by Eric Wassel
Ed: As we head into the Christmas break, I wanted to put some universal good vibes out there. Eric Wassel (Missing WLAT) was in Charlotte for the championship game, and the experience inspired him to write a piece. He submitted it right after the game, but there was so much news that we weren’t able to immediately publish it. Here it is, in full. For those that went it’s a great chance to relive a memory. For those that couldn’t attend, it’s a great firsthand account of the goings-on. Merry Christmas everybody!
The Tale of a Championship, by Missing WLAT
I had decided before Pitt played Virginia for the Coastal title, that if our Panthers won and advanced to the ACC championship game in Charlotte, I was going to attend. Like many of you. I consider myself a long-suffering Pitt fan. However, when the Panthers won the National Championship in 1976, I was only six years old. As I have mentioned here before, I actually rooted for Penn State as a kid (sorry Erie Express), because my uncle played football there in the late 1960s.
This makes me different than many of you in the sense that I’ve essentially never seen Pitt football win anything. My dedication to Pitt really started in 1988 when I enrolled as a student.
Think about what Pitt has (not) accomplished since 1988. Mike Gottfried had a couple of good seasons before conflict with administration caused him to leave. Paul Hackett and Johnny Majors II/Back to the Future, were both a disaster.
Walt Harris resurrected the football program from the ashes, but other than seemingly dominating Virginia Tech, the most he accomplished was getting us to a Fiesta Bowl with a weak 8 and 3 record. We proceeded to get crushed by Urban Meyer, Alex Smith and Utah.
Dave Wannstedt appeared to have the program headed in the right direction. The mystery remains as to whether the program would have achieved greater heights had he been allowed to stay. Regardless, Steve Pedersen wanted him to be gone, and so he was. But not before Mardy Gilyard and Cincinnati crushed our souls in the 2009 Big East Championship Game at Heinz Field.
How about I add the debacle of hiring Mike Haywood, Todd Graham leaving after one year, or Paul Chryst seemingly doing the same.
Did I mention that they tore Pitt Stadium down?
In less than 400 words, I think I’ve painted the picture of my experience as a Pitt football fan. In one simple word: misery. That all changed, thanks to one beautiful weekend in Charlotte.
It’s not like the last seven years under Coach Narduzzi has given us excessive promise. Prior to this magical season, the bulk of the POV not named Ike would admit that while some progress had been achieved, the program has appeared to be stuck in neutral. As Reed has so often correctly pointed out, the program has been mostly devoid of any stars capable of propelling our Panthers to the top of the ACC, let alone the national rankings. Recruiting has been mediocre.
I won’t rehash the many disappointing defeats during the Narduzzi tenure. That could be an article of its own. Zero bowl victories of any consequence, unless you are counting that monumental win over Eastern Michigan in 2020. I don’t.
So was I excited to be heading to Charlotte to see Pitt play in the ACC championship game? Does Richman like beer? Does Erie Express have a standing tee time on Sundays in June? Does UPitt have an infatuation with the color of Heather Lyke’s blouse? I could hardly contain myself in the days leading up to my departure. I wasn’t even put off by the fact that due to ongoing problems with the airlines, my best choice was to make the nine hour drive from Wilkes-Barre.
I arrived in Charlotte on the afternoon on Friday December 3. My feelings could best be summed up by saying that I was very excited, but also very nervous. Would it be SOP? I would be lying if I told you that in the days and hours leading up to kickoff, on numerous occasions I found myself thinking about the various ways that Pitt could find a way to lose. I’d imagine that many of my POV brethren were feeling exactly the same way.
As I sit here typing this article, I can say that ultimately there was not one disappointing thing about the entire weekend. I’d like to share with POV nation the sights and sounds of ACC Championship weekend. Not only did Pitt dominate the football game, Pitt fans took over the city of Charlotte.
We arrived at our hotel late in the afternoon on Friday. After getting checked in we headed out towards downtown Charlotte, went a little further south and reached our evening destination: Brewers. Brewers was one of several bars and restaurants in a very large complex. It had been selected in advance as the location of a “bar takeover” for Pitt fans.
This event had been organized by Jeff Ferruzza, a great guy who organizes a Facebook group called Pitt Panthers Fanatics. Upon arrival, my family quickly located top five POV celebrity and host of the now famous Red 5A tailgate, lastrowofsection4 (Fran Lokar). Joining Fran at Brewers was fellow Red 5A stalwart, Scooter.
Fran and Scooter proudly reported that they had arrived at Brewers at around 2:00 p.m. that afternoon. My arrival wasn’t until close to 7:00 p.m., so use your own imagination as to the condition of these two fine gentlemen. Shortly after my arrival, Big B (Bernie Blystone) and his wife Jeannie B joined the party.
