It was there, among all that flying toilet paper, in front of all those crumbling human pyramids, on the same night and on the same stage that yielded the incongruous sight of Coach Dan Devine dancing with a facsimile leprechaun (the leprechaun wasn't incongruous, Devine's dancing was; condemned men don't dance), that Paul Hornung promised to "jump out of the press box if No. 33 of Pittsburgh" gained 200 yards against the Irish the next day. In the heat of the moment, this burst of confidence by the once and always Golden Boy of Notre Dame was cheered lustily by the pep ralliers crammed into Stepan Center. Had they given it any thought, however, they would have had to agree it was pretty funny. Notre Dame willing to concede 199 yards to one back in one game is not what you call a usual concession to make to anyone who invades South Bend with a football under his arm.
Except, of course, that the No. 33 in question is Anthony Drew (Tony) Dorsett. T. D. Dorsett. Dorsett the Hawk. Next Heisman Trophy Winner Dorsett. In the history of Notre Dame football it is not likely that any one player ever struck such terror in so many Irish hearts or clouded up so many Irish eyes. "Nightmares" is what Defensive End Willie Fry says Dorsett has caused at Notre Dame since 1973.
For current reality, only Paul Hornung can say how moist his palms got the next day, sitting up there trying to put some color in the Irish's own network telecast. But it is good to report that the 59,075 fans at Notre Dame Stadium, though a considerably more subdued mob than the one of the night before, were at least spared the sight of a plummeting Golden Boy. Notre Dame rose up and held Dorsett to 181 yards in 22 carries. Or little more than eight a try. Imagine. It helped that Dorsett was allowed to sit out Pitt's last two possessions, his presence not being necessary to assure the Panthers' 31-10 victory.
On a weekend of crash-diving superpowers (page 43), Notre Dame's magnificent depression and first opening-game loss in 13 years was not in itself the surprise it might have been. The surprise was that they had been at this same corner before, knew the license of the truck that wrecked them and still couldn't keep from being run over.
September 19, 1976
Devine said beforehand that the Irish had painstakingly reviewed last year's pain-making Dorsett films (a record 303 yards against Notre Dame at Pittsburgh on AstroTurf), and, among other things, put in enough tucks and folds on defense to offer Pitt "about 10 new looks." Not all just for Dorsett, but with him in mind. "We will be more aggressive," Devine said, "and less passive," and, by going through blocks rather than line gaps, Notre Dame hoped to force early pitchouts and keep Dorsett from getting outside.
To put the players in the right mood, the Irish coaches then took them to a private showing of The Longest Yard, a picture Linebacker Doug Becker said he could identify with because it shows ex-Green Bay Packer Ray Nitschke, as a prison guard, ramming his head through a wall. Becker said he could hardly wait to get at Pittsburgh for ruining the Notre Dame season a year ago (the 34-20 defeat was the Irish's third and made them so blue they spurned a certain Cotton Bowl bid), and that he was playing his favorite inspirational record for the occasion: George C. Scott's rendition of a George Patton speech. Becker said he particularly liked the part where Patton advised the troops to "grab 'em by the nose and kick 'em in the ass."
With gung-ho guys like Becker and Fry around, and talent galore, Devine said he believed he had "as good a defense as anybody in the country." He admitted to having added to it by robbing such players as Safety Jim Browner and Cornerback Ted Burgmeier from the Irish offense. When Pitt Coach Johnny Majors saw the length of the grass on the Notre Dame field on Friday afternoon, he said he thought the Irish might have added a little something there, too, in preparing for Dorsett. Majors said he had been in "Iowa cornfields that were shorter than this." He was told the field had been cut on Thursday. Keith Jackson of ABC said it was what opponents of Southern Cal used to call "The O. J. Simpson Cut." Which is to say, the lawn-mower was not worn out.
Naturally, or otherwise, nothing Notre Dame had or did mattered a great deal, except in the comparative sense (181 yards is bad enough, but 303 is a trip). Dorsett ran through grasping linebackers and undulating blades of grass with equal dispatch, inside and out, making breathtaking cuts—some he made after he had been hit—and getting the most from Pitt's excellent down-field blocking. The only time he was really stopped was when he took himself out of the game with leg cramps. He said later that he had worn a pair of elbow pads around his knees, "the kind [Quarterback Bob] Haygood wears, white and streamlined. They look pretty, but they were too tight on me. I had 'em cut off."
