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Historic Team Spotlight 2021: Pittsburgh

I think we’re getting closer to a format that will stick.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Georgia Tech
Ah, Lucas Johnson. What a guy.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

After adding another notch to our historic advantage against the Tar Heels last week, this week Tech takes on a program that — and this may surprise some — we have a losing record against, all things considered. That, and some other musings, are among the Pitt observations this week that we will be diving into.

Sidenote: After years of a clunky format that I never really liked, I hope the changes that have slowly been manifesting result in a better reading product for all of you. Any insight is appreciated in the comments below!

Much like last week, there are some fairly obvious places to start when taking a look back at the opponent of the week. However, once again, I choose the road less traveled. Certainly, the most significant place to start when thinking about Pitt would be to revisit the 1956 Sugar Bowl, a seminal moment in not just the history of Georgia Tech football, but also that of the Institute, Atlanta, Georgia, and indeed sports and popular culture. For many reasons, not least that there’s several past Rearview Mirror columns on the topic, including a 4,000-word composite of the whole saga that I personally consider the thing I’m most proud to have written. The point is, any revisit of that topic on this evening can’t match it, and, if you’re curious about the time Tech found itself as the flashpoint at the intersection of civil rights, sports, higher education, and culture — and if you’re not, you should be, it’s important to learn about — feel free to click the link below.

Rather than beginning with the 1956 matchup of Pitt vs. Tech, which is often forgotten as the first of two 1956 matchups, as they would meet in bowls in back-to-back years, the second being the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville after the following season, we will instead be turning the clock a bit further back. We could also start at 1972, but in order to properly frame the picture, we need to turn the clock back several more times.

In fact, when Tech took two bowls in the same year from the Panthers, the two schools were nearly 40 years removed from the last time they had played one another in a series spanning 1918-1920, in which Georgia Tech traveled to play Pitt at Forbes Field in three consecutive years in the middle of a global pandemic.

See, Pitt fans? Not so crazy now, is it?

Of course, when unbeaten, untied, un-scored-on Georgia Tech did visit Pittsburgh at the tail end of their 1918 campaign, their first trip north of the Mason Dixon Line, they did it as the usurping upstarts, the titanic and larger than life First Great Dynasty™ of the nascent Southern football scene. And who was it that Tech had pushed aside in 1917 as they rode an undefeated season to the South’s first football national championship? Why, that would be Pop Warner’s back-to-back national champion Pittsburgh Panthers, that’s who. To make the stakes even greater, it’s not as if Pitt had a down year in 1917 either. Much to the contrary, the Panthers had spent the past season going a measly 10-0-0, adding two more games to their season after two years of going 8-0-0 in their title runs. The men of Pittsburgh had something to prove.

It’s not like Tech won some joke of a title the previous year, though. After a 1916 season in which the Jackets’ coach John Heisman essentially used his slate as a giant neon arrow to point media attention to the previously perilously under-appreciated Southern football landscape and only a tie kept Tech from an undefeated season, Tech went 9-0 and outscored their opponents 491-17, fully earning their title claim. Somehow, this point differential, points allowed and total points scored all bested the 1916 squad, a team that went 8-0-1, was retroactively awarded a title by the Billingsley Report rating system a half century later, and put up a 421-20 scoring margin, which is the year they put up 222 points on hapless and hopeless Cumberland.

Sidenote: I’ve long said this, but claim all the titles. They’re ours, awarded to us by selectors, and reflect seasons in which we were named national champions. The claimed vs. unclaimed debate makes very little sense in a time before a playoff. That would be 1916, 1917, 1951, 1952, 1956, and 1990 for anyone keeping score at home.

So, in short, this Tech team was riding a 33-game unbeaten streak lasting essentially the entire span of the Great War (the last loss coming against Auburn at Grant Field, 11/7/1914, with a score of 14-0, for those wondering) and an 18 game winning streak, one that had outscored their opponents by 875 points. Not only that, but they combined for a claimed and unclaimed national title in the previous two seasons and had already put up margins of 118-0 (Furman), 123-0 (11th Cavalry), and 128-0 (North Carolina State) in three of the last four weeks. Tech may have been nouveaux football royalty, but they certainly were not some overrated fraud when they were selected over Pitt the previous year.

Naturally, to resolve this impasse, Heisman sent a letter to the north and worked out the details for a Tech vs. Pittsburgh contest. As the Panthers were the more established team and more nationally known entity from a bigger city, it was arranged that Tech would make the trip up to Pittsburgh to play at Forbes Field, a curious facility that did double duty as both the purpose-built Pittsburgh Pirates baseball stadium and as the on-campus home of the Pitt Panthers football team. Convenient!

