The Issue of the Pitt Fan Base

The Issue of the Pitt Fan Base

Another interesting look at Pitt and its athletic department over the years from our reader friend “Anon”.  One important thing about this particular reader and contributor – he and his family have been intimately associated with the University of Pittsburgh for many, many years so when he writes something I pay very close attention to it…and it has matched with what I know almost 100% of the time.

In writing this, my purpose is to open thinking about what are the issues with the size and fervor of the Pitt football fan base.  Only this sport is being questioned as basketball has proven in the past to be quite attractive and sold out when Pitt has been relevant in the top 20 in basketball. Surely under Capel, we all anticipate a recalibration and quick building of a highly successful program again.

So, what are the issues with Pitt football?

Certainly for those of us who enjoy the college football sport and who have developed a genuine caring about Pitt football in particular, this is a serious question. Our current Athletic Department and leadership at Pitt have made a strong commitment to utilizing sports as a “front porch” for national recognition and respect for the University of Pittsburgh.

 Yes, yes, we all know the naysayers and their mantra of “Pitt’s too cheap or the administration hates the athletic department.” Those who make these claims are influenced by (1) the waters of the three rivers which still has negativity molecules in plentiful supply; (2) a complete lack of knowledge of Pitt’s organization and finances; and (3) recognition of what Pitt truly values.

 So, skipping the water problem, it can be acknowledged that for decades Mr. Jerry Cochran ran a very squeaky tight ship concerning Pitt finances and contributions to the athletic department.  Nothing but nothing got past him for coaches salaries, athletic costs, etc. That continued until his retirement a few years ago. Also, it might be added that with the retirement of Chancellor Mark Nordenberg who genuinely wanted good sports programs at Pitt, a new regime came in at the right time for Pitt athletics.

Unlike Nordenberg who formerly ran Pitt’s law school, Chancellor Gallagher is more current on marketing, positioning, and building upon Nordenberg’s success in academic enrichment of Pitt. Yes, yes, Gallagher was rushed into a bad choice in Barnes as AD but that was due to the last five years of Jamie Dixon’s difficulties at Pitt due to his recruiting base and the ACC which he never wanted Pitt to be in as opposed to either the Big East or B10 where he could continue his recruiting of the NY-Philly area.

The fall off in attendance at the Pete plus less success on the court signaled that something had to change, so why not Barnes who was part of the NCAA Tournament Selection committee? That didn’t work and was further not a boon to Pitt football.  So, rather quickly Pitt moved on from Barnes to Heather Lyke.

 Heather Lyke was underappreciated due to the size and scope of Eastern Michigan sports. But, what was forgotten was that this is a very bright lady who spent considerable time in Ohio State’s athletic department plus earned a law degree. She has been shaking and churning the Pitt athletic department and staffs to find very good coaching talent. She does not appear to be another Steve Pederson or Scott Barnes, in fact, she just might become Pitt’s best athletic director in decades.

 Add to the staffing of the athletic department and many coaching positions, there is the big money from membership in the ACC. But, keep in mind that the Pitt administration is still shoring up the football programs expenses. Money is not overflowing from alumni, fans, and merchandising sales so far. Perhaps there will be change as more success happens on the field. Currently, Pitt is investing in building football, basketball, baseball, soccer, softball, and wrestling programs. Please don’t sit on laurels as this is a concerted effort by Pitt and it had better work.

 The reason that it better work is simply that Pitt wants sports as an attractive, successful symbol of Pitt’s national image. However, the fundamentals of Pitt are #1 above all else, academics, research, and international recognition. Yes, you are reading this correctly, Pitt would drop any sport tomorrow if it were a choice between that sport and Pitt academics. So, for those of you who would close one eye if Pitt engaged in some shady practices to get recruits, build programs, or get national ranking attention, you are daydreaming while giving Pitt’s core nightmares.  Many of us who love Pitt football and basketball would rather see Pitt close down all sports and simply concentrate on becoming the Stanford of the East before engaging in the nonsense done by so many big nationally recognized sports programs.