I would estimate the size of the crowd at Brewers to be around 300 or so. I’d say 95% of the crowd was dressed in Pitt colors, and the atmosphere was terrific. (What immediately came to my mind was the post-game party at an Irish bar in New York City when Pitt won its first Big East Basketball Championship in 2003.) Food and drinks were aplenty, as were numerous chants of “Let’s go Pitt”. A trio of stringed instruments played “Sweet Caroline” several times, and the vocal cords of the Pitt faithful got stretched out in advance of Saturday’s big game.
Non-POV media celebrities in attendance included Bill Hillgrove, Andrew Stockey and Paul Zeise. Also present were former Pitt players Mike McGlynn and Dorin Dickerson.
On Saturday morning we headed into town to the ACC Championship Fan Fest, held approximately one block from the Bank of America Stadium at Romare Bearden Park. (Notably, Truist Field, home of the Charlotte Knights minor league baseball team was adjacent. It’s right downtown and is considered one of the best minor league parks in the country).
Upon arrival at Fan Fest, one thing was abundantly clear, Pitt fans were out in force. I would estimate the crowd at the Fan Fest to be at least 10 to one in favor of Pitt. While mindful that most Pitt travelers stayed overnight on Friday while many Wake Forest fans made a day trip on Saturday, it was still a very impressive showing by the Pitt faithful. Lots of fun and games were available for young and old. There was an ACC mascot competition which unquestionably was won by Roc the Panther. Alcohol was available for purchase. The Pitt Band and cheerleaders made an appearance. A stunned Wake Forest fan was heard to ask the question: “Where is the Wake Forest event?”.
I ran into Richman (Rich Tencza) at this event and then headed to a nearby restaurant for lunch. Not to my surprise, the restaurant was filled with Pitt fans. Unfortunately, by heading to lunch, I missed Dr. Tom (Thomas Richards), who arrived at the Fan Fest shortly after my departure. Apparently, I also missed former Pitt tight end Scott Orndorff, who posed for a picture with Dr. Tom.
Our next stop on Championship Saturday was at the “Relocated to Charlotte Red 5A tailgate”. This party was hosted by “Friends of Richman”, Thad and Dana Christian. I knew that I liked Dana right away when: 1) She served me AWESOME barbecue from world-famous Lexington BBQ, and 2) She told me that her kids were not allowed to apply to Penn State. We ate and drank, and of course, listened to Big B talk everyone’s ears off.
Our final pre-game function started at 5:30 (on the dot) at the Pitt Alumni Pre-Game Party/Tailgate. This event was held in the Carolina Panthers Atrium Health Dome. This facility was essentially attached to the stadium and serves as the Carolina Panthers indoor practice field. The reason I mentioned “on the dot”, is because fans were lined up outside the doors of the Dome for at least an hour before the scheduled start time of 5:30, and they would not open the doors even a minute early.
Accordingly, by the time the event began, there was a line that was at least 1/2 mile long (not kidding), and the people at the end of the line didn’t make it through security for at least 45 minutes. I’m not sure if this was a failure on the part of Pitt or if the security company was to blame, but it was a mess.
Once inside, the setup was very nice, as the photos below will attest. the band made a brief appearance before it had to head over to the Stadium. There was a DJ spinning tunes, and Sweet Caroline was played at least once. The turnout for this event was fantastic, sold out with approximately 1500 people.
There was a half-sized football field, including an end zone, of about 60 yards. Nearly every square inch of the inside was covered by the seating area for Pitt fans, food displays and portable bars. I wasn’t expecting a gourmet meal, but regarding the food, let’s just say I’ll have no comment.
At various points during the two hours of this event, chants of “Let’s Go Pitt” broke out. The event was well organized and run efficiently. There were two enormous televisions against the side of the Dome that were playing the Pitt soccer game. My only other observation was that this was a Pitt Alumni event for a championship football game, and I did not see one former player or notable alumnus in attendance.
I can’t imagine that it would have been difficult to arrange to have a few former players in the house. At 7:00 p.m., we made the short five-minute walk to the Stadium.
Of course, every last one of you who are reading this article watched the game. I did watch a replay of it when I got home. I can tell you that the television broadcast did not do any justice to how tremendous the Pitt fans were at Bank of America Stadium last Saturday night. The announced attendance was just under 60,000 fans (unlike when the Pitt athletic department counts attendance, this number appeared to be legitimate). I would estimate that 35,000 of the fans we’re supporting Pitt and of those 35,000, nearly every single one of them were wearing the new colors. It sounded like 60,000. It was a sight to behold.
The Pitt Band was seated in a rectangular area directly behind the goalpost, facing in my general direction. The Band created a big part of the energy. As my daughter, a Pitt Engineering student, so eloquently stated, “Our band could eat their band four times”. This was true, as the Wake Forest band seemingly was the size of a mid-sized high school band from Western Pennsylvania.
I’ll make a quick comment about the Wake Forest fans. The entire weekend I observed only one negative interaction between Pitt fans and a group of Wake Forest fans. I observed this after the game. We had a few Wake Forest fans in our section, and they were fairly quiet. Multiple Pitt fans did comment, and I also observed, that the Wake Forest fans would start loud chants at times when Pitt players were injured on the field.