This fact in and of itself is remarkable, as John Heisman was famous for never taking road trips if the alternative, forcing his opponent to come to Atlanta, was remotely on the table. It was far more lucrative and interesting for Tech, the team in the big city with a big stadium that they themselves owned, with easier access to fans and transportation, to get teams from across the South to make the trip to Atlanta. This, for what it is worth, is exactly the reason why though Tech and Auburn have played 92 times since 1892, 72 of them have come in Atlanta, while in the Clemson series, 61 of those 87 have been on the Flats. In their day, it was Heisman's way or the highway. Of course, it also helped that a non-insignificant amount of Heisman’s compensation as athletic director/football coach/baseball coach/etc. was tied to the football gate receipts, but that was neither here nor there, now, was it?

After visiting just Athens and New Orleans (twice, one each against LSU and Tulane) since 1915, Heisman relented, packed his team onto a train bound for Pittsburgh, and squared off against an all-too-familiar familiar face.

You see, in those days, as one might expect, it wasn’t just Tech that was led by a football demigod in the form of John Heisman, famous for his dramatic leanings, long grudges, ruthless football cunning, and weirdo Harbaughian Football Guy eccentricities. Standing on the other sideline, running the other active football dynasty, was perhaps the only man more renowned for how he reshaped the game of football in his own image, Pop Warner. Though it certainly is something to be the namesake of the trophy given to the nation’s best college football player, it is also a worthy legacy to be the namesake of the most famous youth football league and dubbed by Amos Alonzo Stagg as one of the game’s most influential innovators. Also, his childhood nickname was Butter. Truly a man of great nicknames.

See, Heisman may have had a long memory, but Warner’s wasn’t all that short, either. The two first faced each other head to head in 1895, his first year as a head coach, which came at the school in Athens. Truly, every Tech football story has an Athens angle to it. At the time, Heisman was in his first year at the helm in Auburn and managed to upset the Athenians in front of a large crowd on Thanksgiving Day. In my own head, I conflated 1895 and 1893, which would have also made Warner the coach for the infamous first Tech-Athens game, but, sadly, that was just some late night writing miasma.

Anyways, that win would be the only one Heisman would pull over Warner, who would win all six of their remaining matchups as Heisman moved first to Clemson, then to Tech, and finally to Pennsylvania, while Warner bounced around a while, too, before settling at Pittsburgh.

I suppose that somewhat spoils the story of the 1918 game itself, but, suffice it to say, it was not a success for Tech. For the first time since a scoreless 1915 tie against the Athenians, Tech failed to score a single point in the 32-0 rout. In the game, Tech was without star Everett Strupper and other crucial veterans, though likely would have struggled even with the full complement of the Golden Tornado.

Though I drove myself a bit batty trying to find it, I found a quote from an old biographer of Warner’s that I used when we looked at the whole 1918 season in Rearview Mirror that I think illustrates pretty well that Warner had Heisman completely pegged. I knew that post wasn’t something I just imagined I had written, since to this day, that comment section remains insightful and thought-provoking, but that’s neither here nor there with respect to the topic at hand.

Francis Powers, a historian of Pop Warner, wrote,

“At Forbes Field, the dressing rooms of the two teams were separated only by a thin wall. As the Panthers were sitting around, awaiting Warner’s pre-game talk, Heisman began to orate in the adjoining room. In his charge to the Tech squad, Heisman became flowery and fiery. He brought the heroes of ancient Greece and the soldier dead in his armor among the ruins of Pompeii. It was terrific and the Panthers sat, spellbound. When Heisman had finished, Warner chortled and quietly said to his players: ‘Okay, boys. There’s the speech. Now go out and knock them off,” (Powers, 1969).

Tech was still named Southern champions, and would go on to renew the series for two years, and regardless, this is probably the first great intersectional game, Game of the Century-type game, even, seen in college football. Though each year they lost by a smaller margin, Pittsburgh was still a high-functioning team following their 1918 championship. Warner would coach the Panthers through 1923, leaving before they got their an on-campus stadium of their own in 1925, while Heisman wouldn’t make it through the end of the three game series, leaving Atlanta after his divorce to coach Penn. It’s a long story.

But, to circle back around — what’s so important about 1972?

