Pitt and Penn State are set to meet for the 99th time Saturday, and it’s the final game in Pittsburgh between the in-state rivals for the foreseeable future. Bragging rights, of course and as always, are on the line.
But no matter who wins Saturday night at Heinz Field, the debate over superiority will linger. Pitt fans will note a decisive edge in claimed national championships, and Penn State partisans will point to their school’s advantages in undefeated seasons and conference titles.
Nittany Lions supporters can trumpet a lead in the head-to-head series. Panthers enthusiasts will be quick to mention they’ve won the past two meetings in Pittsburgh.
Pitt has more consensus All-Americans. Penn State more College Football Hall of Famers.
One side will say, simply, “48-14.” The other, a succinct “42-39.”
And so on.
Trib Total Media decided to add one more argument to the list: Which program can boast a better all-time team of alumni based solely on their NFL careers?
Two teams, each comprising former or current NFL stars who matriculated at Pitt and Penn State, were assembled by staff writers Chris Adamski and Jerry DiPaola in consultation with Penn State historian/author Lou Prato, Pitt historian/author Sam Sciullo, Pitt associate athletic director E.J. Borghetti and six-decade NFL executive and analyst Gil Brandt.
A total of 24 players were selected from each school: one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, a tight end, five offensive linemen (adhering as much as possible to natural tackles, guards and centers) on offense, with a front seven and two safeties and two cornerbacks on defense, in addition to a kicker and punter.
The team spans 90 years of NFL stars, from Mike Michalske (1927-37) to the still-active Larry Fitzgerald and Aaron Donald. It includes 14 Pro Football Hall of Famers — eight from Pitt, six from Penn State — with at least a couple more (Fitzgerald and Darrelle Revis) almost assured of joining that list. There are MVPs, Super Bowl champions and All Pros. Three Super Steelers, two “Hogs,” an Iron Mike and a quarter of The Fearsome Foursome.
How good are these teams? Multiple-time first-team NFL All Pros such as LeSean McCoy and NaVorro Bowman were left off.
PITT: DAN MARINO
Dan Marino only threw for 7 more career yards than Tino Sunseri (really, you could look it up), and he’s 2,670 yards behind the all-time Pitt champ (Alex Van Pelt, 11,267). But he is far and away the Pitt quarterback who had the most success in the NFL (61,361 yards, 420 touchdown passes). Sure, he never won a Super Bowl, and that’s the ultimate measuring stick these days for NFL quarterbacks. But no one had a quicker release and no one had a greater will to win at the position.
PENN STATE: KERRY COLLINS
Some might say Kerry Collins was an NFL journeyman (he played for six teams over his 17-year career). But Collins was a two-time Pro Bowler who twice was the full-time starter for a team that earned the No. 1 seed in its conference. In January 2001, he guided the New York Giants to Super Bowl XXXV. Collins is the cream of a less-than-stellar crop of PSU quarterbacks in the NFL. Perhaps Jeff Hostetler would be second-best, but Hostetler transferred to West Virginia and is therefore ineligible for this exercise.
PITT: Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin
Tony Dorsett and Curtis Martin are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is the chief reason you reluctantly eliminate Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, who ran for 4,301 and 30 touchdowns in the NFL. Dorsett, of course, is Pitt’s all-time leading rusher and the first Pitt player to win a Heisman, national championship and Super Bowl and earn Hall of Fame enshrinement in college and pro football. But Martin was 10th in Pitt history (only 2,643 yards rushing in three seasons), but he ran for 14,101 yards and 90 touchdowns for the Patriots and Jets.
PENN STATE: Franco Harris, Curt Warner
Four college football Hall of Famers including a Heisman Trophy winner, in addition to five players taken among the top five in an NFL Draft dot Penn State’s legacy at running back. One who is familiar to those in Pittsburgh is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Franco Harris. Another, perhaps, could have been. “Curt Warner,” legendary NFL personnel man Gil Brandt said, “would have been in the Hall of Fame had his career not been shortened by injury.” Warner was AFC Offensive Player of the Year twice over his first four seasons and was a three-time All-Pro between 1983-87. Harris, of course, helped the Steelers win four Super Bowls and left the team as the NFL’s No. 2 all-time rusher (he now sits 15th).
PITT: Antonio Bryant, Larry Fitzgerald
If anyone asks you what was special about the Walt Harris era at Pitt, just mention the names Antonio Bryant and Larry Fitzgerald. Harris recruited both of them and helped lay the foundation for Fitzgerald’s sterling (and ongoing) NFL career and Bryant’s eight productive seasons. Fitzgerald, 34, will take his 15,545 yards and 110 touchdowns into his 15th NFL season when the Arizona Cardinals (his only team) open against the Washington Redskins on Sunday. Bryant had two 1,000-plus yards seasons (for the Browns and Buccaneers).
PENN STATE: Lenny Moore, Bobby Engram
While Lenny Moore is remembered as a tailback at Penn State in the 1950s, his official Pro Football Hall of Fame bio lists him as a “flanker-running back” — notice which is first. He was a seven-time Pro Bowler who helped the Baltimore Colts win two NFL championships and still ranks fifth in club history in receiving yards (6,039) despite playing in a run-heavy era and with his running back background. Bobby Engram edges O.J. McDuffie for the No. 2 receiver spot, largely based on longevity (14 seasons, 176 games, 650 catches).
PITT: Mike Ditka
No one but Mike Ditka can be considered here. Of course, he’s one of eight Pitt players who were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (only Notre Dame, USC and Ohio State have had more, by the way). Ditka, the first tight end elected to the HOF, went from NFL Rookie of the Year in 1961 to five Pro Bowls, an NFL championship with the Bears and a Super Bowl title with the Cowboys before coaching the Bears to victory in Super Bowl XX.
PENN STATE: Ted Kwalick
McKees Rocks-born Ted Kwalick beats out Mickey Shuler and Kyle Brady after a nine-year NFL career in which he made three Pro Bowls while playing for the San Francisco 49ers. He was also part of the Super Bowl XI-winning Oakland Raiders in 1977. His 52 catches in 1971 might not seem overly impressive now, but that was good for third most in the NFL that season.
PITT: Russ Grimm, Bill Fralic, Mark May, Jimbo Covert, Mark Stepnoski
Hall of Famer Russ Grimm is a lock after playing 11 seasons at guard for the Washington Redskins. Bill Fralic, a tackle at Pitt, played guard for the Falcons and Lions and was voted onto the NFL’s 1980s All-Decade team — just like center Mark Stepnoski in the ’90s with the Cowboys. Tackle Mark May (Redskins) played in three Super Bowls, and Jimbo Covert (Bears) joined Fralic and Grimm on the 1980s All-Decade team. But what’s an all-time team without an argument? Buffalo’s nine-time Pro Bowl guard Ruben Brown deserves some love and honorable mention.
PENN STATE: Mike Munchak, Steve Wisniewski, Jeff Hartings, Glenn Ressler, Kareem McKenzie
There’s an abundance of elite Nittany Lion alums on the interior offensive line but not as many on the outside. As a result, players such as Tom Rafferty (13-year starter of 182 games) and Marco Rivera (a two-time All-Pro over 11 NFL seasons) were “cut” in favor of selecting the best out of a group of tackles in which the pickings were slimmer. But it’s hard to go wrong with a Hall of Famer (Mike Munchak) and an eight-time Pro Bowler (Steve Wisniewski) at guard, nor with a two-time All-Pro at center (Jeff Hartings). At tackle, the starters came down to picking two of three among Stew Barber, Glenn Ressler and Kareem McKenzie. McKenzie played the most games (161) and seasons (11) and won the most NFL championships (two Super Bowls with the Giants); Ressler was a second-team NFL All-Pro and Super Bowl champion in 1968, the fourth of his 10 NFL seasons.
PITT: Chris Doleman, Tony Woods, Aaron Donald, Bill Maas
Chris Doleman went to eight Pro Bowls with three teams and, eventually, to the Hall of Fame with 150 1⁄2 career sacks. Tony Woods played in the NFL at the same time as Doleman and recorded 24 1⁄2 sacks and eight fumble recoveries — four in the same season (1991) with the Seahawks. Aaron Donald has been one of the NFL’s best defensive players since he entered with the Rams in 2014, and his recently signed six-year, $135 million deal confirms it. He has collected 39 sacks in four seasons at a position where it’s tough to get the quarterback. Bill Maas was a great player in the ’80s and ’90s (more of a run-stuffer). He had 40 sacks, but it took him 10 years to do it.
PENN STATE: Mike Michalske, Rosey Grier, Mike Reid
In the spirit of getting the proverbial “Best 11 on the field,” the PSU NFL team’s coaching staff made the unilateral decision to play a 3-4 (hey, it’s Linebacker U — the more linebackers, the better, right?). It also took the liberty of using three tackles on its defensive line, figuring that multiple-year All-Pros Mike Michalske, Rosey Grier and Mike Reid all deserved to be on the team. Maybe five-time Pro Bowl end Tamba Hali enters in passing-down subpackages? A case could be made that Hali should make the team over Michalske because the latter went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a “guard.” But Michalske played both ways (every down), this Penn State team is loaded on the interior offensive line and Michalske was a member of the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1920s. He teams with Grier (12 seasons, three All-Pro berths) and Reid (a two-time All-Pro) to make for a formidable unit to run against. Reid, incidentally, ended his career after five NFL seasons and transitioned into a career as a hit country music artist.
PITT: Rickey Jackson, Joe Schmidt, Hugh Green
Pitt’s eight Hall of Famers are represented on six positions, and two of those are linebackers Rickey Jackson and Joe Schmidt. Jackson played 15 seasons in the NFL, gathering up 28 fumbles, forcing 41 and collecting 128 sacks. Joe Schmidt played all 13 seasons with the Lions (1953-65) after he was selected in the seventh round of the draft. He earned 10 All-Pro designations while intercepting 24 passes. Hugh Green isn’t in the Hall of Fame, but he played 12 seasons for the Dolphins and Buccaneers after teaming with Jackson on Pitt’s 11-1 teams in 1979 and ’80.
PENN STATE: Jack Ham, Dave Robinson, Shane Conlan, Matt Millen
As Pro Football Hall of Famers, Jack Ham and Dave Robinson are the slam dunks here. Ham is well-known in Pittsburgh as a four-time Super Bowl champion and six-time first-team All-Pro. A decade earlier, Robinson had his own 12-year NFL career that included a pair of Super Bowl rings (three NFL championships in all) and three first- or second-team All Pro honors. After those two, it becomes a pick-two-of-three between Shane Conlan, Matt Millen and NaVorro Bowman. Although Bowman has the edge in All-Pro recognition (four times on the first team), Conlan (three times) and Millen (two) also were multiple-time All-Pros, but they combined to play in seven Super Bowls, too, winning four (all by Millen, who earned rings with three teams).
PITT: Darrelle Revis, Charlie Hall, Carlton Williamson, Tom Flynn
Darrelle Revis retired this year after 11 seasons as one of the NFL’s great cover cornerbacks. He was a first-round pick of the Jets and left with 29 interceptions, including one he returned 100 yards against the Dolphins in 2011. Charlie Hall played for coach Carl DePasqua at Pitt before he was a third-round choice of the Packers in 1970. Safety Carlton Williamson was one of 12 Pitt players drafted in 1981. He went to the 49ers in the third round and won two Super Bowls. Tom Flynn’s best season of his five was his rookie year with the Packers (1984) when he intercepted nine passes.
PENN STATE: Chuck Crist, Paul Lankford, Mike Zordich, Darren Perry
One of the best NFL safeties that went to Penn State did not even play football for the Nittany Lions. Chuck Crist accepted an athletic scholarship to the school after starring in four sports in high school, including in football as a quarterback and defensive back. Crist wanted to play QB at Penn State, so when the Joe Paterno-led staff insisted he play defense, Crist quit football and instead became a three-year starter (and team MVP) for the PSU basketball team. After graduation, he went back to football. Crist played seven NFL seasons, including being named the Saints’ defensive MVP in 1977. Paul Lankford (10 seasons with the Dolphins) serves as the other cornerback, with Mike Zordich and former Steeler Darren Perry manning the safety spots. Each of the safeties had a long NFL career, combining for 55 interceptions.
PITT: Andy Lee, Fred Cox
Andy Lee is entering his 15th season in the NFL. He is that rare punter who was drafted (sixth round, 49ers, 2004), and he spent 11 seasons in San Francisco. He also has been with the Browns, Panthers and his current team, the Cardinals. He’s had only four of his 1,135 punts blocked while averaging 46.4 yards. In an era almost totally devoid of artificial turf fields and indoor stadiums, Fred Cox of Monongahela High School spent 15 seasons as the Vikings’ kicker (1963-1977), hitting 282 of 455 field goal attempts. When he retired, he was the NFL’s second all-time leading scorer behind George Blanda with 1,365 points.
PENN STATE: Matt Bahr, Bob Parsons
The Bahr brothers combined to do the placekicking for four Super Bowl winners over a 12-year span bridging the 1980s. Matt edges older brother Chris in career points (1,422-1,213), field goals (300-241), field-goal percentage (72.3-63.3) and NFL seasons (17-14); the Brothers Bahr beat out current 49er Robbie Gould despite Gould’s better statistical accuracy (kickers at large are much, much more accurate now). Bob Parsons booted 884 punts for the Bears between 1973-83, leading the league in punts three times.