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When Pitt and Penn State were together on top of the college football world

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Let’s look back on the hottest period in what used to be one of CFB’s most scalding rivalries. It continues Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC.

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In 1981, a cool thing happened in Weeks 7 and 8, when rivals Penn State and Pitt were 1-2 in the AP Poll.

1981 was by far Dan Marino’s best season at Pitt, and the Panthers rode him to the brink of another national title. The exception was a 17-0 win at West Virginia with Marino hurt, when the Panthers won without completing a single pass.

“Danny controlled the line of scrimmage so well,” Pitt’s coach, Jackie Sherrill, says. “He probably called 85 percent of the game at the line of scrimmage.”

Pitt started 10-0 and needed to beat Penn State to play for the title.

The Nittany Lions had lost by a field goal at Miami on Halloween, leaving Pitt as the top-ranked team.

But 1981 Penn State still had an all-world running game and an elite defense. Despite not getting much from QB Todd Blackledge, Penn State finished 10th in the country in points per game. Curt Warner went over 1,000 yards rushing, and Jon Williams and Mike Meade had 667 and 475, respectively. The offensive line had a couple of All-Americans in Sean Farrell (a consensus pick) and Mike Munchak.

“They were still working with the offense and defense and working people in there, and it was a very talented team,” Lou Prato, who’s written several books about Penn State and was the first director of the school’s all-sports museum, says.

In 2016, Pitt gave Penn State one of the two losses that kept PSU out of the Playoff. That was payback for 1981 Penn State delivering the most devastating blow in series history.

Pitt had a 14-0 lead in that game. But it turned on them quickly, and Penn State ran the score to 48-14. Pitt’s title dreams bled out at Pitt Stadium.

“We still should have run the ball, but we had rode Danny’s coattail all year,” Sherrill says. “Everybody’s saying, including the head coach — I don’t know who he was, but he was a dumbass — said we would continue to throw instead of running the football.”

“They looked ahead at Pitt because of what happened when Johnny Majors had come in and turned the Pitt program back around and then left back to Tennessee, and then Jackie took it over,” Prato says. “And there was no love lost between Jackie Sherrill and Joe Paterno, even before that season.”

Then, Penn State’s 1982 team did what Pitt couldn’t in ‘81. It won the title.

In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, this was as good as any rivalry in football.

Pitt was the king of the state from the 1910s through 1940s, generally. Penn State drubbed Pitt during the ‘60s and the early ‘70s, while Joe Paterno constructed a juggernaut that went undefeated in ‘68, ‘69, and ‘73. The Panthers’ nadir was a 1-10 1972.

Johnny Majors arrived from Iowa State to Pitt in ‘73. By 1976, Pitt was the undefeated national champion. Key had been Majors and top assistant Jackie Sherrill turning the team into a recruiting power. After ‘76, Majors left for Tennessee, and Sherrill became Pitt’s head coach.

Around that time, Pitt-Penn State got extra hot.

“It wasn’t very good, because Coach Paterno, for all those years, had dominated the Northeast,” Sherrill says. “And in recruiting, he really, I don’t think he even left State College until the last week or two weeks of recruiting, and then that’s when he would go around and completely sew up the players that he wanted. We were able to take players away from him.”

Those included local running back Tony Dorsett and Marino.

“It all went back to Pitt winning the national championship in ’76,” says Sam Sciullo, a former Pitt communications staffer who’s written several books on the program. “Penn State was used to having its way with Pitt. It provided no competition, really, until Majors and Sherrill arrived. That changed everything.

“Joe had increased the schedule to play the best, because he got tired of hearing that Penn State was playing patsies and had dominated the East by playing the patsies,” Prato says. “So they took on the schedule. The fans loved it.”

The same dynamic’s existed between the teams’ fans for generations now.

To Pitt fans, it was extremely cool to beat Penn State to a championship. That included legions of new fans who’d jumped aboard when Pitt started winning.

“It’s like any bitter rival,” Sciullo says. “Penn State's like a rattlesnake. You may not like it, but you damn well better respect it. And I think a lot of Pitt people didn’t.”

Pitt fans long viewed Penn State as sanctimonious and overrated.

“For some reason, they always tried to think that they were royalty and we were second-class, because we were the boys from the city,” ex-Panthers lineman Mark May says. “So there was always that chip on our shoulder that we wanted to play Penn State and beat Penn State.

And Penn State fans view Pitt as a little brother.

“Let’s say Penn State is [the favorite], and they lose. I mean, they’re gonna be dancing in the streets down in Forbes Avenue and Shadyside, and outside the Pitt Cathedral, they’re gonna be so happy that they beat Penn twice in a row, and dadadadada,” says Prato. “If Penn State beats Pitt, they’re gonna say, ‘Eh, OK, fine, we beat you. Go away. We have to play you two more two years, but go away. You’re not in our same class anymore.’”

The coaches at the center of the rivalry eventually made up.

At one point in the late ‘70s, Paterno was said to be considering leaving football for politics. He famously told reporters he wouldn’t, because “I’m not going to give up college football to the Jackie Sherrills and Barry Switzers of the world."

Paterno and Sherrill became friends later in life, after Sherrill had stopped coaching. Sherrill even had dinner at Paterno’s house in State College.

“You’re not gonna get Alabama and Auburn head coaches to go have dinner,” Sherrill says. “You’re not gonna get Florida or Florida State dinners, or Miami and Florida State, or Miami to go to dinner. You’re not gonna get Michigan and Ohio State coaches to go to dinner. So it’s really not any different than anywhere in the country. It’s just that it was publicized, and there was some things said.”

Two dynamics at play could mean the series’ rebirth is fleeting:

  • Penn State is again the undisputed top recruiter in the state. Playing Pitt poses at least a slight risk.
  • Scheduling constraints, now that both schools have conferences.

When I asked Penn State’s James Franklin in July if he’d like to see the series renewed again, Franklin mostly wanted to talk about Week 1 opponent Akron.

“The only thing I'll say is I think you guys know as well as we do the way scheduling works,” he said. “I think our schedule is set through 2026 or something like that. We're excited about the teams we're going to play this year.”

It’d be cool if Pitt-Penn State could happen every year. But this series’ best moments are probably in the past, whether the games survive further or not.

“It’s never gonna go back to that,” Prato says, “unless, long after I’m dead, and Pitt and Penn State wind up in the same conference and play the last game of the year again and yada, yada, yada.”