With The Rivalry Reborn, Pitt And Penn State Players Remember The Game That Defined It

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Chet Parlavecchio was 10 minutes into our phone interview when he really got going. He was repeating a story he’s been telling on and off for 35 years, the one about that time he appeared on a Pittsburgh radio show and dropped a burn on Pitt in the run-up to Penn State’s 1981 game against the No. 1-ranked Panthers.

Parlavecchio, a Penn State linebacker, had dissed Pitt’s schedule in that radio interview by suggesting that Thiel College—a Division III school located some 70 miles north of Pittsburgh—might as well have been among the Panthers’ opponents, so weak was Pitt’s slate.

“Pitt’s No. 1,” Parlavecchio said, according to newspaper accounts. “They played that tough schedule: Rutgers, Temple—and Thiel.

“Now they’re going to be in a real football game.”

Bringing it up now, all these years later, still gets Parlavecchio fired up. “We didn’t respect [Pitt’s] schedule; we didn’t respect what they had done,” Parlavecchio, now a high school football coach in New Jersey, told me. “We knew we were good. We knew we were battle-tested.”

College football is often less about pride in one’s own team than it is about the chance to bathe in a hated rival’s misfortune. Parlavecchio, both in that original radio appearance and in my recent phone call with him, was tapping into that sentiment, and giving voice to it. Because in 1981, Pitt-Penn State had all the components of a perfect college football rivalry.

“It was Oklahoma-Nebraska, it was Alabama-Auburn, it was USC-UCLA, it was Ohio State and Michigan, and it was Pitt and Penn State,” said John Congemi, the Panthers’ quarterback from 1983-86. “It was the game.”

“It was hate,” said Kenny Jackson, a Nittany Lions receiver from 1980-83. “It wasn’t just a game.”

There have been 96 Pitt-Penn State games. Game No. 97 takes place Saturday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, the first of four home-and-home matchups slated to run through 2019. But because Pitt and Penn State haven’t played since 2000, an entire generation of college football fans has no concept of what the rivalry was, or what it meant for the two schools, which are separated by 140 miles of Pennsyltucky wilderness. This is true even though plenty of Penn State fans live in the Pittsburgh area; their presence used to divide the city during Pitt-Penn State week, and even in the era before Twitter eggs served as a free recruit-shaming service, their influence on local recruits could be felt year-round.

Pitt fans have always had an inferiority complex when it came to PSU, the state’s traditional football power; deep down, after the series was discontinued, their instincts told them that Pitt still needed Penn State as a rival, that Penn State provided them with someone to punch up against. Until recently, Penn State fans had enjoyed more consistent success, and they often barely concealed their condescension toward Pitt. However, as the proprietor of a Pitt fan blog recently told Pittsburgh Magazine, “for [supposedly] not caring about Pitt, I sure hear a lot from Penn State fans anytime something unfortunate happens at Pitt.” Old hatreds never graduate.

But nothing quite tells the story—or so accurately summarizes the future trajectories of Pitt and Penn State, their players, and the fate of several other eastern schools—quite like 1981, a game forever known for its astonishingly lopsided final score: 48-14.

That would be Penn State 48, Pitt 14.

Even today, just the score is enough to stir the echoes. “I wouldn’t say I have memory-loss issues or anything, but I sometimes can’t remember what I had for breakfast,” said Todd Blackledge, Penn State’s quarterback from 1979-82 and a current ESPN analyst. “I have vivid memories of that game.”

Pitt-Penn State as a marquee matchup to end the regular season was once a routine occurrence. Both had their runs in which one side dominated the other, but from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, both programs were consistently ranked in the Top 10. They battled for recruits. And they were portraits in contrast, and not just because Pitt is a city school and Penn State is located somewhere east of Mount Nowhere.

Pitt had—and just recently brought back—that script logo, which conveyed a flair and a swagger, a notable bit of branding that became synonymous with the program’s return to respectability after head coach Johnny Majors’s and running back Tony Dorsett’s arrival in 1973. Penn State had—and still has—those plain blue and white uniforms, with no player names on the back, an austere look that reflected the no-frills image preferred by its late, longtime head coach, Joe Paterno.

Majors left Pitt after winning a national title in 1976. Jackie Sherrill, his smooth-talking salesman of a successor, would similarly leave for a more lucrative gig after the ‘81 season. And Penn State had Paterno, whose projection of rectitude, piety, and erudition masked his massive ego. Paterno was so sure of himself as the game’s moral exemplar that—thinking he was speaking off the record—he once took a crack at Sherrill and Barry Switzer in a room full of reporters by saying he couldn’t bear the thought of retiring and leaving the noble calling of coaching college football to such scoundrels. It remains no small irony that Paterno’s life and career would end in disgrace with him at the center of one of the sport’s ugliest scandals.

