Haygood Left His Mark at Pitt

If you are a real fan of University of Pittsburgh football you will remember Robert Haygood's brief, but dramatic football career with the Panthers.

Haygood was a nifty option quarterback who directed the Pitt offense for the first seven games of his junior year. Haygood was also the number-one QB heading into the 1976 national championship season. But a knee injury in 1975 caused him to miss four games and another knee injury in the second game the following year ended his career as a football player.

Haygood received a number of scholarship offers from colleges, plus an opportunity to sign with baseball's New York Mets. Johnny Majors had taken over as Pitt's new football coach in the winter of 1972-73 and had a solid staff of assistant coaches that had ties to the South; the staff included Joe Avezzano.

"Coach Avezzano recruited me and we became tremendous friends during that whole period," Haygood recalled. "He was going back and forth between Miami and Georgia recruiting. Initially, I was thinking about going somewhere on the West Coast possibly, but he (Avezzano) really got close to me as a person and I felt good about the things he was saying, plus his actions."

Haygood decided to throw his lot in with Pitt.

During his first two seasons at Pitt, Haygood was used as a kick return man and saw very limited duty at both wide receiver and defensive back, but he had his heart set on the quarterback job.

Majors moved Haygood to quarterback during spring drills in 1975.

But when the Panthers went to training camp in August, Haygood found himself in a battle with sophomore quarterback Matt Cavanaugh for the job at quarterback. Haygood earned the starting job and guided Pitt to a 19-9 victory at Georgia in his first start, the 1975 opening game.

Pitt was 5-1 heading into its Oct. 25 home game with Navy, but the Midshipmen upset the Panthers, 17-0. Haygood also was injured during the second half of that game and did not play at all in any of the team's four remaining contests, wins against Syracuse and Notre Dame, and losses to rivals West Virginia and Penn State.

Haygood returned and started in Pitt's 33-19 victory over Kansas in the Sun Bowl.

That victory set the stage for the Panthers' perfect 12-0 season the next year. The 1976 season started with Haygood leading Pitt to a 31-10 win at Notre Dame.

The date Sept. 18, 1976 is a day that Haygood will never forget.

He was coming back to Atlanta as quarterback of national championship-bound Pittsburgh. He would show all the people who knew him as a four-sport star at East Point's Russell High School that he had gone on to even bigger things. He was ready to put on a show for the home folks.

When he looked up into the stands that day at Georgia Tech's Grant Field, Haygood saw people from his old neighborhood and people from his old rec center in addition to his family and his friends.

"I couldn't have been any more excited," Haygood said.

He'd never feel quite the same about a sports event again.

The Panthers were leading Georgia Tech 14-0 in the first half when Haygood tore cartilage in his left knee on a running attempt.

Lucius Sanford stopped Haygood, and Haygood's left knee buckled.

"When I tried to get up, my knee locked," Haygood said. "The team doctor came out and started to move it and it popped. It was like Jell-O -- just wobbling. Everything was torn. Right then, I saw my career fly out of the stadium.

"I'll be back," he vowed. "Sometime, for something, basketball if not football."

Haygood could do nothing but watch as the Panthers stormed through the regular season undefeated, then routed Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to claim the national title.

"The technology back then was nothing like it is today, so I ended up in a cast for eight weeks," Haygood said. "But I was determined to be back before we went to a bowl game.

"I couldn't go full speed because I was only back 50 or 60 percent from the injury but I dressed out," Haygood said. "Coach Majors, being Coach Majors, told me he wanted me to warm up. 'Let's just see what they think when they see you come out on the field'," he said.

"Sure enough, everybody on Georgia's sideline was pointing during warm-ups. I wasn't ready to play, but the time was so great. I think my presence out there gave my team a lift."

Pitt won 27-3; Haygood didn't play. He never played again.

Haygood was granted the extra year of eligibility and could have come back to the football team in 1977 when Jackie Sherrill replaced Majors, who had returned to Tennessee but decided to concentrate on basketball.

Haygood was standing on the sideline watching as Matt Cavanaugh broke his wrist in the first quarter of the 1977 season opener against Notre Dame at Pitt Stadium, a frustrating 19-9 loss to the Irish, who claimed the national championship that year.

"Looking back, I probably should have tried to play football," Haygood admits. "It's something I've regretted."

During his all too brief football career the Panthers were 8-2 in games that Haygood started.

Haygood was a solid contributor to the Panthers' 16-11 basketball season during his fifth year. He split time with point guards Wayne Williams and Pete Strickland.

After Haygood left Pitt he steered himself away from athletics.

"I ran away from athletics for about 10 years because of what had happened," he said. "In hindsight, that was a huge mistake."

After stints as a service director for the Boys Club of Metropolitan Atlanta, a manager of a rental-car franchise, and a salesman with a metro area car dealership, Haygood got back into sports.

In 1988, he took a job as an assistant at Clark Atlanta, where he spent 11 seasons, with a year as head coach at Riverwood High School sandwiched in.

When the late Curtis Crockett was fired as Clark Atlanta's coach near the end of the 2001 season, Haygood was let go. He has since worked as an intern for the Dallas Cowboys, helping coaches as he continues to learn more about the game.

"I love Pittsburgh," he said. "I'd go to Pitt again in a second if I had to do it over. And I'd go back in a heartbeat now if any type of opportunity there presented itself."

George Von Benko

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