Saunders: Kenny Pickett’s Heisman Bid Put Pitt Back in National Spotlight

NEW YORK — Kenny Pickett did not win the 2021 Heisman Trophy on Saturday, finishing in third place behind Alabama quarterback Bryce Young for the most prestigious trophy in college sports.

But for Pickett, being a part of the process and the ceremony was still a big win for him and for Pitt. When a national television audience tuned in to see the best in college football on Saturday night, they saw some football programs they’re used to seeing succeed in a high level, with representatives from Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan.

To help put Pitt in the same class as the programs is a significant accomplishment for Pickett, regardless of his status in the Heisman voting.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” he said. “I’ve been saying this, all the individual accolades, it’s really team oriented. … It’s an incredible feeling to bring Pitt back to where it was — all those big-name schools and Pitt is right up there where we should be. Just a lot of pride, I’d say.”

Pitt has had several other players be Heisman Trophy finalists over the years, with Larry Fitzgerald finishing second in 2003 and Craig “Ironhead” Heyward fifth in 1987.

But the program’s glory days came in the 1970s and early 1980s, when running back Tony Dorsett finished fifth in 1975 before winning it in 1976. Defensive end Hugh Green came in second in 1980 and quarterback Dan Marino finished fourth in 1981. Quarterback Matt Cavanaugh and tackle Bill Fralic also had top-10 finishes in that era.

To the Pitt alumni from that era, it’s been a 40-year struggle watching Pitt try and fail to recapture the magic of those teams. But they’ve been wholeheartedly behind Pickett and this year’s squad as they’ve become Pitt’s first ACC champions, and first 10-win regular season team since 1981 and Pickett doing his best to scratch Marino’s name from Pitt’s record books.

“Dan Marino is the guy that I’ve looked up to since I signed here at Pitt,” Pickett said. “All the great things he’s done, to have my name alongside his, to be on the stage with him down in Charlotte, there’s just no words for it.”

Pickett said that other alumni like Dorsett and Jimbo Covert have also reached out this season, and that their support meant a lot to this team.

“I think it’s really special that all the old alumni take a lot of pride in the school and we all take a lot of pride in that,” Pickett said. “Like I said before, I’m proud to be on the team that kind of brought Pitt back to this scene.”

Pitt isn’t all the way back, yet. Fitzgerald was a finalist in 2003 and Pitt followed that up with a Fiesta Bowl berth in 2004, but the Panthers were unable to sustain that success.

Letting Pitt’s 11-2 season, conference title, Peach Bowl berth and Heisman finalist carry over into the future will be the job of those that follow him at Pitt, but for Pickett, putting Pitt back on top is a satisfying conclusion to a spectacular career. 

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