clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Historic Team Spotlight: Pittsburgh

Bobby Grier to serve as the game’s honorary captain.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 15 Georgia Tech at Pitt
Good ol’ TaQuon Marshall.
Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh will square off in the seventeenth meeting between the two schools on Saturday night from the Steel City. Though the two teams have met annually for the last decade, this meeting will be the first since 2018 to take place on the shores of the Allegheny.

The last time Georgia Tech played Pittsburgh on the road, the stadium was still called Heinz Field. Alright, maybe that wasn’t a good comparison, given that name only changed a few months ago. How about this one: the last time Georgia Tech played Pittsburgh on the road, Paul Johnson was the coach and TaQuon Marshall was the starting quarterback, with the mid-September showdown coming hot on the heels of a confounding loss to South Florida thanks to back to back kick return touchdowns.

In the time since, the entirety of the Geoff Collins era, Johnson’s successor never once made the journey north, an oddity solely attributable to the quirks of the COVID-19 pandemic jostling the schedule to turn the usual 8 game conference slate into 10, accommodating Notre Dame, as well. Had the Miami season finale not been cancelled due to COVID concerns, a similar story would have played out there in reverse, as Tech would have made three consecutive trips to Miami Gardens. Thus, when the Hurricanes visit Atlanta in November, they, too, will be led by a new coach whose predecessor never once took the trip up to Bobby Dodd Stadium, but more on them in a few weeks.

It is mildly surprising, at first glance, that Pittsburgh would be the ACC team that Tech has struggled with the most consistently. Granted, last year’s edition of the Panthers was a pretty stellar one, but, at least while they have met annually, it has never seemed all that much like the Panthers particularly outmatched the Jackets. Among all conference opponents, Tech has fewer total wins against Syracuse and Louisville, who are similarly new entrants to the conference, but Tech has combined to go 5-1 against the pair. Meanwhile, the Panthers are much more familiar opponents, and as a result, Tech’s 5-11 record, good for a .313 winning percentage, puts Pittsburgh at the bottom of the stack. Tech is only below .500 against the likes of Florida State (11-14) and Virginia Tech (7-11), among other conference mates.

In conference play, Tech and Pittsburgh are 3-6 head to head, which is roughly consistent with that overall percentage. Though the past nine seasons have brought the series some interesting and notable moments, with the back-to-back years of Chris Blewitt field goals coming to mind, as well as the dramatic did-they-or-didn’t-they handshake that highlighted the end of the 2020 edition, the extremely notable historical depth of the rivalry is really what makes it a rather intriguing series, despite the finicky nature of the Tech fanbase when it comes to “modern” rivals versus more historic matchups.

HTS Pittsburgh

Season Opponent Score Result Attendance Site
Season Opponent Score Result Attendance Site
1918 Pittsburgh 0-32 L 30,000 A
1919 Pittsburgh 6-16 L N/A A
1920 Pittsburgh 3-10 L 37,000 A
1955 Pittsburgh 7-0 W 80,174 N
1956 Pittsburgh 21-14 W 37,683 N
1974 Pittsburgh 17-27 L 37,361 H
1976 Pittsburgh 14-42 L 43,424 H
2013 Pittsburgh 21-10 W 52,312 H
2014 Pittsburgh 56-28 W 44,734 A
2015 Pittsburgh 28-31 L 46,208 H
2016 Pittsburgh 34-37 L 47,425 A
2017 Pittsburgh 35-17 W 40,211 H
2018 Pittsburgh 19-24 L 34,284 A
2019 Pittsburgh 10-20 L 41,219 H
2020 Pittsburgh 20-34 L 11,000 H
2021 Pittsburgh 21-52 L 36,383 H
History of the Pittsburgh series. Data via Wikipedia, Winsipedia, and the GT Football Media Guide, Compiled by Jake Grant

Ultimately, when it inevitably comes time to write a historic team spotlight for a team we face every year, it is a strong challenge to not be repetitive or reductive. It seems, somehow, that Pittsburgh pops up at every critical juncture, and it would be a disservice to post essentially the same column as last year, and worse to write something similar, but less detailed. Instead, I encourage you to check out the previous edition by clicking the related link below, since I think it really covers a lot of interesting Tech angles, and we will forge ahead to how those historic matchups were turning points for the Panthers. For additional detail, I have linked to the Rearview Mirror columns included in that article, as they provide important context not only on John Heisman’s teams, but also one of Tech’s most historically significant moments, the 1956 Sugar Bowl, especially relative to the broader national sociological history.

