Starkey: Pitt-FSU 1980 game reverberates
“I still say the 1980 team could've beaten Georgia at 1 o'clock, Notre Dame at 4 o'clock and been national champs if we were only given the chance.” — Dan Marino, from his Hall of Fame induction speech.
There's truth in those words.
Pitt probably should have been invited to the Sugar Bowl that year. And yes, a team stocked with seven future first-round picks and three Hall of Famers might very well have beaten Georgia at 1 o'clock and Notre Dame at 4 o'clock.
What Marino failed to mention was that Pitt couldn't beat Florida State at 7 o'clock, Oct. 11, 1980, at sweltering Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla.
It's the same stadium that Francis “Monk” Bonasorte, a Pittsburgh kid who played safety for FSU, reintroduced to Sal Sunseri last winter when Sunseri joined FSU's coaching staff.
Sunseri was an All-American linebacker at Pitt. Bonasorte, from Hazelwood, is FSU's senior associate director of athletics.
“You remember this field right here?” Bonasorte said. “This is where you got your (rear end) beat the year you were supposed to be national champs.”
Indeed, if No. 4 Pitt had beaten No. 11 FSU that night, there would have been no year-end controversy. Pitt would have played Herschel Walker-led Georgia with a chance to be remembered as perhaps the greatest college team of all-time.
Thirty-three years later — five days before Pitt opens its season against an FSU team with national-title aspirations — the final score reverberates:
Florida State 36, Pitt 22.
The beauty in looking back is that the participants still care so deeply. College sports tend to engender a sentiment that lasts — and it's not just fans who carry the emotions to their graves.
“It never goes away,” ex-Pitt safety Rick Trocano once told me. “I speak for all my fellow teammates: I guarantee they never have forgotten.”
Jackie Sherrill surely hasn't. The former Pitt coach was slightly aggravated Monday because of a traffic jam between San Antonio and Austin, Texas, but that was before something got him really worked up: the mention of Oct. 11, 1980.
Sherrill has two regrets from the game. The first is that he spent all week drilling his team on preventing a punt block but almost none on covering the actual punts. The larger one is that he permitted players to visit with relatives at the team hotel.
“We had a lot of kids from the South, and I allowed players to spend time with parents and cousins and everybody else during the afternoon rather than sequester them,” Sherrill said. “I don't know if we were as mentally sharp as we should have been. That was not their fault. That was my fault.”
Hugh Green, Pitt's best defensive player, told me a few years ago that he disagreed with Sherrill's assessment.
“God,” Green said, “it just wasn't meant to happen.”
Bonasorte's take: “Don't let Jackie get away with that. I mean, 36-22 takes more than talking with your family.”
Bonasorte's an interesting story. Desperately wanting to follow the footsteps of older brother Chuck, a linebacker on Pitt's 1976 national championship team (now owner of The Pitt Stop in Oakland), he was an undersized tight end at Bishop Boyle. No Division I school recruited him, so he begged his way as a walk-on at FSU and became a starting safety. He had two great performances against Pitt, including an interception in the 1980 game, which, in retrospect, probably wasn't as seismic an upset as some made it out to be.
This wasn't a trip to Temple. Florida State was a rising power under Bobby Bowden. It had won 19 of its previous 20 regular-season games, including a victory the previous weekend at No. 3 Nebraska. FSU outscored its opposition, 352-85, including 96-0 in the fourth quarter.
Without injured defensive backs Carlton Williamson and Terry White, Pitt gave up three TD passes. FSU recovered four fumbles and picked off three Marino passes, thanks largely to a secondary fortified with two future NFL cornerbacks: Bobby Butler (Falcons) and Harvey Clayton (Steelers).
In the middle of FSU's defense stood a rock of a nose guard named Ron Simmons. He'd received five first-place Heisman votes in 1979. On offense, FSU had future NFL players Dennis McKinnon and Zeke Mowatt. Tailback Sam Platt gained 123 yards running mostly inside.
“We stayed away from Hugh Green and Rickey Jackson,” Bonasorte said, laughing.
The crown jewel of FSU's operation was its special teams, featuring kicker Bill Capece and punter Rohn Stark. Capece kicked five field goals, including a 50-yarder at the first-half gun. Stark had punts of 60, 67 and 53 yards.
Meanwhile, most of the Panthers had never played in such a raucous atmosphere, one tackle Mark May would later call “intimidating.” FSU's burgeoning pregame ritual saw a student dressed like a Seminole Indian leader charge out on a horse and plant a flaming spear at midfield, prompting some 40,000 fans to release helium-filled balloons.
The air would come out of Pitt's dream season that night.
Thirty-three years later, the Panthers have a chance to poke a hole in somebody else's dream.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.