Sherrill, in a recent phone interview, took his battles with Paterno in stride. In at least one interview in recent years, Sherrill has pointed out that he and Paterno eventually patched things up. But back then, they were rivals, and the only way they knew how to operate was to behave accordingly.

“You’re not supposed to be your opponent’s friend,” Sherrill told me. “I don’t see [Jim] Harbaugh going to dinner with [Urban] Meyer, either.”

Kenny Jackson, whom Sherrill tried to recruit by telling him Paterno wouldn’t throw him the ball, remembered Paterno being extra hard on him in the week leading up to 48-14.

“The week before the game, Joe was such an asshole,” Jackson, a native of New Jersey, told me. “He was all on my ass. And I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand this rivalry. I didn’t understand how personal it was to Joe.”

Paterno owned Pitt. He went 23-7-1 against the Panthers all-time, and he beat Pitt the first 10 times he faced it after taking over in Happy Valley in 1966. “Penn State had the advantage for many years of getting any player from Pennsylvania that they wanted,” Sherrill said. “You were the king of the hill and then you had a young guy who came in and knocked you off.”

From ‘76 to ‘84, Pitt went 4-4-1 against Penn State. It was always a sticking point for Paterno that his unbeaten teams in 1968, 1969, and 1973 weren’t recognized as national champions. Then along came Majors and Dorsett, and in short order Pitt—Pitt!—won a title.

But Paterno had even grander reasons to dislike Pitt. College football in the early ‘80s was a regional sport—and still, as always, a sport that exploited the labor of its players. Conference affiliations weren’t crucial to a program’s success. At that time, Pitt, Penn State, Syracuse, Boston College, West Virginia, and several other northeastern schools were independents, a designation that allowed them to keep their bowl and television revenues—a pretty good deal, as long as there were television and bowl revenues to be had. Which obviously only worked for the programs that were successful.

Paterno saw the financial advantages that could be had from being part of a conference, a reality that came to bear when a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision gave conferences the right to bargain for their own television deals. The case continues to affect college sports to this day, as evidenced by the power conferences’ gargantuan TV contracts and the dizzying game of conference musical chairs that has taken place. Paterno’s idea, circa 1980-81, was for the eastern schools to form their own all-sports league. Pitt seemed to be on board with the concept. But less than two weeks before 48-14, Pitt decided instead to join the Big East for basketball and to retain its football independence.

The move would prove to be shortsighted, especially in light of the Big East’s decision a year later to reject Penn State as a member. The Big East later added football, but Pitt’s program has been mostly mediocre since the early ‘80s, and attendance at Heinz Field has been terrible. When the TV money leviathan began to swallow the Big East, Pitt helicoptered off the roof for the ACC, while the other eastern independents have since scattered far and wide to a variety of leagues. But Pitt’s about-face in ‘81 was also a giant middle finger aimed at Paterno, who hitched his wagon to the Big Ten a decade later, at which point he stopped playing Pitt except for a four-year stretch from 1997-2000. Little wonder, then, that when the usually reserved Paterno took the field at Pitt Stadium for the start of 48-14, he waved his arms toward the stands with genuine excitement.

Dan Marino grew up in the same Oakland neighborhood that’s home to Pitt’s campus. It was a 10-minute walk from his parents’ house to Pitt Stadium, the delightful old on-campus dump that hosted games from 1925 through 1999. Even before he enrolled at Pitt, Marino had a unique perspective on Pitt-Penn State, just as the rivalry amped up.

“It’s different because I grew up in Oakland,” Marino told me. “I watched Tony [Dorsett] and Johnny Majors and those teams play Penn State every year. I watched all the good players that Penn State had. So maybe in some ways I had a different understanding of it.”

Even in his Pitt days, Marino’s abilities were so advanced that Pitt tailored a pro-style, pass-heavy offense around him that was ahead of its era. Sherrill said Marino was even given lots of leeway to call out protections and to change plays at the line of scrimmage.

“We gave Danny,” Sherrill said—and I pause here to note that everyone who knew Marino during his days at Pitt still calls him “Danny”—“the opportunity to control 85 percent of the game. We would give him options. That’s probably one of the reasons he was prepared to start as a rookie in the NFL.”

Marino was a junior in ‘81. He came into 48-14 having thrown a school-record 32 touchdown passes. But he was hardly the only big-time player in that game.

