How Pittsburgh and Georgia Met in the 1982 Sugar Bowl
The Georgia-Notre Dame game was a hit in every way. The pairing gave the Sugar Bowl one of its highest television ratings (23.3). But due to the nature of the Orange Bowl’s prime-time telecast, and because the Sugar obviously lost a share of the afternoon audience to Dallas, Miami (24.1) was the ratings king. ABC, which had pressed the Sugar and Southeastern Conference to switch to prime time, was pleased with the result, yet unhappy with the thought of what might have been.
ABC had a sweetheart deal with the Sugar Bowl because the Bowl gave the network all the high cards when the last contract had been signed in 1976. The Sugar, because of its contract with the network, could now pay competing football teams $1 million apiece. Meanwhile, CBS was paying the Cotton Bowl enough to allow its teams to get approximately $1.8 million. NBC’s Orange Bowl contract was helping the Miami teams to pick up an estimated $1.3 million.
In four of the previous five years, the Sugar Bowl had showcased a No. 1 team in what were in effect, national championship games. ABC, the college football network, had the best of all worlds – the finest attractions for the lowest pay. And there were three more years remaining on the agreement.
In March at the conference basketball tournament in Birmingham, the SEC’s Bowl Committee informed the Sugar that its tie-up would end after the January 1, 1982, game if more money was not forthcoming for the competing teams. The Committee pointed out that under the existing contract, its champions had nothing to lose by being free to play in Dallas and Miami as well as New Orleans.
“We agreed to get back to the SEC people,” said Mickey Holmes. “All we did here was to give our side and listen to their side. It’s been a great relationship for both parties. As for raising the payoffs, the only way to do it is through TV money. You can’t make any substantial increase in payoffs by increasing ticket prices.”
The first thing the SEC-ABC-Sugar troika did was petition the NCAA Extra Events’ Committee for the 7 p.m. kickoff that the network wanted. Mickey Holmes had to convince the Committee as well as suppress intense Orange Bowl lobbying. Miami, understandably, wanted to keep New Year’s night to itself. For a prime-time kickoff, and a change in the SEC’s most recent appearance rule in favor of letting the Sugar choose a representative in case of a championship tie, ABC was willing to come up with a $20 million, escalating, six-year contract. Both were approved.
The Fiesta Bowl, a relative newcomer based in Phoenix, announced a move to New Year’s Day opposite the Cotton Bowl. Nineteen eighty-two would be the first New Year’s since 1961 that more than the traditional four bowl games would be played on January 1.
Finding quality teams to fill the bowl vacancies wasn’t difficult. A record seven teams (Michigan, Notre Dame, Southern Cal, Texas, Penn State, Pitt, and Clemson) were ranked at the top of the polls at one time or another during the 1981 season. From the start, Pittsburgh and Penn State caught the Sugar’s fancy. It was the SEC spot that caused the most headaches. Georgia lost its No. 1 ranking in the third week of the season when it lost nine turnovers and a game to Clemson, 13-3. Vince Dooley used the defeat as a springboard; his team constantly improved and headed toward the end of the season as a probable 10-1 entry. Alabama, which lost to Georgia Tech and was tied by Southern Mississippi, kept even with Georgia in the SEC standings.
Georgia recovered sufficiently from the Clemson defeat to climb back to No. 3 in the national polls. And, of course, Georgia had Herschel Walker as a calling card. Alabama, in the season that Bear Bryant eclipsed Amos Alonzo Stagg as college football’s winningest coach, was ranked No. 6 when the Tide thrashed No. 5 Penn State, 32-16. Alabama, seldom impressive during the 1981 season, was awesome. Penn State, a solid football team that probably played the most difficult schedule in the country, went down for its second loss.
Pittsburgh, ranked No. 1, was the obvious choice for the Sugar Bowl. But a local debate raged over the merits of the SEC co-champions. The argument for ‘Bama, No. 4 after the Penn State game, was Bryant’s record and the unpublicized fact that Bear was eager for a shot at Pitt and his protégé Jackie Sherrill. It was his most direct route for a chance at No. 1. There were those on the Sugar Bowl’s Executive Committee acutely aware of what the organization owed Bryant.
The Sugar Bowl also had an obligation to itself, the SEC, and ABC to select what it felt was the best attraction. Georgia not only had the better record and the higher ranking, but the Bulldogs’ only defeat was to Clemson, who would finish the season unbeaten. ‘Bama’s only loss was to Georgia Tech (1-9), a matter of striking significance. Also, the Sugar Bowl would have to choose between Bulldog running back Herschel Walker and Crimson Tide Coach Bear Bryant. The nod had to go to the combatant.
“We were in a ‘can’t win’ situation with the SEC,” said Holmes. “We had to choose between two excellent football teams. We made our choice. Now I feel we’re in a ‘can’t miss’ situation with No. 1 and No. 3”
Penn State made it a ‘could miss’ situation with a 48-14 comeback win over the Panthers, dropping Pitt to No. 8. Clemson, scheduled to play No. 4 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, rose to the top spot in the polls. That, of course, put Miami in the position New Orleans had held before the kickoff: the game with the glitter.
No team may ever have lost as much talent as one time as did Jackie Sherrill when 21 members of his 11-1, 1980 Pitt Panthers decided to play professional football – 12 by way of the draft, nine as free agents. In what could only be expected to be a rebuilding year, Sherrill molded an extremely potent offense revolving around 6-foot-4 junior quarterback Dan Marino. With 2,615 yards and 34 touchdowns, Marino could already be throwing against pro defenses, observers believed.
The Pitt defense also glittered, leading the nation by allowing only 224.8 total yards a game. Seven turnovers and 13 penalties defused any chance Pitt may have had against Penn State, an extremely good team in its own right.
After the slow start, Vince Dooley was convinced his Bulldogs had evolved into a team better than the one that won the national championship the year before. Herschel Walker gained 1, 891 yards, yet his longest run was 32 yards. As a sophomore he was more consistent, although less spectacular. Buck Belue, who led Georgia to 27 victories in his 29 starting assignments, completed 60 percent of his 188 passing attempts, taking pressure off Walker.
Both teams were downright miserly on defense. Pitt gave up 62.4 rushing yards a game, Georgia 72.5 yards. Both appeared vulnerable in the secondary. Pitt surrendered 162.5 passing yards, Georgia 164.5. That was only because opponents couldn’t run on either.
In 563 passing attempts over two seasons Marino had been sacked only 16 times, so Dooley suspected the course for his team was patience.
As much as Dooley respected Pittsburgh’s capabilities, there was an intangible that kept gnawing at him. “Pitt being undefeated, and then jumping up with two relatively easy touchdowns (against Penn State) may have been the worst thing for Pitt, the best thing for Penn State. Pitt had not been in stress situations before and did not respond. Penn State (which had played a much more difficult schedule) had, and did. That loss was the worst possible thing for us. I would rather have had Pitt undefeated. Now they’ve been embarrassed and have an opportunity to make amends for that.”
Sherrill studied the match-ups, went through the game plan at a chalk session two days before the Sugar, stopped and looked at the board again. With sudden insight he said, “They’ve got problems.”
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.