept the good times rolling for the Panthers from 1977 through 1981 but Sherrill failed to get some of the best teams in program history to celebrate another national title. Pitt has not won a major bowl game since the 1981 season. Majors eventually returned to the Panthers in 1993 after being forced to resign at Tennessee, giving way to offensive coordinator Phillip Fulmer. The glory days of Pitt football had already vanished and could never be recaptured in the short return of Majors. A record of 12-32 was a far cry from the first stint of Majors, and he moved on to serve in a different role in the athletics department.
Since finishing the 1981 season at No. 4 in the final AP poll, the Panthers have finished in the AP top 25 just six times. Just once in that span have the Panthers reached the 10-win mark in any given season. Despite playing for its first ACC Championship last season, the ceiling has been lowered dramatically for the Panthers. Can Pitt climb back to national relevance? Nothing is impossible, but the game has changed and in many ways, Pitt has lost some advantages other programs have to offer from facilities to gameday atmosphere and more. Pitt has sprinkled in some good moments that have played a role in the national title picture (just ask West Virginia) but envisioning the Panthers going on a run like they did from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s may be foggy at best.