Dorsett's first run was a 61-yarder and came as an immediate rebuff of an 86-yard game-opening Notre Dame touchdown drive that, as it turned out, was all the real driving the Irish did. It was a simple dive play that Dorsett broke to the outside, from where the view suddenly improved, offering great possibilities. "I was trucking, and I had so many blockers they got in the way." He said it was "the kind of thing that builds my confidence. I'd read a lot about how Notre Dame was going to stop me, and here they were grabbing at me, and I was motoring and thinking to myself, 'Wow, maybe I will get 300 again.' Notre Dame has the big-name advantage, but it didn't scare me, and it didn't scare Pitt. If you let me get that kind of confidence, I'm really going to come at you."
By the time he had carried eight times, Dorsett had 110 yards. He never broke another long one, but his runs set up all but one Pittsburgh score. He had never had a better opening day (another negative statistic for the beleaguered Devine to toy with) and is now so close to Archie Griffin's alltime rushing record—5,177 to 4,315 yards—that he could probably get it on his knees and still rise in time to accept the Heisman.
Such would be the kind of fitting denouement long-suffering (but not always patient) Panther fans have come to think of as their due since the fortuitous casting of former All-America Back Johnny Majors as head coach four years ago—and the coming of Dorsett.
The Pittsburgh job was "the last one" Majors had thought he would ever want. Having decided in 1972 that he had taken Iowa State as far as he could, and being anxious to go further himself, Majors put an ear up. A single-wing tailback at Tennessee who had finished second to Hornung in the 1956 Heisman Trophy balloting, he naturally inclined it to the South to catch the vibrations of a big football school. When the Pitt job opened—it seems to have been perpetually open since Jock Sutherland left in 1938—he wasn't flattered to be called but sent his lawyer-brother Joe to investigate. Joe told him he "better come look into this."
Majors coached his final game for Iowa State in the 1972 Liberty Bowl on a Monday night, announced his new job in Pittsburgh on Tuesday afternoon and on Tuesday night was in Aliquippa, Pa. meeting Tony Dorsett for the first time. Majors has been influencing people and making friends ever since. In Pittsburgh you can scarcely bat an eye or turn a knob without catching his act. He has his own TV show, which is syndicated in three states, pregame and postgame radio shows, does television ads for Chrysler and has a twice-weekly radio show called Majors in Motion. A slim, sandy-haired man of 41, with a trim figure and facial characteristics remarkably similar to those of Gene Littler, the pro golfer, Majors does not come on nearly so strong in private. In his suburban home in Fox Chapel he has a nice-sized collection of books he has actually read ("At least the first 40 pages"), will shoot pool or play some tennis and has not cluttered the premises with the usual coach's memorabilia—trophies, framed game pictures blown up into oversized fuzziness, painted footballs, etc.
But on the job, says Pitt Publicist Dean Billick, "the Coach makes my job easier because unlike Chuck Noll [of the Steelers], who will do almost none of these things, Majors is an extrovert, an image man who's always out front." After the Notre Dame game, Majors was in the locker room doing his postgame radio show in the nude, telling his audience he was "more confident before this game than any I've had as a head coach."
Dorsett, of course, makes both Billick's and Majors' jobs even easier. A highly approachable 21-year-old who wants to be a sportscaster, Dorsett says he "likes to be interviewed" because "it makes me feel like somebody." He made himself so accessible the week before the Notre Dame game that he chalked up 21 interviews in a day and a half. He even answered calls at one in the morning. Alarmed, Majors put an embargo on player interviews for the rest of the week.
Dorsett was cornered in a car on the way to the airport after the game. He wore a handsome three-piece double-knit suit with matching green shoes and two necklaces—one beaded, one a chain. He said he made up his mind to be a great football player when he saw his dad come out of the steel mill in Aliquippa one day covered with grime. (It was his father, he said, who nicknamed him Hawk—or rather Hawkeye, but his teammates have contracted it—because of his wide-set eyes.) He said he had gotten off to a slow start; he was cut by a midget league football team when he was 12 because "they told me I was too small."
