For decades, Pitt fans have debated over which player is the program’s greatest of all time, and the most popular answer to that question has changed from era to era. But this offseason, Pitt constructed a bracket of the program’s all-time greats and put the question to a fan vote. And after weeks of head-to-head competitions involving the most luminous names in Pitt’s history, a conclusion was reached on Monday afternoon, and Tony Dorsett was crowned Pitt’s greatest player of all time.
The final vote in the weeks-long bracket pitted the legendary running back against a rising legend of a more recent generation in Aaron Donald. However, the vote, which 1,617 fans took part in on Twitter, was decisive, and Dorsett came away with exactly 75 percent of the tally, or about 1,213 of the 1,617 total votes. Prior to defeating Donald in the bracket, Dorsett also logged victories over Dan Marino, Larry Fitzgerald, Mark May, Tyler Palko and Joe Walton to reach the final round.
Dorsett is a logical choice for the title of Pitt’s top player of all time, as he checks a number of boxes that almost no one else in program history can. He also earned one honor that remains his alone to this day, at least within the Pitt football program. That honor of honors is the Heisman Trophy, which Dorsett won in 1976. After the turn of the new year, he would lead Pitt to its only national championship of college football’s modern era, and those crowning achievements followed an illustrious career at Pitt that saw him gain 6,526 yards between the 1973 and 1976 seasons.
At the time, Dorsett’s total rushing yardage was an NCAA record, and it would stand until Texas running back Ricky Williams posted a career total of 6,592 in 1998. Today, Dorsett ranks third all time in career rushing yards, as Wisconsin's Ron Dayne surpassed both Dorsett and Williams with 7,125 yards in 1999.
With that said, Dorsett’s rushing total was just one facet of an amazing collegiate career, as he also became the first freshman to earn All-America honors in 29 years in 1973. In addition, his arrival turned around a team that had been in dire straits, as Pitt had not posted a winning record since 1963 when he came to campus. However, thanks in part to Dorsett’s 1,686 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in his first season at Pitt, the team went 6-5-1 and made the Fiesta Bowl. The Panthers would later make the Sun Bowl and Sugar Bowl, and the program continued to thrive after Dorsett was chosen in the first round of 1977 NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys.
Dorsett would go onto win a Super Bowl with the Cowboys, and he rushed for 12,739 yards and 77 touchdowns in a memorable pro career. In 1994, he was enshrined in both the College Football Halm of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In addition, Dorsett’s number, 33, was retired at halftime of his final game at Pitt Stadium, a rare honor only a few players in the program have received.
Given his long list of accomplishments and the his status as a savior of the program, Dorsett has a resume that few players in college football history, let alone Pitt history, can hope to top. So his status as a fan favorite is well deserved, and the fact that he earned this honor over the likes of Pitt greats like Ditka, Donald, Fitzgerald, Green and Marino, all Hall of Famers or Hall of Fame locks themselves, speaks volumes about the reverence with which he is viewed even 44 years after he last took the field with the Panthers.