We Pitt fans are mostly caught up in the moment and at this moment, or period of time more accurately, we are bemoaning the lack of support for the Pitt football program. At least we complain because it isn’t up to the level we feel it should be for Pitt to field competitive and, possibly, championship teams year in and year out. There are many reasons for this but the following article points directly to the main one. This is a fleshed out anonymously submitted email to me but echoes exactly my own knowledge of the modern history of the University and its relationships with it’s athletic department.
Pitt did not have a long tradition of big funding or emphasis on football or basketball between the greatly successful and national championship years of the 1930’s and the the less successful period before 2000.
Unlike the large land-grant universities or it being the sole major university in a given state, Pitt is surrounded by schools with far more alumni and fan contributions and external participation in supporting athletics. Pitt is not isolated Penn State with more than 40,000 graduates a year. Nor is Pitt like West Virginia as the dominant higher education edifice in the state. Pitt instead finds itself and its “regional territory” constantly raided by strong competitors Notre Dame, PSU, WVU, Ohio State, Alabama, Michigan State, Michigan, as well as fellow ACC members. Reality must hit sometime and it did 50 years ago.
Pitt had an Academic versus Athletic war going on in the 70’s and 80’s. Previously, this had happened in the Jock Sutherland days, but since that very early time Pitt had gotten along with middling success without a genuine fight between the two pillars of the university. But once Johnny Majors (45-45-1 at Pitt) and Jackie Sherrill (50-9-1) began their period of great success they pressured the university to relax some of the requirements to enable more athletically gifted but less academically strong athletes to be recruited. Also and based on their successes they asked for more money going to their programs.
That riled the academic side and caused large resentments as Pitt had recently changed from a purely private university to a state-related university because of financial problems. This threat of more money for athletics meant less for academic uses. We know which side won out; the academic side which Pitt did not want to diminish at the expense of a stronger athletic department.
The Pitt administration felt that they had a good enough athletic program without resorting to what the “football schools” had done. Pitt kept its academic side proudly but then allow for contented mediocrity and cost-saving efforts in sports. It was during this time that the Golden Panthers organization started cracking and big institutional financial backing for sports declined.
Pitt hired Mike Gottfried (27-16-2) from Kansas and there was no real hoopla associated with the hire. He did enlist a great recruiting director who flooded Pitt with some NFL worthy talent though. Also Pitt began to show better performances on the field. But and alas between rumors, crossed-emotions, and with Chancellor Posvar wanting to assert academics, Pitt and Gottfried parted ways leaving a new head coach Paul Hackett (13-20-1) to have to pledge total alliance with the academic side and thus began a destructive downfall of Pitt football.
This situation left Pitt in a deep ditch by the mid-90’s when no one wanted to coach here and we had to resort to practically begging Johnny Majors to come back for a second run. That was a abject failure until Walt Harris (52-44) restored enough success on the field to prevent Pitt from dropping football altogether.
So, with Vice Chancellor Jerry Cochran now holding tight purse strings on Pitt’s nonacademic side Pitt was out of the big financial support ballgame enjoyed by other universities. Pitt didn’t go to the Big 10 with Penn State when they did. Instead Pitt went into the basketball’s Big East conference which had just made concessions to allow programs into the Big East which had Division 1 football programs also. The payouts from the Big East in football were a fraction of what other non-BE schools were receiving in the other more football-centric conferences. Forget about huge payouts for basketball alone back then as that just wasn’t the case.
Pitt was falling further and further behind other conferences’ competitor’s football programs. It was not until Pitt removed the burden of maintaining or having to modernize Pitt Stadium and instead signed with the Stadium authority to play at Heinz Field that Pitt’s football program received a much needed monetary infusion for improvement. The stadium decision was hated by most Pitt football fans and students but without having done it there was real serious doubt that Pitt would have been able to continue playing D1 football.
So, where we stand today is with a new university administration that wants all sports programs to be successful and is trying to keep up financially, inside a strict budget, at the same time. The move to the Atlantic Coast Conference undoubtedly saved Pitt football (and possibly) basketball as the much larger payouts are benefiting the improvement of Pitt sports across the board. But what fans do not realize is where Pitt has been and what resources have been and are now needed to sustain success.
There is a reason that Pitt is not raiding other programs to sign $5 million a year coaches. Pitt can’t offer coaches astronomical salaries. Pitt neither has the history or the current resources to make those moves. Many schools will use endowment monies to supplement their athletic departments if needed – Pitt hasn’t and will never do that.
Pitt is certainly striving to maintain and to improve its athletic programs. When will the alumni and “fans” begin to really help? It would be interesting to see a cross section chart of contributions to various universities for academics as well as athletics listed separately. You know Pitt will be at the bottom somewhere for athletics.
(Hint: Someone out there has an interesting article to write…)