Here is what happens when you eat your spinach and grow up to be No. 1 like Mother promised.
A few years ago, when the University of Pittsburgh was winning football games in bunches of one and two a season, a boosters' club was formed. The initial outpouring of support was 15 donors at $2 each, a $30 windfall. This year the boosters raised $287,000. The nouveau riche Pitt athletic department, in an example of football enhancing scholarship, contributed $100,000 to the library.
Four years ago the Panthers quit holding pep rallies because nobody came. Last week for the opener with Notre Dame they had a pep rally and a bonfire. And the university chancellor, Dr. Wesley W. Posvar, a Rhodes scholar, gave a rousing speech in an example of scholarship enhancing football. And at the rally the school band, which once had to recruit from nearby Duquesne and Carnegie-Mellon to fill its ranks (with predictable anarchy in sound and march), was alive with quality tooters and bangers anxious to make the next bowl trip. And the cheerleaders, of whose female numbers it used to be said, "They do not cheer, they bark," were not only lovely but they were led by Miss Cheerleader U.S.A. herself, Susan Murphy.
And on Saturday when the Panthers went out to defend their first national championship in 40 years against the Irish, they did so before a sellout crowd of 56,500. In a stadium newly spruced and splashed with blue and gold paint. On a brand-new $300,000 carpet. Beneath a classy new scoreboard that could, in flashing letters, make announcements like ZOWIE! Not even an occasional and forgivable snafu (Pitt being unused to such high station for so long) could dampen the good feelings. Publicist Dean Billick's order for 15,000 pompons for the boosters turned up short, but in one box was a surprise allotment of 400 brassieres. Billick resisted the temptation to have the brassieres painted blue and gold for waving but could not resist saying, "This must mean it's Notre Dame or bust."
Bust, alas, is what it was. For purposes of future scoreboard programming, BUST! was a chillingly appropriate word. But so, too, would have been OOPS! And, ultimately, AAAGH! That Pitt's party and 13-game winning streak were spoiled there was no doubt. Notre Dame won 19-9. Whether the supposedly big, tough and insatiable Irish, themselves now heir apparent to No. 1, could have done it alone will, however, remain moot.
What Mother might have neglected to tell you was that staying No. 1 allows little margin for error, and even less for a truly bad break. Just when it appeared that the Panthers were going to get over the loss of a Coach of the Year ( Johnny Majors) and a Heisman Trophy winner ( Tony Dorsett) without missing a beat—just when it seemed they were on their way to an upset of Notre Dame—Pitt suffered a lulu. One that confirms the fact that nothing enhances bonfires, bowl trips and financial well-being like a healthy star quarterback.
The one player new Coach Jackie Sherrill had said all along was indispensable was Matt Cavanaugh. "Tough—and tough-minded," Sherrill said of the 6'2", 215-pound senior. Cavanaugh's presence comforted his coach. A former Alabama fullback and linebacker, Sherrill delighted in telling how physical (and therefore un-quarterbacklike) Cavanaugh was. He admitted, chuckling, that as Majors' defensive coordinator he had tried to get the freshman Cavanaugh moved to linebacker "because he wasn't playing and he's too good an athlete to let sit." Besides, he said, your average quarterback doesn't lift weights or heft jackhammers in the off-season. Though mild mannered and well liked off the field, Cavanaugh was not averse to jerking helmets and kicking fannies in huddles to get attention.
Sherrill was blunt. With Dorsett gone, he had refashioned Cavanaugh as the central jewel of a pass- and option-oriented offense. Pressure? "He can handle it," said Sherrill. "A born leader."
With 1:28 to play in the first quarter, at the precise moment that he put Notre Dame in serious jeopardy with a touchdown pass, Cavanaugh went from candidate to casualty.
It was Pittsburgh's second possession of what was then a scoreless game. Cavanaugh had driven the Panthers from midfield to the Irish 12. Five times he had carried the ball, sticking his tough nose into pile-ups, running options from an exaggerated spacing in the Pitt line that, allowing for double-team blocking on the Irish tackles, isolated and neutralized Notre Dame's excellent defensive ends, Ross Browner and Willie Fry. Now, on third down, Cavanaugh dropped back to pass. His primary target was Split End Gordon Jones, running deep on the left side. Finding Jones covered, Cavanaugh broke from the pocket and raced to his right.