Pitt hopes this season doesn't end like '82

BY foxsports • November 11, 2009

At least the Panthers can take comfort in this: It's looking a lot brighter now than it did 27 years ago.

The Panthers are 8-1 and ranked No. 8, just as that 1982 team was on this day back then, but the similarities appear to end there.

The '82 Panthers were a star-laden team coming off three consecutive 11-1 seasons, a preseason No. 1 that had nine seniors drafted by the NFL - including one of the greatest passers in football history. Regardless, that team is remembered as one of the most disappointing in school history.

For now, there's nothing for this 2009 team to take out of 1982 except this cautionary note: That season began to unravel with an unexpected home-field loss to Notre Dame, which coincidentally plays at Heinz Field on Saturday night.

Just like then, the Fighting Irish (6-3) were ranked early in the season, but no longer are. Just like then, Notre Dame's hopes of going to a major bowl are gone. Just like then, Notre Dame's coach, who wasn't in college football when he was hired, is under considerable scrutiny; then it was Gerry Faust, now, it's Charlie Weis.

Warning enough, Panthers?

"They are college football," linebacker Adam Gunn said. "They're the leaders of college football. So this is a chance to show that we are, too, now."

A chance to show that 1982 is nothing but ancient football history, too.

Then, friction between the defense and an underachieving offense, a big falloff in production by Marino and, ultimately, three losses in the final five games doomed a Pitt season that couldn't have been less satisfying. Even worse, linebacker Todd Becker died during a fall from a dormitory window between the end of the season and a Cotton Bowl loss to SMU.

Within two years, a Pitt program that won one national title and contended for several others from 1976-81 would be 3-7-1 and fading fast. That 1982 season has long been considered the beginning of the end; since then, Pitt has played in a major bowl only once.

"We thought we were the best, but we got complacent," said lineman Bill Maas, who later played in the NFL.

This '09 season seems much, much different.

The Panthers have won 18 of 23 games since upsetting then-No. 2 West Virginia at the end of the 2007 season and they look to be primed for a string of successful seasons. They're rising as the season winds down, not fading, with five consecutive victories. A number of key players are underclassmen. The 1,000-yard running back, Dion Lewis, is a freshman.

"You can't tell the future, but I know that coach (Dave) Wannstedt has a vision of where he wanted the program to be," Gunn said. "Once we all had time to buy into that vision, well, here we are. ... To be back in the top 10, where Pitt lived for a long time back in the day, that says a lot about this program."

Back in the top 10, too, less than a month after the Panthers weren't ranked at all.

"When coach Wannstedt came into our meetings (Sunday), he said we were No. 8," Gunn said. "We weren't shocked or anything, it's great, but we weren't overly enthusiastic about it because we still have more to accomplish."

Win on Saturday, and they might end up in a BCS bowl if they can win their final two games, against West Virginia and Cincinnati.

Of course, the 1982 team knew it might land in a national championship-type game, if it could win its final two games, against Rutgers and Penn State. At least until Notre Dame got in the way by beating Pitt 31-16 behind Allen Pinkett's 76-yard touchdown run. Pinkett now is one of the Irish's radio announcers.

Coincidence, or a cause for concern?

"I feel that we're definitely prepared for the final three games, and our coaches certainly are going to make sure that we're ready for anything," quarterback Bill Stull said. "But I can speak for everyone and say we're only focused 110 percent on them (Notre Dame) and are focused only for this game."

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