Carson Long never imagined his Pitt record for consecutive point-after tries would last 32 seasons, but he couldn’t have hand-picked a better kicker to break his record.
Conor Lee embodies the same spirit that possessed Long to come to Pitt. The redshirt junior, a former walk-on from Upper St. Clair, is as competitive as they come, so kicking 65 PATs without a miss isn’t anything special.
It’s what heï¿½s supposed to do.
“I really just want to win,” Lee said. “I don’t care about all that other stuff. If I had 12 game-winners, and that’s all I had a year, that would be the greatest thing ever.”
Talking to Long, it sounds as if he was the same way. Like Lee, he’s not your ordinary kicker. (Long was an American-style, or straight-on, kicker). Where Long played tight end and linebacker at North Schuylkill High School, Lee played safety and receiver at USC. Where Lee attended Fork Union Military Academy to try and get attention, Long was recruited by Johnny Majors.
“I was very impressed with coach Majors,” said Long, who lives in Ashland and hosts a sports talk radio show on WPAM (1450-AM) in Pottsville on Saturday mornings. “He sat down and looked you right in the eye. I said, ‘I worked really hard at kicking. I want to go to a place that will win a national championship right away.’ Coach said, ‘If you come to Pitt, I promise you we’ll win a national championship before you’re done.'”
Long was aware of Pitt’s history, but his belief in Majors’ promise is a big reason he still owns eight school records. It didn’t hurt that he was a teammate of the school’s career scoring leader, Tony Dorsett. (Consider it another coincidence that Lee is teammates with a dynamic running back in team scoring leader LeSean McCoy).
“When I went to Pitt, I knew the records of the Pitt kickers that were there before, the most notable being Fred Cox,” Long said. “I didn’t know how good we’d be, but I just knew at some time we’d the national title because coach Majors said we would.”
When Long set the school record with 60 consecutive PATs, there was little fanfare.
“When I had made that record, we had the kicking part of practice near the beginning,” Long said. “We’d do the kicking, lift weights and shower and leave. We thought nothing of it. After practice, coach Majors came up and said, ‘You know, Tony’s breaking all the records, but Carson just broke one. Carson, get up here.’ Someone said, ‘Carson left two hours ago.’ It was kind of funny.”
Majors lived up to his promise.
Long keeps his ring from Pitt’s 1976 national champions in a glass case, with a light shining on it. Obviously, it’s one of his prized possessions, and he takes it out and thanks his lucky stars every time an undefeated team loses in a national title game.
But Long gets emotional when talking about the moment he knew Pitt would meet its goal, pausing to catch his breath and fight back tears. It came after the 1975 season, when then-Pitt assistant Jackie Sherrill was about to leave to become head coach at Washington State.
“Coach Sherrill passed around the ring he won at Alabama and said, ‘You’ll win it next year,'” Long said. “I remember putting it on. And we did it.
“One thing I’ve found about championship teams is they’re a real tight, close-knit bunch of guys,” Long said. “They are while it’s being done and remain that way afterward. It’s like a family, like having 75 extremely talented brothers.
“The guys gotta homogenize. We were a homogenous group. We came in as freshmen and got thrown into big games right away. Coach Majors had to hone us in but we figured it out as we got older. That senior year, we knew that was it. We had a meeting and said, ‘This is it. This is year we win the goal.'”
Even after watching Pittï¿½s 48-45 double-overtime loss to Navy last Wednesday, Long still believes that Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh will lead the Panthers to similar success. Long knows both well, considering Wannstedt was an assistant and Cavanaugh the quarterback on the ’76 team.
“Dave Wannstedt’s a good coach. He’s going to win his share of national championships,” Long said. “These things kind of happen. You’re depending on boys to carry out these things. People have a way to responding to crisis situations. Wannstedt just has too many championship teams, too many All-Americans, for it not to happen. Things take time to buy in.”