To be frank, I do not have as deep of a well to draw on when talking about Pittsburgh, but we are fortunate in this look that the series can essentially be boiled down to four distinct segments. The first of these was a series of three games in the late 1910s, in which Heisman took his team north to play one of the major foils to his Tech teams, Pop Warner’s Pittsburgh juggernaut. The second was a pair of bowl games in back to back seasons at the height of the Georgia Tech football golden age, the first being much more famous than the other. The third series took place in the middle of the 1970s, pitting Johnny Majors’ Pitt against Pepper Rodgers’ Tech, while the fourth is the modern annual matchup between the two teams. Today, we will take a look at the first three, in particular.

One of the oft-overlooked aspects of the history of Georgia Tech football is the relatively quiet start to the Heisman era on the Flats. For his first decade, his Tech teams were good, not all that great, and, much like the rest of the South at that time, operated under the radar, as the region was commonly perceived as a football backwater. The same could not be said of Pittsburgh.

Operating in the odd space between the Northeast and the “West,” as the eastern time zone-located Michigan fight song and the original conference name of the Big Ten call the Great Lakes region, Pittsburgh’s football history can be traced back even further than the name “University of Pittsburgh.” For the first three decades it played the sport, the school was known as the Western University of Pennsylvania, a naming convention that tracks with many other interestingly named Pennsylvania institutions of higher education, like California University of Pennsylvania and Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Both of those names are likely shocking, but, much like Western, which accurately described the school’s location in the state, the other two are named in concordance with the town or county in which they are located.

Regardless, the first great Pitt team in 1904 represented Western University, and it defeated California and current Division III powerhouse Mount Union along with traditional rivals West Virginia and Penn State on the way to an undefeated ten win season played almost exclusively at Exposition Park. One of the main themes of the history of Pittsburgh football is a relatively high transience, especially compared to a program like Georgia Tech, and we will revisit that theme shortly. The 1904 Pitt team received little to no national title chatter, given that, much as the South or heart of the Midwest was seen during the rise of Heisman, the Alleghenies, Appalachians, and Piedmont regions were perceived at the time as also-rans, especially when a team the likes of Penn went undefeated in 12 games in the Northeast. However, both Pitt and Penn played Penn State, and though the Quakers shut out the Nittany Lions, the Panthers beat them by a much more sizable margin, which portended the unfathomable consistency Pittsburgh would experience all the way to the doorstep of the Second World War, posting just one losing season [1912] between 1904 and 1939, inclusive.

It is this historical window that Georgia Tech happened to stumble into when the two teams first played in 1918. Though four different men had coached the Pitt football team since that breakout 1904 season, it was the dominating consistency through change that established credibility for competent and successful programs outside of the traditional halls of power in the sport. By the time the Panthers’ similarly legendary coach, Pop Warner, took the reins in 1915, he was able to elevate a team that had been on the rise the past two seasons to an undefeated season an a national championship claim. The school claims titles in three of the next four seasons, with the odd year out being 1917. A perusal of the façade of the Wardlaw Building at Bobby Dodd stadium’s south end zone might alert the reader as to why that would be the case.

It is precisely this reason that the series came about in the first place. Though Pitt enjoyed the benefits of supposed legitimacy in the media from the start of their undefeated reign, the same privilege was not given to a Georgia Tech team that had similarly not suffered so much as a loss since 1914. Though Tech has an unclaimed recognized selection in 1916, this perceived slight is precisely the reason Heisman coerced grossly outmanned Cumberland into facing his team of finely tuned machines to the tune of the infamous 222-0 demolition. When Tech was finally rewarded with a consensus national championship after the 1917 season, thanks in no small part to their 41–0 throttling of the pride of Philadelphia, the Penn Quakers, widely seen as one of the country’s best programs to that point, Heisman approached Warner about playing a defacto national championship — the Rose Bowl was the only bowl at the time, and was played between military squads following the 1917 and 1918 seasons — as, interestingly, Pitt was selected as national champions by a single source after their undefeated season, which joins six other unclaimed selections from that 36 year span of Pittsburgh dominance. Warner declined and demurred, perhaps a natural reaction to Tech’s 491-17 scoring margin on the 1917 season, which is more points scored than in the 1916 season featuring the infamous Cumberland game.

Of course, Pitt stills claim eight of national titles during that span, an almost unfathomable level of success, the third of which came the following season. This time, Warner acquiesced, on the condition that Tech play Pitt on the road at Forbes Field. Though Tech did not lose a single other contest, the national championship was essentially decided on that day, as Pitt lost to the Cleveland Naval Reserve to close the season, a game that was interesting, for sure, but had little bearing on the college game nor the perception of the Panthers.

