It is inescapable. The first thing one sees upon entering the University of Pittsburgh's football office is a hugh lamination of Sports Illustrated's Jan. 10, 1977, cover.

There, bigger than life in blue and gold, are Tony Dorsett and Matt Cavanaugh celebrating Pittsburgh's 27-3 Sugar Bowl win over Georgia. The headline says simply: "Pitt is It."

Almost four years later, Jackie Sherrill is still tyring to escape that cover. Today, he is coach of a 3-0 team, No. 6 in the country in this week's polls. The Panthers have won 13 straight games dating to last season. Under Sherrill, their record is 30-7-1.

And the big question in Pittsburgh: "What's wrong with the Panthers?"

"The people around here never paid their dues," Sherrill said today, squirming in a chair to control his nervous energy. "When Johnny Majors came in here in 1973 this team was 1-10. Four years later, the national championship.

"Now, everyone is spoiled. Winning isn't winning anymore. It isn't good enough. You'll have to win by 40 points."

Under Majors, Pitt was Dorsett and the big-play offense. It was Majors, the master of media manipulation and the one-liner. Under Sherrill, the Panthers are strong defensively. Now it is Sherrill and his quiet, low-key approach.

"If I had understood what I was getting into I might not have taken this job," Sherrill said. "But I was naive. I didn't really understand what I was facing and I thought I could handle it. It's been very difficult."

How can taking over a defending national champion be difficult?

"Don't forget there were 40 seniors on that 1976 team," Sherrill said, "We had some outstanding seniors on the '77 team but if we hadn't gotten a lot of help from our freshmen we would have been in a lot of trouble."

Sherrill, who had just turned 33 when he became Pitt's coach, had been with Majors from 1973-75 before leaving to become head coach at Washington State. When the chance came to return to Pitt, he couldn't resist.

"I was familiar with the program, in fact I had a lot to do with the program being set up the way it was," Sherrill said. "But when we came in we really had to scramble. There was a recruiting list but we had no idea who could play and who couldn't.

"So we just started calling kids up and asking them what schools they were planning to visit. The ones who told us Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, we asked to come visit. That was the only way we could judge them."

Sherrill found his best recruit by accident. He had requested film on a running back named Ray (Rooster) Jones. While he watched Jones on film, Sherrill noticed a smallish defensive end on the opposition North Natchez (Miss.)-High School.

"He jumped out at you right away," Sherrill said. "You can tell with the great ones right away."

And so Sherrill and his assistants set out to recruit Hugh Green.

"They brought me up here and some of the older guys took me around campus," Green said. "They told me all about the place but most of all they told me, 'we need you.'"

Green responded to that challenge and to the chance to play right away. He sat on the bench for one play in Pitt's '77 opener against Notre Dame. He entered the game on the second play and hasn't been taken out since.

Green is 6-foot-2 and 222 pounds, hardly overwhelming size for a defensive end. He expects to be a linebacker next year in the Nfl. But Sherrill never considered moving him from the position he played all through high school.

"Our defensive ends are like linebackers a lot of the time anyway," Sherrill said. "But Hugh is so strong we've played him at tackle too. His speed and his explosive strength are just unbelievable. He's the best player in the country right now, the best player I've ever seen."

Green has been the defensive bulwark for Sherrill in seasons that have ended 9-2-1, 8-4 and 11-1, all three capped by bowl bids. He has a chance this year to become the first defensive four-time all-America since the 1940s. tPitt is pushing him for the Heisman Trophy but trying to convince sportswriters to vote for a defensive lineman for the Heisman is like trying to sell U.S. Savings Bonds in Moscow.

"When have you ever seen a football story that started, 'Hugh Green made 15 tackles to lead Pittsburgh?'" Sherrill asked. "It just doesn't happen." 1

Green, who speaks almost as quietly as his coach, says he hasn't thought about winning the Heisman. "I can't afford to," he said. "If I put my mind, my time and my heart into something and I don't get it, then it's a terrible letdown. I know I probably can't win it so I don't want to set myself up for a letdown. And I don't want the Heisman to get in the way of our goals for this year."

Pitt's goal is rather simple: a repeat of 1976. After winning their last 10 games last season, the Panthers were picked No. 1 by some. But their offense has sputtered in the early gong. The Panthers struggled by Boston College, 14-6, and Kansas, 18-3, before routing Temple, 36-2, last week.

This week, with sophomore quarterback Dan Marino slowed by a sprained knee and the press questioning Sherrill's play calling -- 38 passes per game -- one would think the team hosting Maryland Saturday was winless instead of unbeaten.

"Pittsburgh fans are spoiled," Green said. "They're used to dominance so they expect it."

Green and his defensive teammates have not let them down. They have given up only nine points and rank second nationally. Maryland Coach Jerry Claiborne had one suggestion for stopping Green: "I'd shoot him," Claiborne said, "but that's not allowed."

Sherrill is counting on shooting remaining illegal long enough for his defense to carry the sometimes shaky offense theough the next four games against Maryland, Florida State, West Virginia and Tennessee.

If Pitt can survive this stretch, only Penn State is likely to stand between the Panthers and an undefeated regular season and a major bowl bid. If all that happens, the Panthers will probably get a shot at repeating 1976. i

"I learned long ago that there are more 'if nots' than 'ifs' in the world," Sherrill said. "You have to just try to keep your program sound."

Sherrill has done that. The record speaks for itself. But until the Panthers can get lucky enough to win that national title, the Sports Illustrated cover-will stay where it is.