How do you return a mediocre football program to its heyday?
To many Pitt fans, looking the part is key to this transformation.
They fondly remember when Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino and Hugh Green plus coaches Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill had Pitt contending for national titles in the 1970s and 1980s, winning it all in ’76. And they remember that old-school scripted “Pitt,” set amidst a blue and mustard yellow color scheme brighter than the current colors.
It’s not just the colors that used to be brighter. The team’s prospects were, too.
Since 2009, Pitt football has had four head coaches — one of whom, Michael Haywood, was fired without ever coaching a game. Dave Wannstedt resigned after a 2010 team favored to win the Big East went a disappointing 7–5 on the field and found itself on the wrong side of the law off of it.
And then there’s Todd Graham. Less than a year after saying that he and his family were “honored to join such a prestigious university and a rich football tradition,” in January 2011, Graham informed his players that he was leaving for Arizona State via forwarded text.
It could be worse for fans. They could still be lamenting the struggles of the “Pittsburgh” Panthers.
Athletic director Steve Pederson got a few things right in his first tenure with Pitt after being hired in 1996. He hired six coaches — including Walt Harris and Ben Howland — who would win Big East Coach of the Year honors. And he elevated the department’s fundraising efforts.
But in terms of fan outreach, Pederson was a dud.
His 1997 rebranding of Pitt athletics started with a color scheme update. Bright blue and mustard yellow were out, midnight blue and “vegas gold” were in. Then came the de-emphasis of “Pitt” in preference for “Pittsburgh.” The script logo on the football helmets were replaced by a universally reviled “Dinocat” (below middle, which this website has compared to the world’s ugliest dog).
The school mercifully switched back to “Pitt” when Dave Wannstedt was hired as the new football coach in December 2004 and replaced “Dinocat” with block “Pitt” lettering. (Pederson was Nebraska’s AD at the time.) Pitt even wore throwback football jerseys and helmets in their game against Youngstown State the following season – only to revert back to the regular uniforms, just as the team reverted back to mediocrity whenever it appeared ready to turn the corner.
Pederson returned as Pitt’s AD in ’07 and still refuses to go back to the script logo, telling the Pittsburgh Tribune Review at the time: “I understand people like some things from years ago, but we’re trying to recruit 15-, 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds, and we’ve built a pretty good brand with our success with what we’re doing, so I don’t think now is the time to change much.”
That contradicts what Wannstedt said after the ’05 throwback game: “Don’t know if it’s [up to] our athletic director or our Chancellor, but we could be the Buffalo Bills of college football. The Bills didn’t want to take off their throwback uniforms. That’s what our guys were saying in [the locker room]. They want to wear ‘em.”
The fans are especially vocal about reverting back to the old look.
Fans like those behind the site “Fans for Script” solely devoted to bringing back the old unis and others like Bryan Brunsell. He started a Facebook group last October dedicated to a scripted Pitt rebranding. A creative director by trade, Brunsell has created mock designs for “new old” Pitt helmets on his personal website.
“It’s a subtle, beautiful and unique logo,” Brunsell says. “And Pitt’s introduction to the ACC is an absolute perfect time to do this, to ‘go back to go forward.’ ”
Brunsell points out that while fan support for the old logo is important, it’s the Pitt players whose support can truly give this “movement” life.
Via Twitter, Brunsell claims to have gotten support for his design from prized Panthers recruit J.P. Holtz, a tight end who played with Brunsell’s nephew in high school. Brunsell says that he was also retweeted by another Pitt freshman (and Dorsett’s relative), running back Rushel Shell.
“If high-profile players like J.P. and Rushel embrace it, they can force the hand of the higher-ups,” Brunsell says.
With a move from the Big East to the ACC on the horizon and a new smash-mash football coach in former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, it’s a time of change at Pitt. When it comes to the Panthers’ gridiron garb, many are clinging to hope it will be “out with the new and in with the old.”