As our Director of Leadership Development, Tyler Palko, celebrates his six-year anniversary as part of the Solutions 21 team, this past week – Wednesday, November 13th to be exact – included an additional anniversary. 

Fifteen years ago, as quarterback at the University of Pittsburgh, Tyler led his team to an upset victory over Notre Dame in South Bend Indiana – which by the way was Pitt’s first win in South Bend since the Reagan Administration. During the game, Tyler threw five touchdown passes. 

For an in-depth reflection of that unforgettable Saturday in South Bend, we’ve enlisted the help of E.J. Borghetti, University of Pittsburgh’s Executive Associate Athletic Director, Media Relations, who tweeted, “A thread of remembrance and reverence 15 years later”:

“I’ve been blessed for 23 seasons (and counting) to spend fall Saturdays with Pitt football. So many players, coaches, bosses, co-workers, reporters and fans have given me an unforgettable experience. I used to be the young guy at the table. No more. I’ve now unofficially been dubbed Pitt’s department historian (merely the result of winning the war of staff attrition). As such, I’m often asked, ‘What was your favorite game? Who’s your all-time favorite player?’

Picking favorites is hard. When I think of my Pitt football experiences, there really are too many to put in that ‘most favorite’ category. But, inevitably, certain moments—and personalities—rise to the top of your memory bank.

So rather than call 2004 Pitt-ND my very favorite, I’ll instead put it in a catch-all catalogue of ‘Greatest Hits.’ Kind of like songs on the Rolling Stones’ compilation ‘Hot Rocks.’ For me, this is one of the best of the very best.

These days, when people talk about this game, the conversation tends to focus on the end. Or rather, *after* the end. The postgame interview on NBC. That really shortchanges a fabulous afternoon of football in a storied venue.

Another question I’m often asked: What was the greatest individual performance you’ve ever seen in person? Again, too many to put in prioritized order. But Tyler Palko’s 5 TD passes at Notre Dame are absolutely in that ‘all-time great’ category.

Before I get into the game—and what happened after the game—let’s rewind to the preceding Monday. Coach Harris had his weekly press conference. We then made Tyler available for interviews. I can still see him surrounded by a circular wall of microphones & cameras.

PR people can be really antsy, nervous types. I’m no exception. Let’s avoid creating waves before a big national game, right? ‘Don’t give any bulletin board material. Praise the opponent.’ This advice is dispensed ad nauseam before a player walks out on the interview plank.

Tyler and I always talked before interviews. But I never tried to stifle his personality. He was colorful, charismatic, interesting. Tyler was, and is, a great quote! That’s an asset, especially in a competitive media market like Pittsburgh.

Tyler was asked about playing on Notre Dame’s hallowed grounds. Would it be intimidating to face the Irish and their legendary mystique under the watchful gaze of Touchdown Jesus? His response: ‘That’s for the birds, bro.’

So much for staying off the bulletin board.

But Tyler played with that type of fearlessness the entire game. I’ll contend that’s why we won. He threw great fades to Greg Lee. He threaded a TD pass between multiple defenders to Derek Kinder. Our TEs, Erik Gill & Steve Buches, were heavily involved.

Walt called a great game that day. He remains, in my opinion, one of the most under-appreciated figures in Pitt history. And when play calls broke down, Tyler’s improvisational instincts took over.

We were down, 35-31, with under 7 minutes left. I was on the sideline at this point, pacing around. We had a critical 4th down and I remember Tyler scrambled trying to find an open receiver. It looked like he was going to run for it but suddenly stopped. I remember I actually yelled, ‘GOOOO! RUN!’ Just as the words came out of my mouth, Tyler flipped the ball to Marcus Furman. First down.

Tyler capped the drive with his 5th TD pass—this one to Erik Gill, who had more heroics in store before the game ended. The defender had his back to Tyler and he just dropped the ball over his shoulder, right into Erik’s hands. 38-35 Pitt.

Of course, the Irish die hard at home. We’ve learned that over the years, right? They kicked a field goal to tie it but left more than a minute on the clock.

Over the years, I’ve heard our players talk about what the huddle was like on that last drive. What do the words—and the eyes—of your QB tell you? Tyler said, ‘You guys are going to remember this moment for the rest of your lives.’

That’s leadership, man. He instilled belief.

The 2004 team had guts. It wasn’t an overly talented bunch. But I’d take their toughness any day. That final minute in South Bend embodied their resolve. 80,000 people. NBC cameras. A now glowing Golden Dome in the distance. 

‘You’ll remember this for the rest of your life.’

The play I remember most on that final drive was the first. Tyler threw to Erik on the sideline and for a moment a linebacker had his hands on it. But Erik ripped the ball away — remember what I said about toughness & resolve? — and rumbled down the field for like 40 yards.

You ever look at a steak on the grill and start to salivate, anticipating how great it will taste? That’s what it was like on the sideline. We began to taste victory. You sensed fear from the home crowd.

Players started coming up to kicker Josh Cummings, nicknamed ‘Sunshine’ as he resembled that character from ‘Remember the Titans.’ They were telling him to get ready, it was going to be his time. I’m thinking, ‘Leave this kid alone. There’s enough pressure already!’ But Josh really had a California cool about him. He was a really great, engaging kid who I enjoyed getting to know. He had that surfer dude mentality. Didn’t matter how big the wave was. ‘No worries,’ Josh always used to say.

Anytime we are attempting a game-winning field goal, I try to stand behind that goal post. I don’t want to rely on the crowd or the official signal. I want to *know* as soon as the ball is airborne. 

Snap, hold, kick. It was all true. Our first win in South Bend in 18 years.”

Saturday, November 13th, 2004: a day that will go down in the history books as one of the best for the University of Pittsburgh’s football program. As Tyler celebrates his six-year anniversary with our organization, and fifteen-year anniversary of that memorable day in South Bend, we acknowledge his leadership journey. Not only does he develop leadership for our clients, he certainly instilled leadership and belief in all his teammates that day.