Tech vs. Pittsburgh Historic Results

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 20-10 L 41,219 H
2020 Pittsburgh 34-20 L 11,000 H
Tech vs. Pittsburgh Historic Results Data via Wikipedia, GT Football Media Guide, and Winsipedia. Compiled by Jake Grant

You see, at the tail end of 1972, Pittsburgh hired a man to coach their football team by the name of Johnny Majors.

In the intervening years, as we can probably insinuate by the allusions to the mid-1950s bowl games, Pittsburgh had definitely seen their share of success. On the tail of Warner’s three national titles, the Panthers were able to add three national titles in 1929, 1931, and 1934, though these were selections made by a man named Parke Davis, the only NCAA recognized selector who did his selections via research and retroactively. I’ll leave the judgement on that to the reader. Flags, they say, fly forever.

Pitt has claimed titles, as well, for 1936 and 1937, in which they were recognized by a much wider selection of pollsters, notably finishing the 1937 season as the AP Poll’s no. 1 spot in its second year of existence. After 1937, though, the team faded into inconsistency bordering on mediocrity and desolation. After a 1-9-0 season in 1972, Carl de Pasqua was out and Majors was in.

Up until the dawn of the 1990s, Pittsburgh remained fiercely independent. As was characteristic of many Eastern teams for most of the 20th century, they remained without a conference, and one could probably write a whole book about how that lack of an Eastern power center has affected the modern college football landscape, particularly with respect to the ACC, old Big East/current AAC, and Big Ten. As a diligent Tech fan, you likely know that Tech was also independent during the 1970s, so it is not completely shocking that the two teams agreed to play one another. The contests were scheduled for 1974 and 1976, with both games occurring at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. This series, as one can see, is pockmarked with weird strings of home and away games. Thus, Tech never played a game at historic Pitt Stadium.

The Panthers showed immediate improvement in Majors’ first year, going 6-5, before turning in a 7-4 season in 1974, which saw them win 27-17 in their first ever visit to Atlanta. In 1975, they went 8-4, before rocketing all the way to an undefeated 12-0 campaign in the bicentennial year. See, a big part of being very good at football is having transcendent talent, which Majors, after he was brought in to bring the program back from the depths of irrelevance, was able to achieve when he sold Tony Dorsett on his Pitt vision. Dorsett would win the Heisman Trophy in 1976 and leading Pitt to their most recent national title. In just four seasons, Pitt had rocketed from being a one-win team to a national champion, trouncing Tech 42-14 along the way.

Of course, it is also important to have a transcendent talent at the quarterback position, as Clemson is currently learning, and Pitt’s next major star, Dan Marino, lead them to stakes in 1980 and 1981 titles, though I’m sure we all know which programs went undefeated in those years off the top of our heads. However, by the time of Marino, Majors was long gone, having been called home to Knoxville by his alma mater, where he would coach for 15 years, seeing sustained success, before being ousted in a bizarre takeover by Phil Fulmer following heart surgery. This would return Majors to Pittsburgh but would not see nearly the success his first tenure brought.

In the meantime, Pitt Stadium, a truly iconic stadium, was lost to the dustbin of history when, in lieu of renovation, the Panthers chose to demolish it to build a bigger basketball arena and move in with the Steelers off campus. This is neither the time nor place to debate this, but this column is firmly in favor of preserving interesting historical places and landmarks of the sport, as well as that games should be played on campus.

Anyways, Tech and Pittsburgh wouldn’t face off again until the Panthers joined the ACC for the 2013 season and were placed in the Coastal division, where the matchup is now an annual fixture. The pair have been known for a trio of narrow Pitt wins, including back to back years of a guy named Blewitt — irony alert — nailing clutch field goals to clinch each game.

However, despite all of this history, a shocking amount for a game that has only been played 15 times, just 7 of which came before the past decade, the thing most average fans would tell you gets them fired up is a misunderstanding about a postgame handshake.

Staring back at not just the first great intersectional game, a matchup of Pop Warner versus John Heisman, but, of colossally greater importance, a bowl game that changed American discourse on race and civil rights, all that rings a bell to most is a dang handshake.

A handshake.

This is why this is by far Tech’s most underrated matchup, much more so considering the game now happens every year. One of my aims, as evidenced here, is to rectify that.

Saturday afternoon, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh will meet at Bobby Dodd Stadium for the third year in a row. Tune in here at From the Rumble Seat tomorrow for coverage through the gameday thread and the postgame recap, along with live updates via @FTRSBlog on Twitter.