Tex’s Take on Spirit

Here is a piece Tex sent in a while ago…

There are a few things that a North Texan hates in no particular order – Oklahoma, Carolina BBQ, compact foreign cars, Philly football fans (well everyone does), and the snow.  Well I’m snowbound for the next few days given the storm with time on my typing fingertips so I decided to ponder the following perplexing question:  Why does our rival Penn State have more school spirit than Pitt?

Spirit often manifests itself in sports so I base my opinion on anecdotal evidence.  Look around the retail stores in the Pittsburgh area.  You’ll often find more Penn State gear than Pitt merchandise.  And I personally see far more people wearing Penn State clothing than Pitt just in the DFW area.  Penn State sells out their football games while yellow seats outnumber Pitt fans at Heinz for most games.  Penn State’s fans travel to their bowl games whereas most Pitt fans would rather just watch on TV if they watch at all.  Turn on the TV for some Olympic sports on the Big Ten Network.  It always appeared to me that these minor sports were well attended by their fans and student body.  Compare that to how many people at Pitt attend soccer, wrestling or volleyball games.  And coincidentally those teams are Pitt’s most successful on the field among 19 scholarship programs.

So why do Penn State fans easily identify with Penn State athletics?  Why are they so passionate?  Why do they seem to have an endless supply of school spirit and pride whereas most Pitt students and alumni tune out of sports?  Is it more fun to hang out on Penn State’s front porch?

I do believe a love of sports starts at a young age.   I fell in love with Pitt as a young boy when Pitt football was crowned National Champions.   I then got to experience three straight 11-1 seasons under Jackie.  Winning probably has something to do with it.

In addition, having someone in the family who attended the school most likely helps create a bond and connection or affinity with the school.  Being able to hear their stories from college creates a curiosity and attraction.  And then also having the opportunity to attend games on campus with a family member or friend can help create some positive lasting experiences and fond personal memories of the school.

Now given Penn State’s success on the football field historically, it probably is easier for them to attract supporters.  I’m sure it also has broader appeal since it’s the state’s school and bears the Commonwealth’s name while a smaller school like Pitt is tied in name to the City.

But I also think Penn State does a better job reaching out to the community to find supporters and to engage with existing fans.   I believe they do a better job at cultivating and nurturing the relationship between the school and their fans.  They do it through their communications, messaging on social media, various clubs throughout the land, and consistency in branding.  How many color changes has Pitt gone through?  We’re now back to being known as Pitt and not Pittsburgh right?  And Pitt is script and not block letters?  I’m so confused.

When I attended Pitt back in the 90’s, there really wasn’t anything purposefully done by the university to strengthen the bond between students and the school.  Friends of mine who attended Penn State during this time were indoctrinated during orientation.  Some here might call it brain washing.  But Penn State does a very effective job using sports to help create an identity and to create a very special brand.  A brand until recently (Sandusky cover-up) was one of the most respected and valued across the nation. 

So I’ve always secretly admired the fire and zealous nature of Penn State fans.  I became disappointed that Pitt students and fans fell short and sports was just an afterthought to most.  How could Pitt create that same level of energy without the arrogance and self-righteousness sometimes associated with those Nitter…I mean Penn State fans?

During my time on campus, I attended football and basketball games.  I always followed those sports as a kid.  It was easy to attend…just a short walk up the hill.  That was when football games were actually played on campus.  I can’t imagine taking a bus to an off campus football game although Pitt basketball did play several marquee games at the Civic Arena and the bus ride wasn’t too bad.  I unfortunately seldom attended other sports.  Unless I knew a player on the volleyball or wrestling team, you couldn’t get me to go watch an Olympic sport and root on Pitt.  I don’t even recall much excitement leading up to big football or basketball games being played on campus.  I guess when a national media crew covered the game, there was more energy on campus but most students didn’t seem much to care.

For me though, Fitzgerald was more fun to watch a game.  Maybe it was because Pitt actually had a good basketball team in my day?  Maybe it was because Fitzgerald was small, loud and always packed?  I just always felt more energy and school spirit in that environment.  Maybe spirit has something to do with the venue?

Leaping forward 30 years, Pitt still has the same spirit problem.  My evidence – a very small percentage of alumni gift to athletics (smallest gifting rate in the ACC based on number of living alumni) and attendance based on butts in the seats (this Covid season doesn’t count but would things have been any different?).

Yes, it’s a city school with far more entertainment options than schools in small towns like State College where cow tipping is more popular than Penn State basketball.  Yes, Pitt has done a poor job at winning recently in the major sports where football is mediocre and basketball is either bad to embarrassingly bad depending on whether you drink Kool-Aid or vinegar.  And yes, you might have a larger percentage of students who commute at Pitt given its suburbs.

Then the question becomes, what if anything can Pitt do about it?  Intuitively, a greater level of school spirit should lead to increased revenues for the university through higher ticket sales, a larger percentage of fans donating money to athletics, increased merchandise sales and a more valuable brand and enhanced reputation.  A higher degree of school pride could also lead to higher student applications, a better quality applicant and higher student graduation rates.

I have several ideas that I believe can help with increasing school spirit among the student body.  In addition, I’ve got some ideas in mind for alumni and the casual fan.  However, I’d love to hear your ideas first.  And no I’m not being paid as a research consultant for Pitt, but if some football tickets for the Clemson game appeared in my mailbox one day, I’ll attribute that to a post office mistake or divine intervention.