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Penn State-Pitt Shows How Familiarity Breeds Contempt, and Rivalries

by on September 13, 2016 5:00 AM

Well, that was fun wasn’t it?!

On Saturday Penn State and Pittsburgh met on the gridiron for the first time in 16 years. As the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Of course occasionally sayings are wrong. Judging by the official statement last week from the top administrators at both schools, it was instead an absence of fondness between two hearty fan bases they were concerned about.

Several days have now passed since the game was played and certainly one fan base is feeling superior and the other is feeling disheartened. Yet no world-changing consequences have resulted from the outcome, have they? And the build-up to the contest was a tad more passionate, more vocal, and more energizing than the usual Penn State football game, don’t you think?

Sure, for the last 23 seasons of play in the Big Ten, Penn State supporters have gotten excited for Ohio State and Michigan games, and maybe a bit less for Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin games. But none approach the vitriol spewed across the internet last week as we awaited kickoff in the ‘burgh.  

This past week would be Exhibit A of what an entire generation of Pennsylvania football fanatics has missed out on.

If you are a Penn State supporter 30-years-old or younger you’ve just gotten a taste of the passion that used to be an annual occurrence. (OK, a few 30-year-olds are reading this and muttering, “Yes, I remember the 2000 game when I was 14. But, do you REALLY remember it?)

For almost an entire century – from 1900-1992 (except for 1932-1934) – the Penn State vs. Pitt football game was played every year. And to a just-slightly-lesser extent, there were several other universities within a few hours drive of Happy Valley also regularly populating the football schedule: Syracuse, West Virginia, Maryland and Rutgers.

Penn State played Syracuse every year from 1922-1990 (except ’43). Since then they have played three times. They faced West Virginia every year from 1940-1992 (except ‘45 & ‘46). They have not faced them since. Maryland was played yearly from 1960-1993 (except ’76 and ’81). Rutgers was an opponent every year from 1977 – 1995.

The last two, thanks to Big Ten expansion, came back on the schedule in 2014 and are Exhibit B and C in my case. Although Penn State’s on-field dominance of Maryland (36-2-1 all-time) and Rutgers (24-2 all-time) are lopsided compared to the more even 50-43-4 all-time record over Pitt (although Penn State has yet to win in the 21st century), the vocal vitriol between Penn State fans and both Maryland and Rutgers fans leading up to those games the last two years was greater than Penn State fans have had with any other Big Ten school.

And here’s why: familiarity breeds contempt. You see, occasionally sayings are correct.

After Penn State joined the Big Ten, the football team was forced to play a number of games against teams hundreds of miles west of Happy Valley. Some of which – Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Michigan – they had never played before.

But more importantly, there was and is not much Penn State presence around those Big Ten schools that would create the familiarity you need to breed contempt. Sure their fans have heard of Penn State, seen Penn State on TV, maybe felt animosity toward Penn State, but they mostly did not know any Penn Staters, didn’t have them living in their neighborhoods, didn’t work with them, or know them well enough to feel true contempt towards them.

And the reverse is true. In Pennsylvania we aren’t inundated with Boilermakers, Hawkeyes, Wildcats, Badgers, Spartans and all the rest. We root against them when Penn State plays them, but we don’t have true contempt for them because they aren’t among us in quantities great enough for us to become truly familiar with their foibles.

Here are a few numbers: As of 2015 there were 27,606 Penn State alumni living in the eight Big Ten states west of Pennsylvania – we’ll call this “Big Ten land.” The total population of those states is 57,296,694. One in every 2,075 people in Big Ten land is a Penn State alum.

Compare this to New Jersey. There are 27,970 Penn State alumni living in New Jersey – more than in all of Big Ten land. New Jersey’s population is 8,958,013. Meaning one in every 320 people in NJ is a Penn State alum. That’s six times the rate out in Big Ten land.

Moving south a bit let’s look at Maryland and the Washington D.C. area. There are 24,211 Penn State alumni living in Maryland and D.C. among a population of 6,678,629. That equates to one in every 275 people being a Penn State alum – eight times the rate in Big Ten land.

Finally, looking at the Pittsburgh area we find 51,153 Penn State alums living in Allegheny, Washington,

Beaver, Butler, and Westmoreland counties. Which combined have a population of 2,156,954. That means 2.4 percent of the population there are Penn State alumni – one in every 42 people in the Pittsburgh area. That’s 50 times the rate in the Big Ten land! Now that’s where we see some familiarity among fan bases.

But population alone is only part of the story. Density is another component of familiarity. As you likely know a lot of Big Ten land is wide open space. There are 455,211 square miles of land out there. That’s one single Penn State alum every 16.5 square miles. That’s a lot of land to search to find one Penn State alum.

Coming eastward, Maryland and DC have merely 9,768 square miles for those 24,211 PSU alums. So there are 2.5 Penn State alums for every square mile. New Jersey has just 7,354 square miles to house its 27,970 Penn State alums which means 3.8 alums every square mile. That’s 63 times the density out in Big Ten land. It’s not hard to find a Penn Stater in Maryland or New Jersey.

And in the Pittsburgh area we hit the motherlode. There are only 3,839 square miles to hold the 51,153 Penn State alums living there, creating a density of 13.3 Penn State alums for every square mile. That’s 220 times what you’ll find out in Big Ten land! It’s a piece of cake to find a Penn Stater around Pittsburgh.

Is it any wonder that Pitt, Maryland and Rutgers fans have animosity towards Penn Staters? No, of course not. They run into them all the time. They live, work and play around Penn Staters, some of whom might be a little vociferous about their allegiance.

Penn State likes to tout its football team as Unrivaled on the cover of its yearbook, on its weekly TV show, and on the scoreboard during games. Depending on your definition of unrivaled that can be a good or bad thing.

But unrivaled or not, if you as a Penn State fan enjoyed the experience last week, the level of engagement, involvement, vocal sparring, and general fan-oriented ribbing, well then, this is what has been missing from your football experience. Enjoy the next three years!



John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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