“You know how much talent was on that field that day?” asked Parlavecchio, a 1982 sixth-round pick of the Green Bay Packers. In fact, some 53 players from both rosters would get drafted into the NFL over the course of the next four seasons, including Marino, Bill Fralic, Jimbo Covert, Chris Doleman, and Bill Maas of Pitt, and Mike Munchak, Sean Farrell, Curt Warner, and Todd Blackledge of Penn State.

Penn State came in ranked No. 9, and had fallen from No. 1 after losses to Miami (Fla.) and Alabama. Pitt was 10-0, had won 17 straight, and was headed to the Sugar Bowl, where it would meet defending national champion Georgia. But the Panthers had feasted on the likes of Rutgers, Temple, Army, and FSU, in the years before Bobby Bowden had built Florida State into Florida State.

This was the context into which Parlavecchio—a shit-stirrer who had a way of rallying his teammates together—delivered his swipe at Pitt’s schedule on a game-week show hosted by Stan Savran, who to this day remains on the air in Pittsburgh. At the time, Savran covered Penn State for Pittsburgh’s ABC affiliate, and in 1982 he would begin a stint as Penn State’s television play-by-play voice.

Of Parlavecchio’s quip, Savran told me, “That really resonated. That was a big deal. And a lot of Pitt fans attached me to it, like I said it.”

But why, in disparaging Pitt, did Parlavecchio mention tiny Thiel College, of all places? Turns out his best friend on Penn State’s team, defensive end Rich D’Amico, had a friend from Thiel who had visited the weekend before. Coincidentally enough, the school’s name just happened to be fresh in Parlavecchio’s mind.

“I’m a Jersey guy,” Parlavecchio said. “I never even heard of Thiel.”

Sometime after 48-14, Parlavecchio said, he got a letter in the mail from the head coach at Thiel. In the letter, the coach informed Parlavecchio that Thiel football took itself seriously, and that the program carried itself with a great deal of pride, and so on and so forth. The coach also thanked Parlavecchio for all the free publicity.

Game day, Nov. 28, was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, with ABC carrying it nationally. It was Sherrill’s 38th birthday, and it was a cold, damp, gray afternoon. There was an overflow crowd of more than 60,000 fans stuffed into Pitt Stadium. Parlavecchio was booed when he was introduced along with Penn State’s starting defense.

Tellingly, Paterno never reprimanded Parlavecchio for what he had said on Savran’s program. In fact, according to the New York Times, Paterno himself had publicly taken a dig at Pitt’s schedule, and his words—“I would rather have a tough schedule and lose a couple of games than have a patsy schedule and be ranked No. 1”—were tacked up on a wall inside the Pitt locker room before the game.

Pitt jumped to a quick 14-0 lead on its first two possessions thanks to Marino touchdown passes to wideout Dwight Collins.

“Oh, my God,” Parlavecchio recalled thinking. “Am I going to look like the biggest jackass on two feet? I said [to D’Amico], ‘Ricky, oh, my God, do I look like an asshole.’”

Penn State finished the first quarter with minus-1 total yards, and Pitt was on its way toward a third TD early in the second quarter when Marino lobbed a pass deep into the end zone that was intercepted by Roger Jackson, Kenny’s brother.

Everything changed. Penn State marched up the field to cut the lead in half. Marino threw another interception near the Penn State goal line—a few plays after Parlavecchio was whistled for a late hit on the Pitt sideline that led Sherrill to get in his face for a moment—and soon Penn State had tied it heading into halftime.

The rout was on in the second half, with Kenny Jackson catching touchdown passes of 42 and 45 yards to blow the game open. Jackson used a pirouetting spin move to deke a pair of Pitt defenders on the first of those scores, and the nearest Pitt defender on his second touchdown seemed to have been situated somewhere on Thiel’s campus.

Sherrill is now 72 years old, and he coached for another 20-plus years at Texas A&M and Mississippi State. But when I got him on the phone, he rattled off Marino’s stats from that day from memory: 22-for-45, 267 yards, four interceptions. Pitt also lost three fumbles, and was penalized 13 times. The final indignity was Penn State safety Mark Robinson’s 91-yard interception return for a touchdown, most of which he did while running with one shoe.

“It sort of played into Parlavecchio’s narrative,” Savran said. “Pitt pretty much had their way all season long. But when they went against a team—even though they were up 14-0—who punched back, they were not prepared.”

When it was over, Paterno told reporters, “I didn’t think this was an upset. Who says so?”

Pitt had played into Penn State’s hands. The Nittany Lions, anticipating a Marino air raid, frequently dropped eight defenders into coverage. Yet Marino kept throwing. And as the game started to get away, he continued trying to force the ball downfield.

