Pitt may get Orange Bowl bid that '63 "No Bowl" team missed
Forty years ago, Pitt had everything a college football team could want.
The Panthers had skilled playmakers on offense who doubled as smart, sturdy defenders during an era of one-platoon football. Linemen grew up in steelmaking towns where the players were expected to be as strong and tough as the I-beams that rolled out of the mills. Good coaching was strongly supported by a high-profile administration.
Everything a team could want -- except a bowl bid.
The 1963 Panthers rolled through a rugged coast-to-coast schedule with a 9-1 record and a No. 4 ranking, beating Penn State, Notre Dame, UCLA, Washington, Miami, California, Syracuse, West Virginia and Army. Only a 24-12 loss at Navy during a time when the military academies had strong programs prevented Pitt from playing Texas for the national championship.
But in a remarkable convergence of tragedy, social circumstance, misfortune and bad timing, the Panthers not only didn't play for the national title, they didn't play in any bowl.
"It was the perfect storm," said Beano Cook, the sharp-witted ESPN college football analyst who was Pitt's sports information director at the time. "And it messed everything up."
With No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Navy lined up for the Cotton Bowl, Pitt was set to play No. 6 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. But when the Penn State-Pitt game was pushed back to Dec. 7 by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy -- Pitt already was scheduled to play Miami on Nov. 30 -- the Orange Bowl organizers became antsy.
Fearful they might get stuck with a three-loss Pitt team if the Panthers lost their final two games, they changed their minds and invited No. 5 Auburn. The Sugar Bowl was set with No. 7 Mississippi and No. 8 Alabama and the Rose Bowl wasn't an option because of its Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup, so Pitt was left without a New Year's Day invitation.
School president Edward Litchfield and athletic director Frank Carver talked to the Gator Bowl, then the most prestigious non-New Year's bowl. But fearful that its black alumni might not find adequate housing in Jacksonville -- racial discrimination remained widespread at the time -- Pitt opted to stay home.
There was a minor but brief uproar in the newspapers and among fans and alumni, but nothing on a scale that would occur today if a once-beaten No. 4 team somehow was ignored in the BCS process.
One reason was most of Pitt's players were excellent students, and many welcomed having the extra time to spend on academics once the football season prematurely ended.
Of the 61 players, 58 graduated from Pitt or another school and more than half (34) earned master's and/or doctorate degrees. Nearly one-quarter (15) became doctors; today, some major college programs don't graduate one-quarter of their players.
"Not going to a bowl wasn't something that was a big deal to us," said fullback Rick Leeson, now a dentist in Monroeville, Pa. "Bowls were nice, but football wasn't the main thing to us. We were there No. 1 as students."
The academics were difficult, too, with no undergraduate courses then in business or teaching. No one on that Pitt team majored in residential property management, as 10 Virginia Tech upperclassmen do this season.
Among the players were All-American halfback-safety Paul Martha, who later became a lawyer and a 49ers and Penguins executive; San Diego Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, former National Steel president John Maczuzak, star tackle Ernie Borghetti, team captain Al Grigaliunas and quarterback Fred Mazurek, who married coach John Michelosen's daughter and became a lawyer.
It was a homegrown team, too; Cook once calculated the starters grew up an average of 128 miles from campus.
After the season's abrupt ending, Pitt recognized its highly ranked but unwanted team by giving each player a watch inscribed with "The No Bowl Team."
Now, this 2003 Pitt team also finishes the regular season against Miami. Should the No. 20 Panthers (8-3) upset the No. 10 Hurricanes (9-2) on Saturday at Heinz Field, they are all but certain to claim the Big East's automatic bid to a BCS bowl.
And, 40 years after being fearful it might end up with a three-loss Pitt team, that's exactly what the Orange Bowl might be getting.
"It couldn't get any better than that," Pitt safety Corey Humphries said.