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That was then, this is now: Pitt football undefeated 100 years ago

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The University of Pittsburgh Football Team was undefeated during their 1917 season. (Photo via ULS Archives)

The University of Pittsburgh Football Team was undefeated during their 1917 season. (Photo via ULS Archives)

The University of Pittsburgh Football Team was undefeated during their 1917 season. (Photo via ULS Archives)

By Colin Martin | For The Pitt News

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The year was 1917 — neither the Cathedral of Learning nor the Pittsburgh Steelers existed, and the Pittsburgh Pirates had finished last in the MLB standings with a 51-103 record.

This was also the same year Pitt’s football team completed a perfect 10-0 season. Times have certainly changed.

The current Pittsburgh Panthers football team is far from undefeated, standing at 2-5. But there are still things in common between this year’s team and the undefeated team from 100 years ago.

The 1917 team’s performance was not a fluke. Led by legendary head coach Pop Warner, the Panthers entered the season as two-time defending national champions, after going 8-0 in 1915 and 1916. However, the roster was very different in 1917 because many players served in WWI.

There were some familiar opponents on the 1917 Panthers’ schedule — Syracuse and Penn State. Pitt beat the Orange 28-0 and the Nittany Lions 28-6. Compare that to the 2017 results — the Panthers struggled keeping up with top-ranked Penn State, losing 33-14, and also lost a close game to Syracuse 27-24.

In addition to scoring well, the 1917 team only gave up on average 3.1 points per game to its opponents. The current Pitt team has given up 30.8 points per game through six games and would probably struggle defending the 1917 Panthers’ offense.

Warner had his players run the double-wing offense, which is similar to the triple-option offense that Georgia Tech runs today. Against Pitt, Georgia Tech had 436 rushing yards in its 35-17 triumph earlier this season.

Georgia Tech was coincidentally one of Pitt’s rivals in 1917. Georgia Tech head coach John Heisman challenged Warner and Pitt to a postseason game to determine a national champion since both teams ended the season undefeated. Warner declined, and postponed the game until the following season — when Pitt would win its third national championship. But because of this postponement, Pitt was not awarded the national championship until 1918.

Imagine Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi declining an invitation to a bowl game today — it would never happen. The current Pitt team needs to win at least four more games — for a total of six wins — to even become bowl eligible.

Pitt is a member of the ACC and plays most of its game within the conference, but back in 1917, conferences did not exist. Pitt was an independent team — similar to Notre Dame football today — and many of its scheduled opponents were schools the team wouldn’t play today.

The team also played some familiar in-state schools, like Lehigh University and Carnegie Mellon — formerly known as Carnegie Tech. Today, these schools probably won’t be coming out of the Heinz Field tunnel any time soon. The team also played — and beat — Bethany, the University of Pennsylvania, Washington & Jefferson and Camp Lee.

The 1917 Panthers also got to play rival West Virginia in the classic Backyard Brawl game. Current fans of the team are excited to see this rustbelt rivalry return in 2022.

Fans also get to see team captains from each partake in the coin flip before every game. The 2017 Pitt football captains are senior quarterback Max Browne, senior wide receiver Jester Weah and senior and junior defensive backs Avonte Maddox and Dennis Briggs.

In 1917 there was only one team captain on the football team — compared to today’s four. Leading the team to victory was Pitt’s was Doc Carlson, an All-American end who helped the Panthers win the 1916 national championship.

Carlson was an exceptional athlete who played baseball and basketball in addition to football. He went on to become Pitt’s head basketball coach for 31 years, and was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1959.

The other star on the 1917 Pitt football team was the man who would eventually replace Warner as head coach in 1924, Jock Sutherland. Sutherland was an All-American in 1915 and 1916. In addition to football, Sutherland wrestled and was on the track and field team while at Pitt.

Pitt’s current All-American, junior wide receiver Quadree Henderson, hasn’t indicated he has any plan of returning to his alma mater as coach.

The Warner-era Pitt Panthers football team had a 32-game win streak from 1915 to 1918, and was awarded three national titles over that span. Narduzzi may need to look back and take some notes from the undefeated 1917 team to help Pitt succeed today.

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That was then, this is now: Pitt football undefeated 100 years ago