Three decades later, loss in North Carolina still stings Panthers
Exactly 30 years ago this week, the Pitt football team traveled to North Carolina to play an ACC school.
The result was a devastating 17-7 loss at UNC on Sept. 22, 1979 that all but ruined any hopes of another national title for a talented Pitt team that would vanquish every other opponent to finish 11-1.
Three decades later - with undefeated Pitt (3-0) set to travel to Tobacco Road again, this time to play at N.C. State (2-1) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday - that sloppy, turnover-plagued loss to the unranked Tar Heels still haunts members of the 1979 Panthers.
"We overlooked them," said Rich Kraynak, 48, of Harrisburg, a future NFL linebacker who was a freshman special-teams player on the '79 team. "We were already a powerhouse. North Carolina was like a fly on our shoulder that we should have swatted away."
The loss dented any chance at a second national crown in four years for the Panthers. Pitt won its next 10 games, including victories against No. 12 Washington (road), No. 17 Navy and No. 20 Penn State (road). The Panthers capped the season with a 16-10 victory over unranked Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl on Christmas Day.
But the Week 2 loss to the Tar Heels and junior linebacker Lawrence Taylor was too much to overcome. Pitt, which dropped out the AP poll for a month, fought back to end the season ranked No. 7 in the nation.
"What I remember about that game is the locker room was about 110 degrees," starting right guard Emil Boures said. "They put silver lining down on our sideline (to reflect the sun), and we had guys getting IVs all game."
Added defensive end Greg Meisner. ""It was like you were in an oven. We weren't out of shape. We just weren't prepared for that type of heat."
All-America linebacker Hugh Green missed most of the second half with cramps and after the game sat inconsolable on the trainer's table.
"All the big, powerful guys started to cramp up," linebacker Rickey Jackson said. "We would have gone all the way, but we slipped up and lost one game."
The consequences were clear.
Only Alabama (12-0) and USC (11-0-1) would finish the year without a loss. Who knows• Without the hiccup at Chapel Hill, it could have been Pitt rather than sixth-ranked Arkansas meeting eventual national champion Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Instead, the Panthers were left to ponder what could have been.
"There is no reason we shouldn't have beaten North Carolina in 1979," Kraynak said. "None whatsoever. It was one those games that was a gimme."
In front of 50,000 at sweltering Kenan Stadium, No. 13-ranked Pitt committed seven turnovers - four interceptions and three fumbles - and dealt with lousy field position all game. UNC's Steve Streater averaged 41.3 yards on 13 punts. Pitt started 11 drives inside its own 23.
The Panthers trailed 14-0 at halftime. A 13-yard touchdown pass from Rick Trocano to Kenny Bowles cut the Tar Heel lead to 14-7, but North Carolina kicked a field goal early in the fourth quarter for the final score.
Trocano, who would lose his job to freshman Dan Marino later in the season after injuring a hamstring, threw for 204 yards and was intercepted three times.
North Carolina's Amos Lawrence and Kelvin Bryant combined to rush for 149 yards on 40 carries, while Pitt fullback Randy McMillan managed only 34 rushing yards.
It was the first of three consecutive 11-1 seasons for Pitt, with lone losses to Florida State in 1980 and Penn State in 1981 denying possible national titles.
To this day, the former Pitt players still wonder how a team with at least 15 future NFL starters was upset at North Carolina.
"If we played them 100 times," Meisner said, "we'd beat them 99 times."
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Steelers’ Pouncey investigated in alleged assault
- McCutchen homers twice in Pirates’ extra-inning win
- Pirates’ McCutchen might be National League’s most cost-effective star
- Pirates notebook: Similarity found in Alvarez throwing errors
- Senate leader Reid steers push to turn Nevada into renewable energy mecca
- As suicides spike, new Pa. law to start prevention efforts in 6th grade
- Starkey: The oldest living Pirate
- Man found dead in Wilkinsburg; autopsy planned
- Increase in insured, aging patients could overwhelm health care providers
- Despite challenges, ride-sharing operations flourish
- McKees Rocks man shot to death outside Allentown bar