Let’s go back to what is the core problems of Pitt fandom.

 First, for most of Pitt’s history, it was a commuter university of national acclaim. Streetcars, buses, and cars delivered students to the campus and then quickly got them to their places of work where they could earn tuition money. The number of dorm students was a small percentage of Pitt’s student enrollment unlike big land grant universities. Pitt did not have a tidy little 10,000 to 30,000 town that was integrated with the university. Pitt had Oakland which was the residence of many wealthier people as well as working class families of steel workers from Jones & Laughlin and other mills.

Not the ideal Chapel Hill version of a campus and town. Pittsburgh was big, bustling, and bruising with one of the smallest African-American populations of a major city in America. Pittsburgh was sectionalized into ethnic enclaves such as Polish Hill, Swissvale, Garfield, Bloomfield, Squirrel Hill, Homewood, the Hill District etc. Immigrant families lived in close proximity to others who shared their ethnicity. So, Pittsburgh in many ways was a lot like a smaller New York but more industrialized. That made for a different student body at Pitt.  Pitt wasn’t the place you went to party or cruise through college. You had to work your ass off both in school and in a one or more jobs to get that diploma.

 Pitt embarked on a disastrous trimester system. Why? It enabled students to accelerate their course load over a year to graduate in possibly as short as two and a half years. What that experiment did was destroy any concept of alumni “Class of XXXX” as each student was in their own class not a large collection of people at the same pace going through  college. That took away the sense of camaraderie for most students.

 Pitt never had a strong vibrant Greek system. It was too expensive for most students and students were too busy studying and working to afford the time and efforts of joining a Frat or Sorority.  Other schools could count on the collective efforts of the Greek System to support and encourage playing sports at their universities.  Pitt was a totally opposite of PSU as humanly possible in what was important to the student and their families.

 The Academic leadership of Pitt did resent Pitt’s athletic department and what they tried to do to build programs. Under Chancellor Litchfield, Pitt almost went bankrupt as a private university (private like Northwestern and Stanford are private) due to the incredible millions spent on bringing in world recognized faculty, building out research programs, investment in buildings, investments in the Medical school and acquisition of hospitals, and building of the International Affairs programs of Pitt.

Football and basketball were not important except as entertainment.  Resentment built with a lot of former players, friends, and families to form the Golden Panthers which decided to put their money into Pitt athletics such as recruiting and hiring Johnny Majors and continuing right up until the 80’s when scandal happened.

So, unless there is a similar banding of wealthy ex-athletes and families, like the Cost Family and others, Pitt sports will be reliant upon the monies of the ACC until sufficiently successful to be self-sustaining and growing.

 Remember, there were many other factors too affecting sports fans for Pitt. The coming of conferences while a boon in monies to be shared, destroyed old-time rivalries. Does anyone seriously think that if Pitt were playing Penn State, West Virginia, Navy, Syracuse, Miami and Notre Dame virtually every year that we’d be having attendance discussions?

Pitt Stadium could seat 60,000 people. Heinz Field seats over 72,000 people which is extremely large for Pittsburgh in general. By the way, the Rooney’s are not dumping on Pitt! They contribute quite a bit of money to Pitt as well as Duquesne plus they don’t own Heinz Field but happily share it with Pitt under the Pittsburgh Sports Authority. Pitt’s leasing deal saves Pitt millions while enabling top-tier facilities.

 Well, enough rambling on.  Just take these words from someone who has followed Pitt football for more than 60 years plus has known many of the past and great players of Pitt.

Editor’s Note: My parents were professionals at Pitt before and during the Chancellor Litchfield years and my father, as the Assistant  Dean of the Graduate School of Business (back when there was a lot less faculty) , worked very closely with Litchfield on starting the International School of Studies mentioned above.   What is written above are just the same thoughts I heard all the time when growing up in the 50s, 60s and early 70s in my “Pitt” household.