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Pitt retires Jimbo Covert’s number at halftime of Saturday’s loss

Jim Covert celebrates the retirement of his number, 75, from Pitt Football.  Heather Tennant | Staff Photographer

Jim Covert celebrates the retirement of his number, 75, from Pitt Football. Heather Tennant | Staff Photographer

Jim Covert celebrates the retirement of his number, 75, from Pitt Football. Heather Tennant | Staff Photographer

By Chris Puzia / Assistant Sports Editor

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After Pitt’s running backs totaled 34 rushing yards in the first half Saturday, fans may have wished Jimbo Covert was still on the team instead of in the crowd.

While Pitt’s present prospects looked bleak in a 42-30 letdown loss to No. 5 Notre Dame, the school took a moment at the half to look back on past successes. The program honored Covert by retiring the former offensive lineman’s No. 75 jersey, with former Pitt greats Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, Mike Ditka, Bill Fralic and Jackie Sherrill on the field to support Covert.

Ironically, Covert, who allowed only three quarterback sacks in his final three seasons at Pitt from 1980 to 1983, came on the field after Pitt surrendered two first-half sacks to the Irish.

“It’s just a tremendous honor. It was truly unexpected but very much appreciated,” Covert said in a pre-game press conference with all the special guests. “Pitt football is a bond that we have with the guys we played with. We’re lifelong friends since we were all 18. Pitt football is what keeps us together.”

Ditka, who played tight end at Pitt from 1958 to 1960, took Covert sixth overall in the 1983 NFL Draft while Ditka coached the Chicago Bears. Covert played eight professional seasons and was a part of Ditka’s Super Bowl XX championship team.

“In coaching, I don’t mess around. When I saw something I liked, I got it,” Ditka said. “I had an opportunity to pick a young tackle out of the University of Pittsburgh, and when I saw him from day one, we broke it down and knew he’s a guy we wanted.”

Covert became the 10th player in Pitt history with a retired number, but rather than bask in that accomplishment, he noted that it takes organizational strength to create these opportunities for players. He said Chancellor Patrick Gallagher brought in “a winning team” with athletic director Scott Barnes and head coach Pat Narduzzi.

“It’s the whole administration, it’s the attitude they’re trying to establish,” Covert said. “We want to be excellent in everything that we do as a university — and not just on the academic side, because it’s a great research and academic institution, but on the athletics side as well.”

Despite the decisions Covert praised, the game he watched at Heinz Field didn’t replicate that organizational success. On Saturday, Pitt’s running backs totaled just 46 rushing yards and averaged 2.9 yards per carry.

While those poor numbers result from more than offensive line play, Dorsett said in 1975 his line’s strength helped power his 303-yard performance against Notre Dame. The All-American added that Saturday was the perfect day to retire Covert’s jersey because of the long-lasting rivalry with the Irish.

“That rivalry that we’ve created over the years, it’s gotten intense,” Dorsett said. “When I was a kid watching them on Saturday mornings, I always said, ‘Man, I’d love to one day play for them or to play against them and do some wonderful things.’ And fortunately, I was able to play against them.”

Notre Dame finished Saturday’s game with three sacks for a combined 25 yards lost, as well as 28 yards on tackles for losses. Covert said before the game that regardless of the result, he is encouraged by the direction Narduzzi is taking the program.

“Pat just needs a couple more years of recruiting under his belt,” Covert said. “Get people in there that will be competitive. It doesn’t have to be all four- or five-star guys either. You just need guys that can play and have some heart and want to be part of the football tradition, and that’s what Pat will do.”

Covert’s college teammate, Marino, said the atmosphere of hosting a top-five team reminded him of their playing days together. He talked to Pitt’s current team about the significance these games carry.

“It’s great to be here for my main man Jimbo, my left tackle and my lifelong friend,” Marino said. “I told the team about the opportunity they have, to play Notre Dame and play at home to a sellout crowd. For these young kids, we’ve had our history, now it’s time to make their history.”

Ditka said people of Covert’s caliber, as a teammate as much as a player, are a rare commodity.

“You don’t get too many people like that who come around. He had the respect of the players and his coaches, and that’s important,” Ditka said. “He earned that respect by kicking people’s asses.”

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Pitt retires Jimbo Covert’s number at halftime of Saturday’s loss