I witnessed this situation first hand many years ago when Pitt played Duke at Madison Square Garden and Mike Cook tore his ACL. I thought that the conduct of the Duke fans was classless then, and felt the same way about the behavior of the Wake Forest fans on Saturday night. (Side note: Levance Fields’ 3 point shot at the buzzer to win that Pitt-Duke Basketball game remains one of my five favorite Pitt memories of all time).
Nervous energy settled in at the start of the game, and the stadium was briefly quiet. But a single 58 yard touchdown run by Kenny Pickett changed that in a hurry. To say that the stadium was in a frenzy at the conclusion of the “fake slide” play is an understatement.
The juices were flowing at that point and for the most part the Pitt fans remained engaged through the remainder of the game. The fans especially came alive in the second half following the interceptions by A.J. Woods and Eric Hallett (whose family was sitting in the row directly behind us). MissingWlat correctly predicted that Hallett would win the MVP trophy, and I could not have been happier for his mom.
To my surprise, arrangements were made for Sweet Caroline to be played at the beginning of the fourth quarter. I can tell you that the Wake Forest fans likely thought that whoever was in charge of entertainment at Bank of America Stadium likely was just a Neil Diamond fan.
It wasn’t until the “Lets Go Pitt” part, until they realized how outnumbered they were. Somebody told me after the game that some Wake Forest song was played after Sweet Caroline, but candidly I didn’t notice.
A special moment for all in attendance came when, once the game was decided, Kenny Pickett was able to take a curtain call. The offense went out on the field with Kenny under center, and after one running play a timeout was called. Kenny came off the field to the raucous cheers of the fans as well as the hugs from his teammates and coaches. It was a very special moment for Kenny Pickett, his family and for all of the Pitt fans in attendance.
After the clock hit double zeros, celebration of the Pitt fans was just beginning. The on-field presentation of the ACC Championship Trophy was pretty standard, but for those of us Pitt fans who had never witnessed it in person, it could have gone on all night. It was all smiles for the players as the confetti filled the sky.
For all of the criticism that Pat Narduzzi receives here on the POV, I legitimately believe that he cherishes his association with the University of Pittsburgh, and won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. The first words out of his mouth at the trophy presentation ceremony were “Hail to Pitt”, and you could tell that he meant it.
At the end of the trophy presentation ceremony, Sweet Caroline was played again, and this time the players joined in and sang along with the fans. It was priceless.
My family returned to the parking area where we were joined by Big B, AtlantaPanther (Doug Mundrick) and JoeL (Joe Lawrence). Along the way back, more “Let’s Go Pitt” chants were heard, and Pitt fans remained loud without anyone being destructive. Somehow in all of the madness, I ran into Dr. Tom and BigB.
Celebratory beverages were consumed when we got back to the parking lot, as Atlanta Panther broke open a bottle of Crown Royal (my chest is still burning). To sum up the feeling of those in attendance, JoeL turned to me and said, “SOP is no more”. He could not have been more correct. By this time it was well after 1a.m., and despite still having some adrenaline and thinking about finding a bar, we decided to call it a night.
I attended the game with my wife, my son and my in-laws. My father-in-law has been a Pitt season ticket holder since the mid 1970s. Over 45 years. He is still in good health, but how does anyone really know how many more years he’s going to be able to make the trip to see Pitt games? For him, it was a very special weekend. Both he and my mother-in-law have thanked me many times since last Saturday.
My daughter, who as mentioned above is a Pitt student, took the bus from Pittsburgh with other students. As luck would have it, she and a posse of students were seated eight rows in front of me. When my daughter chose Pitt Engineering over Clemson three years ago (true: those were her final two schools), I’m sure that she never thought she’d be celebrating an ACC football championship, after also defeating Clemson during the regular season.
My wife and I met at Pitt and have bled blue and gold together every Saturday during football season for over 25 years.
My son has applied to Pitt and is anxiously awaiting an acceptance letter. He also happens to own more Pitt clothing than the entire POV combined.
For me to have the opportunity, after over 30 years of disappointment as a Pitt football fan, to enjoy such a monumental victory with all my family present? I really cannot put that feeling into words.
And don’t think for a minute that I would forget to mention how great it was to be in Charlotte with some of the very best members of the POV. For those of you reading who have not yet made it to a Red 5A tailgate, you owe it to yourself to do so. They aren’t just passionate Pitt fans, they are special people.
I can attest to this personally, and cherish the support I received from many members of the POV as I searched for a kidney transplant donor and ultimately had my transplant surgery. As you know, our brother Ike, perhaps the most famous and popular POV celebrity of all, is currently fighting a personal health battle. He too would speak to the greatness of members of the POV who have been so encouraging to him.
Thank you to Richman, lastrowofsection4, BigB, Atlanta Panther, Al, Scooter, and Dr. Tom for making your way to Charlotte. It would not have been the same without you all.
Hail to Pitt!