Moments before his Pittsburgh football team took the field Saturday to play Florida State, Jackie Sherrill walked to a blackboard at the front of the locker room and wrote three sentences.

"Florida State's discipline destroyed Pittsburgh.

"We have an opportunity today. We'll never get it back."

Finished, Sherrill turned to his players. "Let's go," he said softly.

His players went, barging through the door, then through Florida State, 42-14, humiliating the one team that had beaten them in 1980.

The pregame scene was typical of Sherrill. He is not garrulous, not a speechmaker. He speaks so softly most of the time that a listener has to lean forward to hear the words.

Sherrill appears sleepy most of the time, with his heavy-lidded eyes, his polite, model-of-decorum manner. But he is seething. Occasionally, as he stalks the sideline in his gold jacket, his hands in a death grip around a program, the intensity is evident.

"My players always know how I feel," he said. "That's what's most important."

In his five years at Pitt, Sherrill's players have compiled a 44-8-1 record. Since 1979, the Panthers are 27-2, including 5-0 this year, good for a No. 2 ranking in both polls.

It is this year's record and ranking that illustrate how far Pitt's program has advanced. The 1980 team was expected to be a power and it was, with the top defense in the nation. Nine defensive starters graduated, and 13 players from that team are National Football League rookies.

Losses like that generally mean the following year is spent rebuilding, unless, as the saying goes, you are Oklahoma -- in which case you don't rebuild, you reload.

Pitt, too, has reloaded.

The defense, with only two seniors starting, is again ranked No. 1 in the nation. The offense, led by quarterback Dan Marino, is averaging almost 28 points a game, even though Marino missed one game with a bruised shoulder. The question now is: "Is this team better than last year's?"

To a man, the Panthers give the same answer.

"We're not as talented as last year's guys, no doubt about that," said linebacker Sal Sunseri, the one full-time starter remaining from the defense. "But this group is closer than last year's. We really do love each other, we play very hard. The guys last year were the kind who always worked their butts off in practice every day. We all saw that and we follow that example."

Sherrill's coaching philosophy comprises four words: discipline, compassion, maturity and toughness. He believes that the first two produce the last two.

Sherrill, 37, is from Biloxi, Miss., and played eight positions in three seasons under Bear Bryant at Alabama. He coached under Bryant, then under Frank Broyles at Arkansas before joining Johnny Majors at Iowa State in 1968. He followed Majors to Pitt in 1973 and, as his No. 2 man, was instrumental in recruiting the class that won the national championship in 1976. Sherrill wasn't there at the time; he had become head coach at Washington State. When Majors left for Tennessee, Pitt asked Sherrill to return.

He took over a program that had lost its superstars. The 1977 senior class, led by Matt Cavanaugh, had a number of good players, but succeeding classes had no depth. Still, the Panthers have been in a bowl each of Sherrill's first four seasons.

"We haven't really recruited superstars," he said. "If you look at last year's seniors, people like Hugh Green and Mark May were not highly recruited. But when they got here, they worked as hard as anyone you'll ever find. They made the sacrifices you have to make."

Having coached under three men with different ideas on how to succeed, Sherrill's approach cannot be stereotyped. Like Bryant, he believes in discipline: If a player is late for a bus, he misses the bus. If a player is late for breakfast, he gets no breakfast.

In years past, if two players got into a fight on the practice field, they resolved it in the locker room: wearing boxing gloves, on their knees. Sherrill ended that when a player dislocated his shoulder throwing a punch.

But unlike Bryant, Sherrill does not believe in an athletic dorm or curfews. He does believe in having his players speak in public as often as possible. He likes having them exposed to the Pirates and Steelers, because he thinks that is part of the maturation process.

From Majors, Sherrill has picked up a sense of public relations that makes him a delight for the media. He is articulate and available.

Yet, in spite of his record, in spite of Pitt's 56-8-1 mark the last 5 1/2 years, the Panthers had not captured the imagination of this city. Until Saturday. Pitt has long played in the shadow of Joe Paterno and Penn State, and in a town that has had four Super Bowl titles in the last eight years, Pitt often has been overlooked.

But now that is changing. Saturday's crowd of 55,112 was the largest ever in Pitt Stadium for a game against an opponent other than Penn State or Notre Dame. It was an excitable, emotional crowd, a rarity at Pitt.

Sunday, sitting in his office wearing a checked shirt and jeans, Sherrill poked at some fast-food chili and talked about why the victory was the most important in his tenure at Pitt.

"Before Saturday, people were wondering about us. They thought we might be pretty good. Now, they know we're pretty good. That means something when you can lose players we lost and your program is still there. People have to look up and say, 'Hey, they've got a program.'

"The fact is, we don't have the kind of athletes this year we had last year. We don't have kids who are going to be getting million-dollar contracts next season. But we're still winning."

There is one million-dollar player on this team, however -- Marino, 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, blessed with the classic size, arm, vision and instincts. Sherrill, who played with Joe Namath and Steve Sloan and who coached Matt Cavanaugh, says: "He's the best I've ever seen at this stage."

Marino grew up three minutes from Pitt Stadium. As a boy, he sneaked into games and dreamed of throwing touchdown passes for the Panthers. He considered two schools: Pitt and UCLA. It never was really a contest.

Curly-haired and outgoing, Marino, a junior, is already being pushed for the Heisman Trophy. He also has the mandatory modesty. "With the kind of blocking I've been getting, I should do well," he said Saturday after breaking three school passing records. "If I had the money, I'd buy a diamond ring for everyone on the line.

"This team is special. Last year, everyone picked us No. 1 or No. 2. This year, we had to prove ourselves, because people said we couldn't live up to the Pitt tradition."

Pitt tradition. A new phrase. Before Majors/Sherrill, Pitt tradition meant losing badly. From 1964-72, the Panthers were 22-68-2. Including this season, they are 75-21-2 the last nine years.

Now, outstanding freshmen such as starting defensive end Chris Doleman say they chose Pitt because they wanted "to play for a consistent winner." Quietly, Sherrill has continued what Majors began, so quietly that his efficiency often has gone unnoticed.

Last week, before the Florida State game, Sherrill wanted to be sure his players remembered the 36-22 defeat that cost them a national championship in 1980.

He did not rant or rave. He did not run the game film, replete with fumbles and errors. He did not hold a raucous pep rally. He just put up small pieces of white paper in every nook and cranny of the spacious football offices. Everywhere the players turned, they saw the pieces of paper with one word on them.

Payback.

One word. At Pitt, that was all that was needed. The rest is already there.