How Pitt Blew Up the Penn State Rivalry

An interesting take on the death of Pitt’s biggest game from our reader James DeLeon

I can hear the gnashing to teeth and catcalls that I’m a cloistered Nitter fan using whatever sneaky opportunity I can to bash Pitt. Not true. If it were true, I wouldn’t be suffering from a state of sports depression since the end of the 2016 football season. No, I bleed blue and gold just like my father, a 1942 Pitt Medical School graduate who immediately set off for the Western front to aid injured allied troops battling evil Germany.

Most of you know the story: Pitt opted to join the Big East Conference for basketball in 1982. Pitt was riding high in 1982.  Despite the beating administered by Penn State in 1981 that deprived Pitt of its second national championship in five years, Pitt beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, finished #4 in the AP poll, and began ’82 season ranked #1.

Penn State was not included in the Big East invite. In retrospect, this detail should have been a huge red flag for Pitt. But it wasn’t. Penn State’s application failed by one vote. Did Pitt push hard for its brother to join the Big East? And what was it about then Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno’s all independent East Coast Conference that turned Pitt off? Did Pitt engage Paterno in negotiations to make the terms, described as lopsided in the Nitters favor, more equal?

From 1982 – 1992 Pitt enjoyed its Big East basketball status while Penn State played in the Eastern 8 Conference. A decade’s worth of time Pitt could have used to promote its in-state foe to an upgraded hoops conference. If you’re  in the camp believing Pitt had no obligation/shouldn’t even have tried, then you are rooting for the dissolution of the relationship.

Before the Sun Bowl (was the John Hancock Bowl) in ’89 Pitt fired Mike Gottfried and hired Paul Hackett, beginning a backward slide until Walt Harris resurrected Pitt’s fortunes with his miracle 1997 season with victories over Miami and West Virginia.

In 1990 Penn State announced its partnership with the Big Ten and announced Pitt would not longer be on the schedule after the 1992 season.  The 1991 game at Pitt Stadium was going to be the Lions last visit in the series. It wasn’t a sellout.  Penn State was ranked #6 and Pitt needed a win to snag a bowl invite. Penn State won, 32-20.

Big Ten revenues gave Penn State a huge advantage over Pitt. Here the distance between the two programs grew wider. Paterno believed by playing at Pitt he was forcing Penn State fans to buy Pitt season tickets or a combination of tickets for Pitt home games. This trick was pulled by Pitt AD Steve Pederson in 2000 and after Paterno died then AD Scott Barnes in 2016. It made no financial sense to maintain a home-away rivalry. Panther fans only filled stadiums when Penn State, West Virginia, and Notre Dame came to town. 

There are many reasons to criticize Steve Pederson but he was able to secure eight more Penn State contest, along with engaging Mike Tranghese  to convince Notre Dame to continue the rivalry through the Harris, Dave Wannstedt, and Paul Chryst tenures. Scott Barnes tried t do the same and failed. Barnes did not beg. Current AD Heather Lyke tried, begged, issued a fake press release that the rivalry was going to extended, and failed miserably. Lyke brought shame to Pitt in her efforts, as if we were beggars wanting our fair share outside the palace gates.

I don’t blame Penn State for ending a lopsided rivalry against us. Recent records tell the story: Harris was 1 for 3, as was Current Head Coach Pat Narduzzi (1 for 3).  When Pitt had the opportunity to sign up Penn State in a 2-for-1 set up, we should have taken the deal. Pitt’s finances from football revenue would certainly be better with rotating home games against West Virginia, Notre Dame, and Penn State. 

I believe our resident expert Tex would agree with me on this one. What better antidote to Penn State’s arrogance than to beat them regularly in front of their home crowd??   

P/S: The links are Reed’s because he was bored and doing that is fun…