When Majors recruited him, Dorsett weighed 157 pounds—"and I think the coach was giving me something." Last year he played at 182 and is now up to 192. He said he used to be six feet tall, too, but lost an inch "taking all that pounding." He appears now to be a union of two different bodies—a smaller one from the chest down, a larger one with knotty muscles and a thick, yokelike neck from the chest up.
Though unmarried, Dorsett proudly claims fathering a 3-year-old boy named Anthony by his high school sweetheart. When approached on the matter recently by a UPI reporter, Dorsett said he had "waited two years for somebody to ask me that." Anthony, he said, was born on Sept. 15, 1973—the same day he kicked off his college career with 101 yards against Georgia. Until the boy's mother moved out of state taking little Anthony with her, Dorsett would bring the youngster to Pitt practices and into the locker room and sometimes to class with him.
While Dorsett piled up yards and put on weight, Majors made other significant changes in the Pitt program. He yanked the Panthers out of a so-called "big four" agreement with Penn State, Syracuse and West Virginia, one which stipulated that those schools would play with fewer scholarships than the NCAA norm and would prohibit redshirting. He also got extensive physical improvements (locker rooms, weight rooms, etc.). From 1-10 in 1972 the Panthers have gone 21-13-1 in three seasons. And instead of drawing 19,000 fans a game, they average 42,000. They will be on television twice this year.
At first look, what would naturally impress an old Pitt fan is the splendidly efficient, highly productive veer offense Majors uses and how exciting its stars are. The other running back, Elliott Walker, for example, played hurt against Notre Dame. "But when he's right," says Dorsett, "he'll break your back, same as me." But even more impressive against Notre Dame—neither offense actually made much of a stir after the first quarter—was the Pittsburgh defense. This previously undistinguished group was a swarming, stifling force, continually harrying Irish Quarterback Rick Slager and making life so miserable for his receivers that they coughed up one pass after another.
The throbbing heart of the defense was the very center of its line—Tackles Randy Holloway, a 6'6" 242-pounder, Don Parrish, 6'6", 248, and 6'3", 235-pound Middle Guard Al Romano. These were the three who grabbed noses and kicked rear ends. Arms flailing like giant birds, they intimidated the younger, inexperienced Notre Dame linemen and applied so much pressure that the Pitt ends and linebackers were free to play soft and help in other areas.
Pitt people like to point out how handsome Romano is—an Omar Sharif look-alike with flashing eyes and a black mustache. "A sweetheart," they say. Holloway they characterize as more the King Kong type. He already weighs 14 pounds more than his program weight, and his coaches figure he will be 260 before long. "Eat," they tell him. "Eat."
It was Parrish, however, who threatened the smallish Rick Slager and forced his pass awry and turned the game around with the score tied 7-7 in the second quarter. Pitt Cornerback LeRoy Felder picked off the wobbling ball on the Irish 30 and ran it back to the two, setting up what turned out to be the deciding touchdown. Slager, hard-pressed to see over the smothering rush of Holloway and Romano, threw a second interception on his next passing attempt to set up still another Pitt touchdown. Thereafter the Irish had to play catch-up, and it is a game they are not yet ready for.
The quality of play diminished markedly after the first quarter, lapsing into a series of fumbles, penalties and passes that fluttered and were dropped and a punt that went straight up. Part of this was attributable to the ferocity of the defensive unit (Pitt obviously knows how to stick a head through a wall, too).
Moreover, what was already apparent about the Pitt offense, and in particular Tony Dorsett, was made even clearer by what happened on this bright, sunny day in South Bend. What Dorsett now represents to the Pitt team is a possible ticket to the very top. Well, why not? With all those giants having taken headers, somebody has to make a claim.
Johnny Majors was standing on the field last Friday with a group of friends when a reporter from Iowa asked Mrs. Majors who she thought was the best tailback of all time. Mary Lynn Majors put her finger to her chin for a moment and, obviously thinking about Johnny, said, "It depends on what formation you're talking about."
"Don't let her kid you," said Majors. "There's only one answer to that question. Number 33."