The saying goes, “You never forget your first love.”
That means I’ll always remember a 6-foot-2, 225-pound black man from Natchez, Miss., with the perfect combination of speed, strength and athleticism.
His name is Hugh Green, but you can call him the greatest defensive player in the history of college football. Sorry Manti Te’o, Charles Woodson, Deion Sanders and Steve Emtman fans, those guys were nowhere near as devastating, game-altering and menacing as Green, an unheralded recruit as an undersized defensive end whom Pitt coach Jackie Sherill convinced to come to Oakland.
From 1977 to 1980, Green destroyed offensive lineman. The greatest player in Pitt history – with all apologies to Tony Dorsett, Larry Fitzgerald, Bill Fralic, Mike Ditka and Dan Marino – started immediately, and instantly made an impact. In his first game, which just happened to be against Notre Dame, Green finished with 11 tackles, two quarterback sacks and a blocked punt. Not bad for a freshman who Pitt noticed while recruiting running back Rooster Jones.
Green’s reign of defensive terror was only getting started with that Notre Dame game..
As a sophomore, he was a first-team All-American and made Pitt’s all-time team. And let’s not forget that, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Pitt was what Miami (Fla.) would become in the late 80s and early 2000s – a football factory rife with future first-round picks and hall of famers.
His All-American ways continued in 1979 and 1980, and Pitt retired Green’s number during his last home game.
His final numbers are eye-popping and awe-inspiring – 460 tackles, 52 tackles for loss, 53 sacks, 24 forced fumbles, 13 fumble recoveries and 76 quarterback hurries. Green finished second in the 1980 Heisman balloting, losing the award to an inferior player in South Carolina running back George Rogers. He won the Walter Camp Award, Maxwell Award and the Lombardi Award and was named everybody’s player of the year. He’s made every all-time college football team worth mentioning.
Folks, let’s remember all these stats and awards were compiled despite coaches constantly game-planned against Green and stayed away from him as often as possible.
I’ll know I’ll never forget.
Some of my first memories – I was born in 1974 – are of Green playing for Pitt. At the time, I was a youthful sports sponge, soaking in all the college and pro football I possibly could. I loved Pitt football, and I loved Penn State football. The family loved the Nittany Lions, one reason being my dad’s cousin – Chuck Fusina – once finished second in the Heisman balloting as a PSU quarterback. And I liked watching Curt Warner run almost as much as watching Green wreak havoc.
Then, one day, my dad told me, “Son, you can’t like Pitt and Penn State. It’s just not natural.”
My response was quick. “Dad, Penn State doesn’t have Hugh Green.”
And a lifelong Pitt football fan was born.
I got to thinking about Green recently as talk of recruiting season and Signing Day increase in front of Feb. 4. Green wasn’t a heralded recruit, much like Panthers running back James Conner, but he quickly evolved into an all-time great.
And the current Pitt coaching staff is working hard on the recruiting trail, with a renewed focus in Florida. Finding players like Green, Conner and Antonio Bryant will be as vital to Pitt’s success as landing the next four-star recruit from a WPIAL high school or eastern Ohio powerhouse.
Pitt can only land so many elite prospects. Grabbing steals will determine this new staff’s success.