College football is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2019, and as a result, many outlets and analysts are looking back and recognizing the game’s greatest players, coaches and programs. To that end, ESPN ranked the 50 greatest college football programs of the past 150 years, and it included Pitt at No. 33 on the list.
The criteria ESPN judged programs on included number of national championships (weighted at 20 percent), winning percentage for the best 50 seasons in program history (20 percent), winning percentage since 1969 (30 percent), winning percentage between 1919 and 1968 (20 percent), and winning percentage between 1869 and 1918 (10 percent). Adjustments were also made for pre-poll era national titles and sub-FBS national championships, both of which count as half a modern FBS national title.
Given those parameters, Pitt earned a score of 53.90. The highest score was 74.90, which went to top-ranked Alabama. The ESPN Stats & Information Group provided a more detailed breakdown of Pitt’s history and its placement:
"From 1915 through 1938, under the legendary Pop Warner and under Jock Sutherland — a coach Gen. Robert Neyland thought to be the best ever — the Panthers walked among the college football elite. In 1937, they won the second AP title despite a tie with Fordham; they might have won the first, in 1936, if not for a tie with Fordham. (The teams tied in 1935 too, but there was no AP poll.) But Sutherland resigned in a dispute with the university after the 1938 season. And save for a decade under Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, the Panthers have been just another program. It’s hard to win in the shadow of an NFL team; Pitt is a tenant at the Steelers’ Heinz Field."
Some modern fans of the game may view Pitt as lucky to have made the cut at all, given the fact that current Power Five teams occupy just 30 of the 50 spots on the list and Pitt’s perods of dominance are in the past. However, there is also an argument to be made that the program was not given its due in 33rd place, as it claims nine national championships but was only given credit for five. Meanwhile, Penn State, which claims two national titles, was credited with four. ESPN deferred to the NCAA’s official list of major-college champions.
Among Pitt’s rivals, Notre Dame fared the best, coming in second place in the ranking with 72.90 points. Penn State came in 12th, with 61.60 points, and West Virginia came in at 47th, with 51.47 points. West Virginia is one of eight programs without a national championship included on the list.
ESPN’s approach, which was inclusive of all divisions of college football, led to the exclusion of Power Five programs like Iowa, Oklahoma State, Ole Miss, Oregon, Syracuse, UCLA and Virginia. However, the ACC was well represented, with Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami and Virginia Tech all making the cut. Miami was the conference's top team at 17th, and Virginia Tech brought up the rear in 38th place.