The countdown to the start of the 2013 season is under way, as Pitt is 82 days away from its Labor Day opener against Florida State at Heinz Field. Panther-Lair.com is counting down the days until the biggest season opener in recent memory.
Today's number is 82, so we're looking at the first season of the Foge Fazio Era.
In many ways, 1982 was both a beginning and an end.
With Jackie Sherrill gone to be the head coach at Texas A&M, Pitt found itself in a transitional phase as the program was riding its highest wave. Coming off a trio of 11-1 seasons - 33 still ranks as the most wins in any three-year period in Pitt history - the University needed to find a way to maintain the program's momentum while replacing Sherrill.
In an effort to maintain continuity, Pitt looked to Sherrill's staff for his replacement and found Serafino "Foge" Fazio.
A Pitt alum - class of 1960 - who had played linebacker and center for the Panthers, Fazio held assistant coaching positions at Boston University, Harvard, Pitt, and Cincinnati before returning to the Panthers in 1977 to serve as Sherrill's defensive coordinator. When Sherrill left for Texas A&M after the 1981 season, Fazio was tapped to lead the Panthers.
Pitt opened Fazio's debut season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll but dropped to No. 2 after beating then-No. 5 North Carolina 7-6 in the opener. The Panthers floated between No. 2 and No. 3 in the poll while building a 5-0 record largely on the strength of their defense, rather than the Dan Marino-led offense. But after a shutout win over Syracuse in the Carrier Dome in late October, Pitt retook the top spot in the rankings, and a 63-14 drubbing of Louisville the next week solidified the Panthers as the nation's best team at 7-0.
The sights were set on a national championship, and while the regular-season finale against hated rival Penn State loomed large on the horizon, Pitt had positioned itself for a run to glory.
And then the Panthers hosted Notre Dame on November 6. Pitt outgained the Irish by more than 100 yards, Marino threw for 314, and Notre Dame gained just 10 first downs. But three Irish touchdowns in the fourth quarter - including a 54-yard score on a flea-flicker and a 76-yard run - overcame Pitt's 13-10 as Notre Dame handed the Panthers their first loss of the season.
Pitt dropped to No. 8 in the AP poll, greatly diminishing the Panthers' hopes for a national championship, and a loss to Penn State on Black Friday in the regular-season finale ended those hopes once and for all. The Nittany Lions went on to be crowned consensus national champions and Pitt went on to lose to SMU 7-3 in the Cotton Bowl.
In 1983, Fazio led Pitt to an 8-3-1 record and a Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State, but the Panthers only won eight games in the next two seasons combined, and Fazio was fired by Pitt after the 1985 season. While Mike Gottfried, who was hired to replace Fazio, put together a trio of winning records from 1987-89, those three seasons seem like more of an anomaly in Pitt's descent from the highs of the early 1980's into the quagmire of the 1990's.
1982 is uniquely positioned in the arc of Pitt football. It was the final year in a tremendous run that dated back to the Panthers' 1976 national championship season; since then, Pitt has not finished a season ranked in the top ten (the Panthers were ranked No. 10 in the final AP poll of 1982). The transition from Sherrill to Fazio did not continue the momentum of what was one of college football's premier programs, and Pitt has spent the last 31 years working to climb back to that level.
For his part, Fazio was truly a Pitt man, and when he passed away in 2009 at the age of 71, he was lauded for his love of and dedication to the University.
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