Golden Panthers by Sam Sciullo Jr.

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Golden Panthers
Pitt’s Ten-Year Affair with Football Prominence (1973–1982)
by Sam Sciullo Jr.
America Through Time, 224 pp., paperback $24.99

The 50th anniversary of the Pirates 1971 World Series championship reminds Pittsburgh fans of all they celebrated in the 1970s: Roberto Clemente’s 3,000th hit, the Immaculate Reception, four Super Bowl championships, and a second World Series win in 1979. Even with the negative economic news on the front page of the daily paper then, Pittsburghers took pride in the wealth of good news in the sports section. This book details the significant contributions that the University of Pittsburgh football program made to the town’s winning reputation as Pittsburgh became the “City of Champions.”

Author Sam Sciullo Jr. first recalls the losing seasons from 1966 to 1972 before exploring in detail the factors that lifted the football program from the basement to the penthouse. Fans of the game will not be surprised that charismatic motivators such as coaches John Majors and Jackie Sherrill, gold star recruits, and supportive boosters were all key to turning the program around. What might surprise some, however, is the speed at which it happened and just how good this program became 50 years ago.

Sciullo reviews Pitt’s rise, season by season and game by game. His extensive interviews with players, coaches, administrators and media members provide an immediacy to the story and share some insider nuggets that are not common knowledge. His listing of blue-ribbon recruits reads like a Hall of Fame induction class, and it should, as Pitt had 15 All-Americans, 11 Panthers selected in the first round of the NFL draft, six NFL Hall of Famers, and five players and coach Johnny Majors inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame from that period. Names such as Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, Hugh Green, Mark May and Bill Fralic grace the pages, giving the story relevance for fans who never stood for “Hail to Pitt” at a football game. And if champions are truly defined by their rivals, this is the golden age of the Pitt–Penn State rivalry.

The story, however, does not have a happy ending. Sciullo, who has an insider status as Pitt’s unofficial sports historian, relates how the program stumbled after Jackie Sherrill’s exit, and never regained its former glory. The concluding chapter examines the factors that have changed college football, including television contracts and social media. Though there may be no going back to the success of the 1970s, Sciullo’s book does preserve a golden age in Pitt’s sports history.

Anne Madarasz
Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum