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The University of Pittsburgh Panthers have left a lasting impression on the NFL

When it comes to creating great NFL players, the University of Pittsburgh is toward the top of the heap

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Former Chicago Bears coach and Pitt tight end Mike Ditka visits the White House in 2011. - OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO
  • Official White House photo
  • Former Chicago Bears coach and Pitt tight end Mike Ditka visits the White House in 2011.

When it comes to creating great NFL players, the University of Pittsburgh is toward the top of the heap. 

Five players from the Pitt Panthers were taken in the 2017 NFL draft. James Conner made the Steelers, Ejuan Price is on the Los Angeles Rams roster, and Nate Peterman is backup quarterback for the Buffalo Bills. Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson made the practice squads for the Giants and Cardinals, respectively. That loss of talent will have to be overcome as the Panthers take on the Oklahoma State Cowboys this weekend. 

Oklahoma State has a proud running-back tradition, including Hall of Famers Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas. But that’s it, in terms of real impact on the NFL’s legacy. Pitt has put eight players into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Out of hundreds of universities with football programs, only three have sent more players to Canton. Sure, Pitt is tied with three other schools with eight, but the Panthers might have the most impressive roster among that group.

Notre Dame is king, with 13 players or contributors enshrined in Canton. Former Steeler Jerome Bettis is one of them, and another is Washington County native Joe Montana, so we can even take a little credit for them. University of Southern California is next on the list with 12 — Lynn Swann is one, and Troy Polamalu will eventually join him. But at least Pitt doesn’t have any convicted felons like O.J. Simpson on its list. Ohio State (sorry, The Ohio State) is next on the list, with 10. Besides those three establishments of higher learning, nobody can talk trash on the Panthers’ ability to make and nurture gridiron legends.

The three schools that are Pitt’s peers are Michigan, Syracuse and Alabama. Michigan has four Hall of Famers who went to other schools: George Allen, Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, Lew Ford and Ralph Wilson Jr. I’m not sure whether any of them besides Hirsch even played football. The other four are Dan Dierdorf, Benny Friedman, Bill Hewitt and Tom Mack. Not a great list at all. Sure Golden Boy Tom Brady and Charles Woodson will eventually make that line-up a little stronger. But it’s not even close to Pitt’s contributions of Mike Ditka, Joe Schmidt, Tony Dorsett, Russ Grimm, Chris Doleman, Ricky Jackson, Curtis Martin and Dan Marino.

Syracuse has Jim Brown, Larry Csonka, Al Davis, Marvin Harrison, Floyd Little, John Mackey, Art Monk and Jim Ringo. That is comparable to Pitt. But while Jim Brown’s legend can’t be denied, Martin and Dorsett were pretty good too, and the Orangemen’s slate of legends isn’t better than Pitt’s.

That leaves only one university with as many Hall of Famers as the Pitt Panthers: Alabama. The Crimson Tide has John Hannah, Don Hutson, Joe Namath, Bart Starr, Ozzie Newsome, Ken Stabler, Dwight Stephenson and Derrick Thomas. OK, so that’s a pretty good list. And with Alabama currently flooding the NFL draft board every year, it might eventually take over the No. 1 spot.

Looking into the future, Aaron Donald is off to a Hall of Fame type start. The former Panther just ended a holdout for more money in Los Angeles, but he’s certainly begun his career the way Hall of Famers do. LeSean McCoy is a possibility also. “Shady” is already the Philadelphia Eagles’ all-time leading rusher and should continue to get a lot of carries in Buffalo. Darelle Revis has a pretty strong shot at Canton as well. Then there’s Larry Fitzgerald, a lock for the Hall of Fame. Fitzgerald could very well be the best player in the history of the St. Louis/Arizona franchise. It was no coincidence that he was the star of its one and only Super Bowl team.

So, as you watch the Panthers this year, it’s OK to have lowered expectations. After barely surviving against Youngstown State during in week one, Pitt lost to Penn State on Sept. 9. Look for the Panthers to win a few games in row, even score a big upset to get into a mediocre bowl game that’s played before Christmas. You’ll likely experience moments of deep disappointment, but keep your head up. The player you watch now just might be a future Hall of Famer.



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