Farewell to the Pitt rivalry
The teams first met 126 years ago, back when Pitt was still called the Western University of Pennsylvania and George Atherton was in the middle of his consequential presidency at the Pennsylvania State College. In front of a crowd far exceeding the capacity of the 500-seat bleachers, the squad of 17 players, not yet known as the Nittany Lions, walloped “the Western boys” 32-0 in the first game at Beaver Field, located on campus behind what is now Osmond Lab. The game, played on a Monday, was delayed two full days because of harsh weather.
It is perhaps only fitting that the 100th and possibly final meeting of these two teams, less than a mile from where it all began, started off with a weather delay. The game itself, though largely forgettable in the pantheon of all-time Pitt-Penn State clashes, unintentionally paid homage to the rich history of the series with a 17-10 defensive slugfest more akin to the
rough-and-tumble Penn State teams of yesteryear than James Franklin’s new high-powered, big-play offense.
Even though Penn State escaped with a victory, thanks in part
to Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi’s indefensible decision to attempt a field goal at the one-yard-line down seven points with five minutes left to play, it was hard not to feel a little glum that this could be the end of the series in our lifetimes.
“I’m sad. There’s just something about Pitt… Back in the 80s, when they had Marino and Dorsett and all those guys, and the arrogance they had,” legendary Penn State equipment manager Brad
“Spider” Caldwell said on the end of the series. “Our last Three Rivers visit, they were the most unaccommodating group I’ve ever been a part of in my career. They kept sending us to get in to the stadium at a different gate. We circled Three Rivers Stadium twice. It took us two hours to get in.”
Its demise makes practical and mathematical sense. Penn State must play nine conference games each year as part of the Big Ten, whereas the ACC only requires eight. Penn State alternates between four and five home conference games each season. Big-time college programs need to host at least seven home games each year to fund their athletic departments, which means Penn State can afford to play a non-conference road game only once every other season. Lest Pitt admit its status as Pennsylvania college football’s little brother, Penn State must exchange one away meeting for every home meeting with the Panthers. Scheduling Pitt each season would eliminate the opportunity for Penn State to play any other big-time, out-of-conference programs, all of which also require a home-and-home arrangement. And who wants to play in Heinz Field every-other season when trips to Blacksburg, Auburn, and Morgantown are on the immediate horizon?
The recruiting battle has cooled, too. James Franklin’s “dominate the state” motto – a not so subtle jab at the in-state rival – has come true, and Penn State has its pick of most of the top Pennsylvania talent. But it wasn’t so long ago that that the programs had more parity, with Joe Paterno famously sending off handwritten letters, sometimes totaling 10 pages or more, to Pennsylvania’s top high school talent, pitching the value of his program over that of Pitt. The winner of the annual game would often swing the recruiting battle more than anything else.
“The games meant that much,” former Pitt coach Jackie Sherrill said recently to The Athletic. “It was Pitt-Penn State. It was a big-ass game.”
And yet, the nostalgia lingers. The series is really a coming of age story, with Pitt dominating most of the pre-Paterno era in which it cheaply claims eight of its “nine national titles.” Penn State has dominated the series post-1950, posting a 35-14-2 record, which saw Rip Engle and Paterno turn a successful, but still unappreciated program into a national powerhouse. Pitt needed Penn State just as Penn State needed Pitt, and through all the acrimony grew two vaunted football programs and universities. It was as natural of a rivalry as has ever existed among institutions of higher education, with both universities competing not only in football, but also academically and to attract the best talent the Commonwealth has to offer, on the field and in the classroom. While current students may not appreciate the now-stagnant rivalry as much as the alumni do, the reality is that their student experience – in the stands at Beaver Stadium and elsewhere on campus – is shaped, in some part, by what once was between these two schools.
The academic rivalry will continue, with Penn State and Pitt both tied at 18 in the U.S. News and World Report top public university rankings (though I’d be remiss not to add that, after several years of Penn State tuition freezes, Pitt’s in-state tuition now exceeds its rival’s by more than $1,200).
The athletic rivalry is over, though, at least for now. What was once a college football staple, every Saturday after Thanksgiving for decades, is no longer… 1976 and Tony Dorsett. 1981 and Todd Blackledge versus Dan Marino. 1982 and Kenny Jackson. 1986 and D.J. Dozier. Sherrill vs. Paterno. Those names and those games are part of history now.