Gorman: Forever a 'Pitt Man,' Fazio gets last laugh
It was a joke he wore out on the banquet circuit, but one that perfectly fit the personality of Foge Fazio. The former Pitt football player and coach liked to crack that he got three degrees from the university: His undergraduate, masters and when fired, the third degree.
Fazio had the unfortunate legacy at Pitt as the coach who inherited a program in 1982 coming off three consecutive 11-1 seasons but never won more than nine games in a season.
Yet, few handled such perceived failure as flawlessly as Fazio, who died Wednesday at age 71 of lymphoma. The architect of the nation's No. 1 defenses in 1980-81 simply renewed his reputation as a defensive genius in the NFL before joining Pitt's radio broadcast team as a color analyst.
"I know football better than most," said Bill Fralic, the former All-America left tackle, who shared the radio booth with Fazio, "but compared to him, I played checkers, and he played chess. He could see things most of us can't. I can look at a play after its run and tell you what happened, but he was two or three steps ahead. He brought sophistication to the broadcast."
Fazio also brought an engaging persona to Pitt practices, where he was welcomed back by Dave Wannstedt and spent at least one day a week at the South Side complex. How many schools do that with a fired coach• That alone speaks to the genuine respect extended to Fazio as a "Pitt Man."
"The one thing we have going for us in our program is our great tradition, and Foge Fazio was part of our tradition," Wannstedt said. "We probably talked more football when we were in the NFL, to be honest. It was more things that were about being a head coach, from recruiting and alumni and administration — things that were non-Xs and Os but equally as important."
As decades passed, Fazio's tenure became more understandable. He was 25-18-3 in four seasons at Pitt, a mark bettered by only one game by Mike Gottfried (26-17-2) over the next four seasons before he met a similar fate. In fact, no Pitt coach won as many as 25 games in his first four seasons until Dave Wannstedt (25-23) matched that mark last year.
"I don't think the fans are fair; they're too critical of what his record was," said Pitt historian Alex Kramer, a close friend of Fazio's. "He did not let it get him down nor did he let it alienate him from Pitt. Foge never felt bitter toward Pitt. His affection for Pitt always transcended personalities."
To hear Pitt people tell it, the university's commitment, or lack thereof, to its football program lessened Fazio's chances for success.
"I think Foge was in the right place at the wrong time," Fralic said.
But Fazio was described as "impossible to dislike" and remained popular with his players, mostly because of his big heart, infectious high-pitch laugh and great sense of humor. When told Playboy predicted a 4-7 season for Pitt in 1983, Fazio quipped, "I switched my subscription to Penthouse." (Fazio led Pitt to the Fiesta Bowl that year, and it would be another 21 years before the Panthers played in another New Year's Day bowl).
"He was always a guy that kept it light," said John Congemi, Pitt's quarterback from 1983-86. "You always knew where Foge was in the room because he had that laugh."
Not that he wanted it that way, but Foge Fazio got the last laugh in leaving a new legacy: he will be forever remembered as a "Pitt Man."Additional Information:
Viewing for Serafino 'Foge' Fazio will be from 7-9 p.m. today and 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Copeland Funeral Home at 981 Broadhead Road in Moon, with funeral Mass at 10 a.m. Monday at St. Margaret Mary Church in Moon.