This article is written by a friend of mine who prefers to remain anonymous. Rest assured that his history with, and knowledge of, the inner workings of the University are such that his word is solid and match much of what I know about the earlier years of the University also.
The article by Notrocketscience on the apathy of Pitt Alumni was timely for those who wonder about the commitment to building loyalty. Perhaps not so good in timing with LOI Day approaching as rival coaches and family members who would prefer not to have the athlete sign with Pitt relishing any negativity.
I’d like to offer some commentary regarding the Pitt Alumni. I’ve been a Pitt fan for 63 years. I go back to when my cousins played for Pitt, and I got to know members of the 1955 and 1956 Pitt bowl teams. I later shared a hospital room with a Pitt football captain, so players and coaches were constantly there. I’ve also had cousins and a brother-in-law who were professors at Pitt. So, there is a little family and personal affiliation with the University other than just my undergraduate degree.
If you don’t mind me going back before most of you readers were born, let me recount some of Pitt’s history.
People forget or are unaware of Pitt’s history as a private university until the financial repercussions of Chancellor Litchfield’s massive effort to turn Pitt into an Ivy League member. He spent lavishly to build new facilities while hiring away top professors from other institutions. That was an exciting and challenging time for Pitt.
Daresay we even looked down on Penn State as just a state party school for applicants who couldn’t muster the SAT’s required at Pitt. No one thought of West Virginia other than on the football field. Ohio State and Michigan were not nearby, so they seldom were a factor in the area. Pitt had many New York City area students and sadly too few African-American students. It was such a different time as we went through the fifties and sixties with the cultural and civil right changes.
We sadly saw our university need to affiliate with the State due to a financial crisis, thus Pitt became “State Related”. We still had our traditional foes Notre Dame, Penn State, West Virginia, Syracuse, Army, and Navy, plus a bevy of opponents from other areas: Boston College, Miami, UCLA, Oregon, Oklahoma, Nebraska, California, and others.
There was no real conference, but the Beast of the East title was a goal. We all felt good about Pitt and the idea of Eastern Football. Independence enabled Pitt to schedule across the country.
Then things started changing with the advent of television’s great need for live sports for younger males. First, ABC dominated then added ESPN later. Not to get into all the changes, but colleges saw the financial rewards for athletic success, so the race was on for national recognition, the betterment of coaches, more dynamic athletic directors, and alumni/fan support groups.
Pitt was richly rewarded by John Conomikes (a top executive of Hearst Broadcasting) as he helped build the Golden Panthers and corner people to help support Pitt’s athletic department. Ok, two sports being football first and basketball second. In the 1990’s the conference alignment scramble began.
What many don’t know is the effect of Pitt’s changing from a semester system to a Trimester school year. That move alone destroyed the old concept of “Class of XXXX” as you could have finished your college requirements in as little as two and a half years or chose to have more time to earn money and graduate after four years.
Students from that point on lost a sense of identity with classmates other than if they were friends.. So, unlike other schools that had a genuine sense of “Class of XXXX,” we didn’t. To this day, that is my biggest sad memory of Pitt. Since then I’ve garnered a professional and graduate degree from elsewhere. From experience, graduate students have a different life experience with a university than do the undergraduates.
Also, fraternities and sororities were not prolific at Pitt. Yes, they existed. But, they were a tiny part of Pitt and not influential at all. They were certainly, nothing like the fraternity rows that one can see at Georgia, Penn State, Miami (Ohio) and other schools.
So now, let’s talk about Oakland. Even back then (please forget the comments about our covered wagons on Fifth or Forbes), Oakland was a mish-mash of older mill worker homes on one side of Forbes and then a section of fine older gentry brick homes with nice lawns, etc. on the other side of Fifth Avenue. Nothing could be done to change that as the mills were still in operation while Pittsburgh was the 3rd corporate center in America and the 7th largest city in America (a surprise to many).
Growth was the building out of Pitt facilities as well as hospitals expanding throughout Oakland in addition to new suburbs. Oakland was Pitt. How could that be changed? Not through urban planning which was busy destroying the second most vital business and residential district of Pittsburgh, the East End (East Liberty area) with its massive homes and prosperous retail district.
The city of Pittsburgh as we all know went through terrible times with the collapse of the heavy metal industries and the merger of so many Pittsburgh based corporations thus causing those businesses to leave. Nearly half the population of the city left to find new work opportunities that didn’t require higher education or a struggle with economic uncertainty.
With this scenario, Pittsburgh was fighting to survive with the many amenities it offered but supported by an older, declining base of citizens. Fortunately, both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon had leadership that recognized how inhospitable the area was becoming so they joined forces to bring technology and to use their professional staffs to help in the restructuring of Pittsburgh.
So far, they have been successful although the entire area needs more governmental consolidation to share expenses and amenities while cutting back duplication. Another key need of Pittsburgh is that the graduates of all the many colleges and universities in the area find employment there in the area to help continue Pittsburgh’s rebirth.
Merely pointing out the problems or considered lack of urban planning for the Oakland area does not address what is happening and why it happened. The cost to acquire land, demolish buildings, and build new structures is astronomical in tight areas with dense building. Unfortunately, this is true even for a resurrection of a campus football field with offices and other possibilities. It can be done but would the university consider it now?
What would be the impact of building a $300 million dollar stadium (just using that as a figure) with the needed parking and road access to allow fans to come and go from the six games a year at the stadium? Six games! Remember that none of the critics of Heinz Field know the lease deal for Pitt. The stadium is not owned by the Rooney Family. They pushed the authorities to fund the stadium based upon joint tenancy with Pitt, so it is very unlikely that Pitt has a bad financial deal. I would go so far as to say if Pitt had not taken that deal, Pitt football would not be alive today.
Unless the University of Pittsburgh decides to relocate to a bigger area with less complexity and with greater ease of construction, Pitt is where it is going to be. They cannot simply move as Robert Morris did from downtown Pittsburgh to the suburbs.
In summary, what is the ability to engender great alumni participation? Pitt does not have the student body size of a Penn State or other larger schools such as seen in the Big10. But Pitt is in a fine academic and athletic conference. Perhaps something to be considered is what it appears that Gallagher and Lyke are doing in funding for Pitt athletics by improving facilities and salaries. They are taking an approach that with stability and good coaching, Pitt can be a consistent winner thus attracting more fans and greater alumni pride.
What will not happen at Pitt is trashing standards to get victories. What will not happen is placing athletics above the academic respect of the University of Pittsburgh. They should be hand in hand rather than the marketing side (Pitt athletics) being the head and academics the tail. If you want that to happen, go root for another school.
The endowment funds and donations of corporations would almost cease with a “sports at all cost” attitude.
We have been remarkably fortunate in both Paul Chryst and Pat Narduzzi for their strong support of their players and the commitment to get a degree from Pitt. Neither has turned a blind eye to violations of team or university rules. Perhaps the administration has felt comfortable now with such people guiding their programs thus the effort to improve the playing facilities, salaries, and needs of the programs. But, do not take this leeway for granted. That highway is not without an expectation of success or there would be a termination.
How many alumni, fans, and people with ties to Pitt take the time to purchase tickets, donate tickets, pledge money, and even sit their fannies in Heinz Field or The Peterson Center to watch the teams.
Is it too much time involved? Too much trouble? Too expensive?
I don’t know how much cheaper people expect tickets to be. Am I foolish to believe that once you get your degree, you will find a career and earn enough to support yourself and a family plus have discretionary income?
No, the fault lies with the people, not the institution. Pitt is doing everything the right way without repeating the mistakes of the past. Patience, support, and encouragement are what is needed from the fans.