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The Penn State-Pitt Rivalry: Show Me the Money

by on September 17, 2019 5:00 AM

It’s over. With the 100th meeting between Pitt and Penn State this past Saturday, one of the greatest rivalries in the history of college football has come to an end — at least for the foreseeable future. And this is one fan who thinks it’s a damn shame.  

The final rendition was not a masterpiece by any objective measure. Neither team looked very good. But it was a rivalry game regardless of what some want to believe and I, for one, will miss the intensity, ferocity and raw emotion displayed by the players from both schools.  Anyone who watched saw how much this game meant to the players (and fans) from both schools. Every year we get Alabama vs. Auburn, Michigan vs. Ohio State, Oklahoma vs. Texas, USC vs. Notre Dame, Georgia vs. Florida, Miami vs. Florida State. But no more Pitt vs. Penn State. I am bummed out.

I guess we really are “unrivaled,” as we don’t have a true rival. I know the Big Ten wants us to believe it’s Michigan State, but they believe their rival is Michigan who believes their rival is Ohio State. So why are we “unrivaled?” Is it just some slick marketing slogan or do we believe we are beyond needing a rival? I learned a long time ago that great teams are made by great rivals, so perhaps it’s time to take a step back and reassess. 

Having worked in intercollegiate athletics most of my life, I understand why the series is coming to an end. To steal a line from Jerry McGuire, “Show me the money!” That’s right, the almighty dollar rules the day. But that still doesn’t mean I have to like it. Because I am a “Yinzer,” born and bred in “Dahntahn” Pittsburgh, it probably means a lot more to me than most because of the history of the rivalry. I literally grew up with it. Pitt was a mere 11 miles from my home.

Pitt is also just 136 miles away from Happy Valley and we have a huge PSU alumni base in Western Pennsylvania. Look, I get it. We need to play at least seven home games a year in order to make our athletic department finances work. That means we would like Pitt to agree to play two games at Penn State for every one game we play at Pitt, which doesn’t help the Panthers’ athletic budget.

I am sure I don’t have all the facts, nor do I have all the answers. I simply know this. It’s all about the money. Intercollegiate athletics is heading toward an unsustainable path, especially if the law recently passed in California that allows individual athletes to make their own endorsement deals gains momentum across the country. Individual athletes being able to make money from jersey sales and endorsement deals? Talk about a game changer. Personal deals creating jealousy amongst teammates?  What happened to “we” over “me?” This doesn’t even begin to touch on the Title IX implications. Is paying players next? There is not enough space in this column to even begin to discuss the ramifications of that proposal.

It’s all getting out of control as the arms race to continually build new and improved facilities and add amenities to entice recruits puts more and more pressure on football to bring in the big bucks. Most athletic departments are not self-sustaining. Let me repeat that. Most athletic departments require subsidies from their school’s general fund to stay afloat. The schools that do make money keep increasing the donation requirements and ticket prices to keep the money rolling in. What happens if the fans around the country begin to say enough is enough?

The Pitt rivalry is near and dear to my heart. In my four-and-a-half years of college, I witnessed five Pitt-Penn State games in person during one of the most competitive periods of the rivalry. My freshman year (1978) the game was in Happy Valley. We were ranked No. 1 and relied on a stingy defense led by Matt Millen and Bruce Clark to prevail 17-10. We lost a heartbreaker to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship that year.

My sophomore year we got thumped by the 11th-ranked Panthers 29-14 in State College and a No. 4-ranked Pitt team beat us again in Beaver Stadium 14-9 my junior year.  This was a time when the rivalry was at one of its most intense, and at times, ugliest periods. The vitriol going back and forth among the fans and coaches got down right nasty.

In 1981, I was actually in Pitt Stadium for one of Penn State’s greatest victories in the series. Yes, I am talking about the 48-14 drubbing of No. 1-ranked Pitt. The Panthers had jumped out to a 14-0 lead behind Heisman trophy front runner Dan Marino before the Nittany Lions scored 48 unanswered points. I was sitting in the middle of Pitt fans with some high school friends proudly wearing my Penn State hockey jacket, for which I took a lot of verbal abuse.

During my “extra” senior year the game featured a 9-1 Pitt team against our No. 2 ranked, 9-1 Penn State team in the last regular season game of the year at a blustery Beaver Stadium. Quarterback Todd Blackledge hit Kenny Jackson on a long-bomb, and we won 19–10.  We went on to beat No. 1 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl 27-23 to win our first national championship under Coach Joe Paterno. 

Getting back to this past Saturday’s game, it was fitting that it went right down to the wire like a rivalry game should. While it wasn’t a classic by any stretch, Pitt came into Beaver Stadium and gave us all we could handle.

There were plenty of mistakes on both sides of the ball.  But one mistake really stands out to me. What was Pitt Coach Pat Narduzzi thinking when on fourth-and-goal from the 1, he decided to kick a field goal with less than five minutes remaining? For what? If you score you tie the game. If you don’t make it, you have PSU pinned on their own 1-yard line with plenty of time left to stop what was an anemic Nittany Lion offense in the fourth quarter. Even if you make the field goal you still need to score a touchdown to win the game. Questionable decision at best and Pitt fans on social media immediately erupted calling for Narduzzi‘s head. 

Narduzzi’s rationale was that they needed two scores to win the game anyway so why not kick the field goal after being stopped on three straight plays by a determined Penn State defense? Well, it backfired big time when the kick from the left hashmark bounced off the left goal post giving Penn State the ball at its 20-yard line instead of being pinned down on its 1-yard line. Add to this that Penn State was struggling to move the ball against the Pitt defense in the fourth quarter and it becomes even more of a head scratcher.

Pitt did get the ball back and moved into Lions’ territory. The final play of the game ended on a last desperate pass into the endzone that had all 108,800 fans holding their breath. What a relief when the ball hit the turf just beyond a Pitt receivers grasp. It wasn’t pretty but a win is a win is a win.   

At a tailgate after the game,I ran into a number of former PSU football players, including Shane Conlan, who were all just as befuddled by the call as I was. A longtime family friend and Pitt grad texted me after the game, “I’m in deep pain over the attempted field goal with 4th down on the one-yard line and five minutes left!”

Even Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett indirectly questioned his coach’s decision: “Players, we are all in there saying, ‘Let’s go for it.’” Pickett added in his post-game interview, “We all have confidence in each other. I know my guys. I love them. They played so hard. It’s tough. A loss like this is tough.”

So, the rivalry comes to an end after the 100th meeting. At least for now. The two coaches said some things to the press that would have you think there is still a possibility for a renewal in the series, but I hold out little hope.

There are no doubt other factors involved in this decision but, as I mentioned earlier, that doesn’t mean this Pittsburgh native who grew up with this rivalry has to like it. Short of the state getting involved and demanding these two state-related institutions play each other (and I don’t see that happening), it will be a long time before we get to see this once great rivalry played again. That’s a damn shame.

Photo by Joe Battista

Joe Battista has been an integral part of the Penn State and State College communities since 1978. He is best known for his effort to bring varsity ice hockey to Happy Valley and in the building of Pegula Ice Arena. “JoeBa” is the owner of PRAGMATIC Passion, LLC consulting, a professional speaker, success coach, and the vice president of the National Athletic and Professional Success Academy (NAPSA). He is the author of a new book, “The Power of Pragmatic Passion.” Joe lives in State College with his wife Heidi (PSU ’81 & ’83), daughter Brianna (PSU ’15), and son’s Jon (PSU ’16), and Ryan (State High Class of 2019).
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