The Jackets put up points in the second contest, falling 16-6, but were off kilter the rest of the season, falling to Washington & Lee and Auburn to stumble home with a three loss season, while Pitt was similarly not perfect, losing to Syracuse and Penn State and tying Penn. In the final year of the first series, the Jackets and Pittsburgh again squared off in the Steel City, where Pitt won the tightest contest of the series to-date 10-3, went unbeaten with two ties, and Tech finished with just the one loss. It says a lot about the persistent power dynamics in the sport that, though the two teams played in each of the following two seasons, the Jackets were the road team in all contests. Though Tech was infamous for getting teams to play them at Grant Field due to its size, convenient location, and their perceived strength, home games were the norm for Pitt for similar reasons, centered on Pittsburgh. From 1918-1920, the Pittsburgh went on the road only to Syracuse, Penn, Geneva, and Lehigh, in addition to the Cleveland military game, while Tech played just four road games total, the three in Pittsburgh and one at Vanderbilt. Perhaps being unaccustomed to travel hindered Tech against one of the country’s best opponents, but who’s to say?

For a team that sustained success across the better part of four decades, under eight coaches, and split between three home stadiums, it is somewhat shocking to see the decline Pitt experienced during the Second World War. Not even the onset of the Great Depression could slow them in the 1930s, but they would never truly return to the level of sustained success experienced through the first few decades of the twentieth century. This, in a sense, marked more of a lack of a turning point following the first series of Tech/Pitt games, more than anything. With the 1920 contest, Heisman had handed over control of the program to William Alexander as a part of the fallout related to his divorce, but the two programs diverged somewhat from there, though both would win at least one more national championship before the onset of the war.

As success begat success, Pitt began looking for a home to call its own. This transition, which roughly coincided with the departure of Pop Warner, was as much a product of the continued success of Pitt athletics as a whole, since the second full-time home of the Panthers, Forbes Field, was essentially an on campus venue, though one shared with both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers. As demand for seating capacity grew, it outstripped the more modest Forbes, which was expanded to 41,000 seats just in time to see the Panthers’ football team depart for 69,400 seat Pitt Stadium, a multipurpose venue that would host obvious sports like track and field, rifle, and soccer, along with baseball, but also basketball and gymnastics in a fieldhouse whose roof was the underside of the seating bowl superstructure. This situation would persist into the early 1950s, with all visiting teams notably sharing a locker room on the far side of the field from the Pitt Pavilion portion of the complex, until the completion of the still-standing Fitzgerald Field House, located adjacent to the stadium. The Panthers were not members of a conference in this era, though they did apply to backfill the University of Chicago’s place in the Big Ten at this time, but the application coincided with diminishing football success in the beginning of the 1940s, while also being seen as a historic threat to the interests of Ohio State, so Michigan State was selected instead.

About a decade of consistently inconsistent football later, Bobby Grier joined the Pittsburgh football program, where he played for three seasons. Grier played on both sides of the ball for Pittsburgh, leading the team in interceptions in the 1955 season, while also wracking up an 83 yard run in 1953 against NC State on the offensive side of the ball. Grier would face off against Tech in the most consequential event, all things considered, in the history of the football program, and likely the Institute as a whole, when he integrated the Sugar Bowl on New Years’ Day 1956. Grier was the leading rusher in the game, and was called for an extremely questionable pass interference that set up the game’s only score. Due to a similarly controversial clock snafu, time ran out on the Panthers as they knocked on the door of the end zone and were unable to get off a play from the five yard line. I implore you to read the article linked below for more, as it goes into proper detail on the context and stakes of this game.

Grier will serve as the honorary captain for Pittsburgh for the game, and has since been inducted into the Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame for his feats.

Looking at the 1955 season’s Gator Bowl matchup, an intra-conference tilt between Auburn and Vanderbilt, it was increasingly common for southern bowl organizers to shirk integrated and progressively-minded northern teams due to racial convention of the time. This is also why Tech and Ole Miss would play an all-SEC Sugar Bowl in 1952, and the organizers took a hardline stance against integrated football following the Grier game, as the South increasingly took up a stance of “massive resistance.” Following the 1958, 1959, 1969, and 1970 seasons, two SEC teams would face off in the Gator Bowl, while the same was seen in 1959 and 1963, and most other matchups pitted a team from the ACC or Southwest Conference against the SEC. It is thus a quirk of history that Tech and Pittsburgh also met the next year in the Gator Bowl, as Pitt, Penn State, Syracuse, and the service academies were among the few teams either willing or able to play in the segregated South.

Tech won the second game as well, 21-14, though with less controversy than the previous year’s contest. They would go on to be awarded a national championship by two selectors, though it remains unclaimed to this day. Tech’s lone blemish on the season was a 6-0 shutout by the Tennessee Volunteers, led by a senior quarterback named Johnny Majors.

Summary of the Ole Miss series.
Data via Wikipedia, Winsipedia, and the GT Football Media Guide, Compiled by Jake Grant

As the popularity of the NFL grew, the Steelers first outgrew the historic confines of Forbes Field, moving into Pitt Stadium as a secondary tenant, a situation seen earlier by Carnegie Tech playing their home games in the stadium, as well. Clearly, the stadium situation in the city was rather fluid, a state it would arguably remain in until the 2022 completion of the Peterson Convocation Center.