“We should have been running the football,” Sherrill told me. Pitt had a 1,000-yard rusher in running back Bryan Thomas, and a 700-yard rusher in fullback Wayne DiBartola. As Sherrill admitted to me, “The fact is that we as coaches did not do a good enough job to help the players win the football game.”

In 2001, DiBartola told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Dan Marino is one of the best quarterbacks ever. But, if you watch films, Bryan Thomas and I were open with a 30-yard cushion. But Dan kept throwing deep, trying to get touchdowns quickly.”

Though Marino famously never won a Super Bowl during his Hall of Fame career with the Miami Dolphins, his best chance at a college national title slipped away because of 48-14. And it seemed to stick with him. In his 1997 children’s book, Marino wrote: “After that game, I started hearing hometown fans badmouth my play for the first time. People trashed me on the local call-in shows and in the newspapers.”

Thomas, Pitt’s running back, said the naysaying of Marino began after 48-14, and that it only grew stronger the following year. Marino went on to have a disappointing senior season; in 1982, the Panthers would again climb to No. 1 in the polls, but they ended the year by losing three of their last five, including a dreadful showing against SMU in the Cotton Bowl. Additionally, rumors of drug use followed Marino into the draft, where he slipped to No. 27 overall. Even the hometown Steelers, with Terry Bradshaw about to enter what would be his 14th and final season, passed on Marino.

“That’s a lot of pressure for a hometown kid to have on his shoulders,” said Thomas, who insisted to me that there was no truth to the Marino drug rumors. “This young man had been used to winning. You’re winning on every level. You’re the famous face of the Pittsburgh Panthers. Everything is about Dan Marino. Shit, I had a third of the pressure he had, and I know what it meant to me.”

I asked Marino about all this. Of 48-14, he said, “You tend to look at that and say, ‘Well, that was one of those things that just happened.’” When I asked whether 48-14 had put any added pressure on him or in any way triggered the negativity that surrounded his senior year, Marino grew lightheartedly defiant.

“You remember the Sugar Bowl?” he asked. That’s right, the Sugar Bowl: A little more than a month after 48-14, Marino threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to John Brown on fourth-and-5 with 35 seconds remaining to lift Pitt past Georgia, and to a No. 2 final ranking behind Clemson. “That happened in between,” Marino said.

The biggest individual beneficiary of 48-14 may have been Penn State’s Blackledge. In his senior season the next year, he guided the Nittany Lions to their first national title. And even though his pro career never came close to matching Marino’s, Blackledge did wind up getting drafted ahead of Marino, going No. 7 overall to the Chiefs.

“I’d be lying if I said [48-14] didn’t prove that I belonged in that kind of game and that kind of a matchup,” Blackledge told me. “I think it was a signature kind of game for me and really was a good springboard into the next year.”

In the 16 years since Pitt and Penn State last played, there has always been some clamor to make it happen again. Pitt, in particular, had been eager to show it wanted the game back. But for many years, Penn State insisted on an arrangement of two games in State College for every one game in Pittsburgh—ostensibly as payback for all the games played in Pittsburgh in the first half of the 20th century, but more likely as a way to stick it to Pitt for its decision to spurn Paterno’s conference idea way back when. Five years ago, the two schools finally reached an agreement on a temporary renewal that begins with Saturday’s game.

But what of the fan interest? Stan Savran did some informal polling a few years back, calling people around Pennsylvania to gauge their level of enthusiasm for renewing the rivalry. He found that those most excited about the idea lived in Western Pennsylvania, and that they tended to be in their 40s or 50s—old enough to remember the Pitt-Penn State heyday.

“Talking to younger people and current students, because they haven’t played for quite some time, they were aware of it, but it really wasn’t that big a deal to them,” Savran said. “They were more interested in who they play now.”

The mutual hatred is still there, especially with Saturday almost here. But here’s what anyone—young or old—who doubts the lingering intensity of this rivalry needs to know. Penn State’s Kenny Jackson told me that whenever he runs into an old opponent from the ‘81 Pitt team, all he has to do is give the dude a certain look, or simply utter the words “48-14.” Jackson then gleefully awaits the reaction of disgust he knows is coming. Or consider the words of former Pitt safety Tom Flynn, who just after 48-14 was asked by a reporter which stung more, losing a chance at a national title, or the end of Pitt’s 17-game winning streak. “Neither,” he answered. “It was losing to Penn State.”

Ex-Deadspinner Dom Cosentino is a reporter and writer. 48-14 is one of his earliest sports memories. He’s on Twitter @domcosentino.