Like their quarterback, Danny Marino, the Panthers seem too good to be true. Eighteen of 22 names are unchanged from the starting team that beat Georgia on New Year's night. That concluded the third 11-1 season in a row for Pitt, a school that has won nine national titles but thinks the six years that have passed since its last are six too many.
Pitt doesn't figure to be coming up short just because it has a new head coach. Eight months ago Serafino (called Foge, from a childhood mispronunciation of "fudge") Fazio was Jackie Sherrill's defensive coordinator and casting about for a head coaching job. With Pitt finishing as the No. 4 team in the nation in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, it didn't seem likely that Sherrill would be leaving, so Fazio looked into the head coach openings at South Carolina and Maryland. He got no nibbles and was just about ready to sign on as the defensive line coach of the Buffalo Bills, when Texas A&M lured Sherrill away. Suddenly, Fazio was the man in charge at the school where he had been an assistant for nine years.
The public's introduction to Foge was his halftime pep talk at the '82 Sugar Bowl, which ABC broadcast live. "I didn't give it much thought," Fazio says, "until we got home and recruits started introducing me to their parents and coaches as 'the guy who gave that talk.' " It was personal, spirited, emotional—and typical Fazio. Comparing him to the aloof and introspective Sherrill. Offensive Coordinator Joe Moore says, "If there's something they have in common, I don't know what it is."
After turning seven 1980 starters over to the pros, including All-Everything Hugh Green, Fazio's defense was supposed to be Pitt's weak suit in '81. Instead, it had 54 sacks and led the nation in both rushing and total defense. The Pac-Men are back—Middle Guard J.C. Pelusi and tackles Bill Maas and Dave Puzzouli, ready to gobble up offensive backs like so many dots. The ends are Michael Woods and Chris Doleman, who had 25 sacks between them. Rich (Conan) Kraynak and newcomer Caesar Aldisert are the most notable linebackers. All-America Tom Flynn, Tim Lewis (eight interceptions) and Dan Short are joined by Troy Hill in the secondary.
Marino will again fire away to Split End Julius Dawkins, Flanker Dwight Collins and Tight End John Brown. Bryan Thomas, who had 46 catches and ran for 1,133 yards, returns at halfback. Those guys can burn you—just ask Georgia—but the key to Pitt's hopes is the offensive line, which allowed just eight sacks of Marino in 1981.
Particularly critical to the success of Pitt's passing game is senior Left Tackle Jimbo Covert, a 6'5", 279-pound English lit major from a steelworking family in Conway, Pa. Most defenses aim their pass rush at the side where the tight end isn't. But that's where Covert is. Covert is a natural righthander. "I tried to switch to a lefthanded stance but couldn't get the explosion on running plays," he says. "So I'm kind of awkward, and my left hand is kind of slow." To counter most pass rushers, Covert's right arm snaps back as his left moves to fend off the rusher. That's two motions, one more than a lefty would make. To quicken his motion Covert has been playing racquetball lefthanded.
"Nowadays," says Moore, who also works with the offensive line, "Jimbo is so good, it's like watching a clinic film. After a play, I'm never surprised to turn and see Jimbo and his man 10 or 15 yards downfield."
Moore takes credit for a brilliant coaching job on 6'5", 270-pound sophomore Right Tackle Bill Fralic, who was named to the freshman All-America team. "I don't say anything to him but 'good job,' " says Moore. "He's the only kid I've seen who can adjust in a game to things we pick out later in the films. Other guys just stick to what they're taught, no matter what."
At guard are Rob Fada, a 3.6 student in premed, and Ron (Moose) Sams, who experimented with Newtonian principles this summer by consistently slamming golf balls 300 yards in charity tournaments. Tony Magnelli, at center, is the only new face on the line; he replaces Emil Boures, now with the Steelers.
When Pitt was No. 1 in the polls for four weeks last season, critics charged—quite justifiably—that its schedule was lighter than air. Not the case in '82. The Panthers will have to make it to No. 1 the old-fashioned way. They open with North Carolina on Sept. 9 at Three Rivers Stadium (CBS, 9 p.m. EDT), then go to Florida State and Illinois before meeting West Virginia at home. Later, it's Notre Dame and the grudge game at Penn State. So if the season ends with a 10th national championship, John Houseman will be pleased: Pitt's going to earn it.
Moore counts on Offensive Tackle Covert to lend Pitt's push to No. 1.