Three Rivers Stadium was arguably the first nail in the coffin for on-campus football at Pitt. Though Pitt would not move across the river for another three decades and the venue was a rather unimpressive concrete multipurpose monolith with little in the way of character, it was still state-of-the-art for its time, and had the critical benefit of having someone else paying for its upkeep and upgrades. After mostly middling seasons in the 1950s and early 1960s, highlighted by a 9-1 1963 campaign, the floor fell out on the Panthers at the end of the decade, posting one win seasons from 1966 to 1968, as well as again in 1972. 1969 saw the Panthers become the sole tenants of their cavernous stadium, and they experienced a renaissance in the 1970s, and the aforementioned Johnny Majors was hired from Iowa State and immediately elevated the program from their dismal basement status to a 6-4-1 regular season and a loss to Arizona State in the Fiesta Bowl. It was in this time that the third series of games between Tech and Pitt took place.

Perhaps only Majors could have known at the time, but this aligned with Pittsburgh’s longest sustained run of success since the Second World War. 1973 would be the first of eleven straight years above .500, and it was highlighted with a claimed national championship in Majors’ fourth season, 1976, and two that went unclaimed in 1980 and 1981 under Jackie Sherill, after Majors was called back to Knoxville to coach his alma mater. Even in those days, with Pitt at the height of their second golden age, Tech was able to coerce the Panthers to visit Atlanta twice in their two game set. Interestingly, even though it had been nearly six decades since the first time the two teams had played, they had never squared off in Atlanta prior to the 1974 season.

With Tech’s large venue and Pitt’s somewhat out of nowhere rise to the top, this is somewhat of the prototypical example of what Tech aimed to do when they went independent. The aim of the school was to get large, notable, and historic matchups with schools the likes of Notre Dame, Pitt, USC, Rice, or Texas, along with maintaining regional fixtures like Duke, Clemson, the school in Athens, Tennessee, and Auburn. Interestingly, while Tech actively fled conference affiliation, Pitt, like their aforementioned attempt to join the Big Ten, lacked one, despite their best efforts to join an existing conference or merge the miasma of eastern independents into something more coherent.

While Tech negotiated the pair of games from a position of relative strength, it was Pitt that dominated the actual games, outscoring Pepper Rodgers’ first team Tech 27-17 in 1974, with the Panthers eventually finishing 7-4 and the Jackets finishing 6-5. Their 1976 national champion team stomped Tech in the other game 42-14 on their way to an undefeated season, while Tech slunk to a 4-6-1 record. Interestingly, they also had four teams in common, despite their independent affiliation and location in two decidedly different regions of the country, with Tech going 1-3 versus Pitt’s 4-0. That Majors’ departure for his alma mater came hot on the heels of a national championship was all the more startling.

After Sherill left Pittsburgh, as well, further cementing the notion that the team is somewhat snakebitten when it comes to coaching longevity, they again receded back into the basement, proving at the best to be an inconsistent team. At the same time, they finally joined a conference, the Big East, which incorporated rivals like Syracuse, West Virginia, and Cincinnati into their regular schedule rotation, while also allowing them to play traditional rivals like Notre Dame and Penn State somewhat regularly, with Penn State snagging the spot in the Big Ten that Pittsburgh had so coveted.

At the same time, the nearly seventy year old Pitt Stadium was in desperate need of a renovation. With football success low, capital needs high, and little prospect for improvement in the latter need, the cost savings realized by moving into the new stadium proposed for the Steelers and repurposing space on the landlocked campus into a much-needed basketball arena were too much for the administration at the time to pass up. Despite having just installed new video boards and other improvements between 1995 and 1997, Pittsburgh played their final game in the venerable Pitt Stadium in 1999, which saw a similar demise to similarly-aged iconic American stadiums like Tiger Stadium and Comiskey Park in the late 1990s. Much like the eventual demise of the Big East, it was seen as entirely necessary at the time.

As for the modern era of the Pitt/Tech series, it can be best summed up in the following image:

Net scores in the Pitt-Tech series, 2013-present.

Based on this screenshot from Winsipedia, I think it’s obvious the growth and development in this program over the past three seasons. If you can’t see how much we’ve grown, how much we’ve developed, you don’t want to see it.

Today, Tech turns over a new leaf. Welcome to a new day.

This afternoon, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh will face off in the seventeenth meeting between the two programs, and toe meets leather at 8:00 PM, with television coverage coming on the ACC Network. Tune in here at From the Rumble Seat throughout the day for coverage via the gameday thread and the postgame recap, along with live updates via @FTRSBlog on Twitter.