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'Icing on the cake:' Pitt set to honor '76 team vs. Penn State

The headline on Page 8 in the 1976 Pittsburgh football media guide could be the biggest understatement in program history.

It reads: “1976 Outlook: A chance to be pretty good.”

Pitt had more than a chance. Pitt had the talent, confidence, will to win, work ethic, experience and leadership to win a national championship. But the 1976 story begins in 1973, when first-year coach John Majors brought in a freshman class that changed everything.

Tony Dorsett headlined the group, choosing the one-win Panthers over Penn State and nearly 70 other schools. That decision shocked many. Dorsett recalls the headline in the newspaper the day after his last high school game: “Next Stop: Penn State.”

Nobody knew at the time how assistant coach Jackie Sherrill and Majors would appeal to the Dorsett family with their genuine demeanor; Sherrill won over Dorsett’s mom with pies (her favorite). Meanwhile, Penn State coach Joe Paterno wanted Dorsett to play defense because John Cappelletti was in the backfield.

So Pitt was it. Dorsett and a talented freshman class arrived with a plan.

“A bunch of us got together and we made a pact among ourselves: Before we leave here, we’re going to win a national championship,” Dorsett said in a recent phone interview with ESPN.com. “To see it come to fruition ... wow! We worked hard, we knew our backs were against the wall when we came into Pitt.

“The coaching staff recruited some good football players that could have gone just about anywhere, myself included. Did it work out. We had a great time. You’re talking about what teamwork can do.”

Majors worked his team so hard during their first practices that many players just quit. Those who stayed learned discipline and organization, eventually becoming the best-conditioned team Majors ever coached. The attention to detail is something Dorsett carries with him to this day.

“Coach Majors would always tell us, ‘You’ve got to do the little things!’” Dorsett said, doing his best Majors impression. “We got to understanding and believing in that, started winning some games. When you start winning some games, he could tell you to do just about anything. We had talent. We had a bunch of guys playing for the same common denominator. There was no jealousy. Everyone was pulling for each other.”

Pitt won six games in 1973, then won seven in 1974 and eight in 1975. So when 1976 rolled around, the idea was not that this team would be “pretty good”; it was that this team would be championship good.

“No team I ever coached had more confidence than our team did in ’76,” Majors said in a phone interview. “They were developed, and they were confident and they knew they could win.”

Knowing that, Majors changed the format for the team’s final preseason scrimmage just eight days before the opener at No. 11 Notre Dame. There would be no tackling to the ground.

“We went full-speed nasty: hit as hard as you can but don’t gang-tackle,” Majors said. “During the scrimmage, I was concerned because it didn’t look as sharp as I thought. When I looked at the film on Saturday, it looked terrific. We were in great position, we were orderly, we were attacking the ball. We didn’t get anybody hurt, and we were ready to kick it off against Notre Dame.”

Dorsett had given the Irish nightmares. As Majors recalls it, Notre Dame great Paul Hornung declared at a pep rally the night before that he would jump out the press box window if Dorsett rushed for over 200 yards.

Pitt won 31-10, and Dorsett ended up with 181 yards rushing, though Majors pulled him with eight minutes left to play. (Months later, Majors ran into Hornung and told him, “You never appreciated me enough.” Hornung looked confused. Majors said, “I saved your life one time!”)

After the Notre Dame victory, the Panthers were off and running despite losing their top two quarterbacks early in the season. But when you have a back like Dorsett and a gruff defense led by tackle Al Romano, those losses are easier to overcome.

Headed into the regular-season finale against Penn State at Three Rivers Stadium, Pitt was No. 1 and Dorsett was a lock to win the Heisman. But Majors had yet to beat the rival Nittany Lions, squandering halftime leads in each of the previous three seasons.

In 1976, the teams went into the break tied at 7. But when the second half began, Majors played Dorsett at fullback for the first time ever. Penn State was unprepared, and Dorsett ran for 173 yards and a touchdown in the second half alone. The Panthers pulled off the 24-7 victory, Pitt’s first in the series since 1965.

“To me, that was our biggest game,” Romano said in a phone interview. “We had lost the year before, and we totally thought we outplayed them. It sat in my gut, and I could hardly wait for that game. There was no way they were going to beat us.”

Pitt went on to beat Georgia 27-3 in the Sugar Bowl to win the national championship. Now 40 years later, the 1976 team will be honored during Saturday’s game against Penn State. About 80 former players and coaches are expected to attend, including Dorsett and Majors.

That they are being welcomed back against the Nittany Lions is “just icing on the cake,” Romano said.

“Those were the best four years of my life,” Dorsett said. “A little, skinny kid from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, I never dreamed the things that happened to me at the University would come to me.”