Matt Millen's role in Mark May picking Pitt over Penn State
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mark May was an impressionable 17-year-old trying to decide where to go to college.
He left his home in Oneonta, N.Y., to visit several schools that were in pursuit of his skills along the offensive line, including Pitt, Penn State, SMU, BYU and Rhode Island.
“They had co-ed dorms on the beach,” he said.
May, of course, chose Pitt over co-eds, played on the first two of its three consecutive 11-1 teams in 1979 and ‘80 and is one of 10 players to have his number (73) retired by the program.
He was honored at a banquet here Friday night as one of 14 ACC legends, one from each school.
But, if his parents had their way, he would have gone to Penn State.
Here’s the story of his Penn State recruiting visit:
“When you’re there, your parents go with (the coaches), and you’re with the players,” he said, noting he had little contact with Joe Paterno. “What happens is they kind of brainwash your parents. So, on the ride home, your parents say, ‘You’re going to Penn State.’
“I’m like, ‘No, I’m not. It’s kind of my decision.’ ”
For May, it was an easy decision to make.
“Matt Millen was the roommate of the guy who was my host,” May said. “Matt pulled me aside and said, ‘Don’t come here. I didn’t want to come here. My parents made me come here. I wanted to go to Colorado.’
“I made my decision that day. I wasn’t going to Penn State.”
His visit to Pitt turned out differently.
He was joined by Rickey Jackson and Hugh Green, and the three of them ended up in Tony Dorsett’s apartment, with veterans Cecil Johnson and Don Parrish. Only weeks prior, Dorsett won the Heisman and Pitt won the national championship.
“They said, ‘You guys better come to Pitt.’
“We looked at each other and said, ‘You coming? Yep. You coming? Yep.’ ”
Not a bad haul for the Panthers. Jackson is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Green and May made it to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Pitt and Clemson met only twice before the ACC championship game, and May was there for the first one, a 34-3 Pitt victory in the 1977 Gator Bowl.
He remembers coach Jackie Sherrill coming to him before the game to ask a favor.
May was a freshman who had beaten out senior Art Bortnick for a starting job. Sherrill wanted to give Bortnick a chance to start in his final game.
“I’m 17. I said, ‘Sure, but am I going to play?’ ”
Sherrill said, “Yeah, you’re playing.”
But as it turned out, he wasn’t in there long because Pitt was so dominant.
May said Pitt was successful in those days largely because Sherrill was such a good recruiter, scout and developer of talent.
These days, recruiting at Pitt is more difficult, May said.
“I think the fan base, because the stadium’s not on campus, I think, that really hurts,” he said. “When I was there, there were sellouts. The students were all there. They could just walk up Cardiac Hill or take the bus up the hill. The student section was full.
“(Heinz Field) is a great facility … but for the students to get there, a lot of them don’t want to go.”
But he said winning can help counteract almost anything.
“This is such a big day for recruiting,” he said. “When you have championship game day, everybody’s watching. Even if you’re not that hot on Pitt … with young kids, if they see the team play and they like what they see, they’re going to pay attention. Your foot’s in the door now because you’re on national television. There are only a handful of games (Saturday). If you’re a high school (player), you’re watching football today.
“If Pitt wins …”
He didn’t have to finish the sentence.
May still roots hard for Pitt. To this day, he complains about the pass interference penalty that was not called during the triple overtime loss to Notre Dame in 2012 when, he said, a defender crawled all over tight end J.P. Holtz’s back.
“I was going nuts in the studio,” said May, who played 13 years in the NFL before spending 17 as a college football analyst for ESPN.
May did his part when he spoke to the team Friday night, reminding them what this game means.
“I had their attention,” May said. “I said, ‘Hey, the season’s not over yet. You’ve beaten this team before. You know you can beat them. Just go out and do your job, work hard and, guess what, don’t make any mistakes and do it for your teammates. Do it for your family. Do it for your coaches. Do it for the people in this room because these are the people who believe in you.
“Two years ago, nobody believed you could win in Death Valley and a lot of you in this room did it.”
But May also has a lot of respect for Clemson’s front four, predicting all will play in the NFL next season. Then, there’s the freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
“He’s not as good as Danny (Marino),” May said. “I’m not going to put him in that class. He’s not that far off.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.