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Penn State-Pitt: This Is A Rivalry

by on September 07, 2017 5:00 AM

Here in Happy Valley we’re getting ready for a game that, depending on your perspective, is either a rivalry being renewed, or just another game. But if last year’s history is not to be repeated those new to Penn State (and there are a lot of new people in the athletic department) should remember how intense this matchup remains.

This game’s tradition should be embraced, not downplayed. The names of men who played and coached in this game belong to the ages of college football history, many found in the College or Pro Hall of Fame.

For those of a certain age “Penn State-Pitt” conjures images of hard-hitting slugfests played on gray November afternoons in snow and rain with wind chill forecasts we welcomed as a way to prove toughness for players and fans.

The mind pictures men playing without gloves, with hands and wrists taped up and linebackers wearing big neck rolls. It was bruised offensive and defensive linemen lined up for battle in three point stances, their fingers sinking in the cold damp soil with each labored breath visible on a frosty November afternoon. It was great theater, power mixed with speed and grace and an afternoon on seat’s edge hoping your team would earn bragging rights for the next year.

But time waits for no one, and times change.  

While this may be a non-conference game played in September, ask any Penn State fan living in western Pennsylvania what the last year was like after Pitt’s win. Worse yet, ask any Penn Stater married to a Pitt graduate, or who has a sibling who went to Pitt or whose in-laws went to Pitt.

What this game lacks in conference implications, it more than makes up for in quality of life implications for two fan bases living side by side every day of the year.


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This will be the 98th time Penn State and Pitt have played (Penn State owns a 50-43-4 edge in the series). The early series saw a period of Pitt dominance, but in the 50 seasons headed into last year’s game Penn State tallied a 23-7-1 record and outscored the Panthers in those 31 games by an average margin of 12.2 points.

The intensity of Pitt fans toward Penn State is partly due to that run of success. Conversely Penn Staters raised during that run came to look down at Pitt, which is understandable when you win 3 of every 4 games over such a long stretch.

But last year changed that.

Prior to the game while Penn State played it cool, Pitt’s coaching staff, team and fans burned to get at Penn State. Despite attempts by Penn State to tamp down the rivalry in 2016, words uttered years earlier had unintended consequences.

The phrase “Dominate the State” from 2014 became a motivational tool used by both Pitt and Temple to point to Penn State’s perceived arrogance and a lack of respect. (Since 2014 Penn State has a 2-2 record against in-state foes Pitt and Temple)

Once the ball was kicked off last year, Pitt’s dream win became a haunting Penn State loss that ultimately kept the Nittany Lions out of the College Football Playoff. Additionally for some Pitt fans, the fallout of the past several years’ events gave them a talking point, no matter how false, to condemn Penn State.

After a guest lecture on crisis management and communications at Pitt’s Katz School of Business last spring, I encouraged the students to send e-mails with questions or comments. The students gave great feedback and asked some very good follow-up questions. Many ended their e-mails good naturedly with #H2P.

But one e-mail really stood out for its candor and as a peak into the mindset of some at Pitt.

“Your lecture was particularly compelling because Penn State is such an infamous topic at the University of Pittsburgh. It's impossible to go through a week without hearing the expression ‘Joe Knew’ at least once. Sometimes it's all too easy to hear buzz words and take them as fact. You disproved all my prior notions about what truly happened at Penn State.”

While that student had a better understanding of things after that class, you can see how prevalent Penn State hate is on that campus. And in 2017 you can see the relevance of the Pitt game to Penn State students who declared a White Out for this game.

Make no mistake, a real rivalry is back this Saturday.

So head to the game and accept the intensity of this rivalry. It is fun to be the object of such obsessive disdain and to have a similar disdain for another team. It is a level of mutual loathing we have yet to achieve with anyone in the Big Ten, even after almost a quarter century in the conference.

Penn State and Pitt will have each other for the next three years and then it will disappear again for a while. As long as the Big Ten is committed to nine conference games this game will recede and perhaps only emerge occasionally. That is unfortunate.

In playing their most hated rivals, teams and programs are forced to summon the best they can bring to the table and that makes everyone better. And the truth remains Penn State-Pitt is, was and will always be a rivalry.


State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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