Pittsburgh may be struggling now, but 36 years ago this week, it was about to embark on a magical journey.
The Panthers of 1976 were coming off their first bowl win since 1937, a 33-19 victory over Kansas in the Sun Bowl. Head coach Johnny Majors had taken a Pitt program that was 22-68-2 from 1964-1972, and 1-10 the year before he was hired, to an 8-4 record. With his fourth season looming and all his recruits in place, expectations were high.
One big reason: He had the great Tony Dorsett in the backfield.
The Aliquippa, Penn. native rejected Penn State and 66 other schools to play for Majors and he took advantage of the new freshman-eligibility rule to rush for 1,586 yards in 1973. He was hit by injuries as a sophomore and ‘only’ managed 1,004 yards, but his junior year he rushed for 1,544 yards, including 303 against Notre Dame.
As the 1976 season dawned, Dorsett was poised to crush every NCAA rushing record on the books. But could a player from an independent East Coast school known for its soft scheduling win the Heisman? Dorsett’s main competition entering the season was USC tailback Ricky Bell, a big, bruising back destined to be the top pick in the NFL draft. The hype was on Bell’s side.
What Dorsett needed was a statement game right out of the blocks. He had the perfect opportunity with a road trip to No. 11 Notre Dame slated for September 11.
The stage was set.
Notre Dame’s Heisman history is well known. The Fighting Irish had produced six winners by 1976, more than any other program. The school’s storied tradition also made it somewhat of a kingmaker for the Heisman runs of opposing players, causing Beano Cook to state that ‘you either have to play for Notre Dame or beat Notre Dame to win the Heisman.’
Dorsett took full advantage of that maxim.
The Irish drove for a touchdown on the opening series against the Panthers, but Dorsett answered with a 61-yard touchdown romp on his first carry. With the stage set, he had come to perform.
Dorsett and the Panthers showed they were legitimate national title contenders that day, leaving South Bend with an impressive 31-10 win. Dorsett darted for 181 yards on the ground to bring his career rushing total against the Irish to a remarkable 754 yards.
Over on the West Coast, Missouri was walloping USC, 46-25, and suddenly Dorsett’s path to the Heisman was clear.
Pitt was elevated to No. 3 in the next AP poll and went on to an undefeated season and a national championship. Dorsett rushed for an NCAA-record 1,948 yards on his way to winning the trophy, with Bell finishing a distant second.
His 6,082 career rushing yards remained an all-time record until broken by Ricky Williams of Texas in 1998.
Dorsett would go on to more glory in the NFL, helping to lead the Dallas Cowboys to a Super Bowl win during his rookie season. But his performance against the Irish on that September Saturday in 1976 would remain one of his all-time best.
For all intents and purposes, it won him the Heisman Trophy.