How Pittsburgh and Georgia Met in the 1977 Sugar Bowl

Bear Bryant, as unselfish as he was in helping weld the support necessary for the SEC-Sugar Bowl tie-up, made a last plea after the Penn State game to open all the bowls, to let them all compete for the best match.  His argument was parallel to the one the Mid-Winter Sports Association had made for years.  But no one really listened.  “What I’m for is all bowls to open up for everybody, nobody have a tie-up,” said Bryant, who was also opposed to the voting of national champions after bowls.  “If we are going to stay with the polls,” he stated, “take it out of the bowls.  It puts too much pressure when bowls are used for it.  It takes all the fun out of the bowls.”

Voters would continue to decide the national champion after postseason games because the general public enjoys seeing grand matches with something riding on the outcome.  Instead of decreasing the number of bowl tie-ups, there would be an increase.  The SEC presidents, after studying the Sugar Bowl’s proposal, approved it.

On March 3, 1976, after 42 years of infatuation, spats, and courtship, the SEC and Sugar Bowl were finally hitched.  “We think it will be a very popular move,” said Harry M. England, who had succeeded Cliff Kern as Sugar Bowl president.  “We recognize that the SEC has been a very contributing factor in the Sugar Bowl for many years.  Unofficially it has been almost a partner.”

With what England called the Sugar Bowl’s “new arsenal of weapons” – the tie-up and the Superdome – the Mid-Winter Sports Association also believed it was time to call an end to the experiment with a New Year’s Eve playing date.  The December 31 date was a failure because the traditional celebrations interfered and further, there was drop-off in eastern press coverage because of early deadlines on newspaper holiday runs.  ABC agreed, and the Sugar Bowl petitioned the NCAA for a return to its New Year’s playing date.  “We hope it will be a mere formality,” said England.  “We tried New Year’s Eve for four years and found it was not the best time to hold a football game.”

The NCAA approved the request, not only putting the Sugar Bowl back on New Year’s Day, but also creating two questions for sports trivia buffs:  What year was there not a Sugar Bowl?  The answer is 1976, since the December 31, 1975, game would be followed by a January 1, 1977, game.  The companion question is, of course:  In what year were there two Sugar Bowls?  The switch to New Year’s Eve had made possible a game on January 1, 1972, and another on December 31, 1972.

These significant changes were taking place without Joe Katz, who resigned as executive director of the Mid-Winter Sports Association shortly after the Alabama-Penn State game.  Katz wanted to pursue other business ventures.  A search committee was formed to find his successor, the third director of the Sugar Bowl.

The 1976 SEC season was wild and woolly, and there was a certain irony in that the first year of the tie-up, after an unyielding five-year hold on the throne by Alabama, the conference had a horse race.  This was also evident elsewhere; as late as November 1 it appeared that of the nonaligned bowl berths, only 2nd-ranked Pittsburgh in the Orange Bowl looked definite.

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, was also the team New Orleans wanted and, for the first time in a long while, all the Sugar Bowl’s resources were going to be used to get a favored team.  Coach Johnny Major’s Panthers were more than just very good.  Pittsburgh featured an extraordinary runner, Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett.  He was college football’s all-time ground gainer with 6,082 yards.  The Panthers also had an underrated but suffocating defense.  Uppermost in Majors’ mind was playing the best opponent he could find, an opponent whose defeat would push the Panthers to No. 1, or solidify that position if it were achieved beforehand.

ABC helped overcome the difference in money between the Orange and Sugar Bowls by putting the Panther-West Virginia game on regional television, which was perfectly legal and ethical, though some other bowl officials squirmed.  It wasn’t as if Pitt didn’t belong on TV.  “The opponent is more important than the money,” said sources at Pitt.  “The main goal is the best way of getting No. 1”

Pittsburgh rose to No. 1 after Purdue defeated Michigan early in November.  A week later, Iowa State assured the Orange Bowl of a host with at least two losses when it whipped Nebraska and put the Big Eight in a five-way first-place tie.  At the same time, 4th-ranked Georgia emerged as the Southeastern Conference champion and the highest-ranking available opponent for the Panthers.  The Panthers voted to play in New Orleans against the 10-1 Bulldogs.

Georgia won the SEC championship on the merits of a ball-control offense and an effective defensive unit called the “Junkyard Dogs.”  The dedication of the defense was reflected in a supreme sacrifice of the 1970s – shaved heads – a symbol that so inspired Georgians that Coach Vince Dooley shaved his head, too.  Ironically, Majors built Pitt from a 6-5-1 team to 11-0 in four years, and the first game his seniors had played was a 7-7 tie with Georgia.

“The winner of the Rose Bowl (between USC and Michigan) is the national champion,” said Trojan Coach John Robinson of his 2nd-ranked team,”and the hell with the rest of them.  If we win, we’re going into the dressing room and declare ourselves unanimous national champions.”  His Rose Bowl rival, Bo Schembechler of the No. 3 Wolverines, chimed in, “I can hardly believe that Pitt could beat Southern Cal, and if we beat them we’re going to claim the national championship.”

Majors was incredulous, pointing out that USC’s 21-point loss to Missouri was a pretty wide margin for a national contender.  “That’s the most ridiculous farce ever perpetrated,” said Majors.  “If Georgia beats us, they’d have more of a claim than Michigan or Southern Cal.”

Pitt raised two questions in the public’s mind, neither of which had anything to do with its ability.  The first was how the loss of Coach Majors would affect the Panthers’ bowl effort.  Bill Battle resigned from the University of Tennessee, and Majors leaped at the opportunity to return to his alma mater after this last game.  The second question was how Majors’ treat-‘em-like-men attitude would hold up.

Majors gave his team of mostly seniors run of the town until just a couple of days before the game.  He wouldn’t have done it, he said, with a less-mature team.  This team could handle it.  The gesture was in keeping with the coach’s personality.

Twenty years before, when Majors’ fumble was instrumental in Baylor’s 13-7 upset of Tennessee, Johnny recalled, “I went out and partied.  I wasn’t feeling too good, but I knew back then you’d always have to take the bad with the good.  I remember I stayed up all night, drove to Mobile, and was at practice for the Senior Bowl the next afternoon.”

While the press wondered about the Panthers prowling the French Quarter, Dooley fretted about them prowling the Superdome.  A lot of attention was given Dorsett, who gained a single-season record 1,948 yards as a senior; but the Georgia coach knew that in order to stop Dorsett he had to contain multitalented quarterback Matt Cavanaugh.  If the Georgia defense was on the field too long, Dooley knew he was in trouble.

Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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