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Penn State and Pitt Renew Their Rivalry

The last time Pitt and Penn State met on the gridiron, John Paul II was pope and Bill Clinton was president. During that meeting on September 16, 2000, the Panthers defeated the Nittany Lions 12-0. On September 10, this rivalry will be renewed after a 16-year hiatus, when the teams will clash at Heinz Field for the first game of a four-game series. The home-and-home series starting in 2016 will be strung out with a game each season through 2019.

This rivalry goes way back; the first time the teams met was in 1893 when Grover Cleveland was president. Penn State beat Pitt 32-0 in that first meeting in State College. The two teams have played each other 96 times all told, with Penn State taking the lion’s share of wins at 50 to Pitt’s 42. They have tied 4 times.

Is the Rivalry Still Alive?

Some say the burning rivalry between the two universities has died out during the prolonged pause. Penn State, with 40,000 undergraduates, since joining the Big Ten Conference in 1989, has developed an intense cross-state rivalry with Ohio State, which also is a large school. Pitt, with an enrollment of 18,000 students, has developed a venomous rivalry for the similarly sized Mountaineers of West Virginia University, and has even dubbed those games the “Backyard Brawl.” WVU is only 75 miles away from Pittsburgh while Penn State is 135 miles to the east of the city.

While WVU lies closer to Pittsburgh, there are nearly 30,000 Penn Staters living in Allegheny County alone, ensuring that most everyone in the area knows a Pitt or Penn State grad. Often there are Pitt and Penn State alums living in the same house. Some rivals are married to each other. Why, this writer even knows of someone who has degrees from both institutions, but only pledges loyalty to one of them.

With that many rabid alums from both universities living within such close proximity, there is no doubt that old grievances will be revived and fanned into a burning passion to win the next chapter in this ongoing grudge match, the first to ever be held in Heinz Field. Both schools have hit some hard times since their last meeting. Penn State was embroiled in the Sandusky scandal, and Pitt has had trouble retaining coaches. According to the AP poll, the Panthers haven’t finished a season higher than 15th in the nation since 1982.

Why Did the Rivalry End?

Some blame the late Joe Paterno for the halt in games, believing that he felt betrayed by Pitt when they joined the Big East basketball conference in 1982 instead of joining Penn State in an all-sports Eastern conference. In a last ditch effort, Penn State offered to keep the series alive by proposing that Penn State schedule two home games to every one of Pitt’s. Of the 96 games played, only 22 have been played in State College.

Pitt, understandably, turned down the offer, and many Penn State fans, while not happy with the rivalry being left to die, were nevertheless weary of having to buy multi-game tickets from Pitt in order to see the Pitt-Penn State game played in Pittsburgh. The Panthers have had trouble filling seats, and Nittany Lions fans felt manipulated into subsidizing Pitt’s lack of attendance.

Let the Trash Talk Begin!

With both teams emerging with festering wounds over how the series ended, it won’t take much to get in touch with old grudges. The prospect of four more years with this in-state rivalry promises to provide plenty of barroom office banter (let’s hope not brawls) over which team and school is superior. Already the trash-talk is flowing and the social media boards are humming.

Like a wide receiver, this dispute runs long and deep. Pitt fans like to highlight their 9 national championships to PSU’s 2, while PSU fans like to counter with the fact that the Lions are ranked 10th in the NCAA for their overall lifetime record to Pitt’s ranking of 43rd. Both teams boast a Heisman trophy winner: John Cappelletti, PSU, 1973; and Tony Dorsett, Pitt, 1976. Penn State claims they were the first college football team to institute the “Whiteout,” with fans wearing only white clothing, while they claim Pitt is home to the “Gold Out,” rows and rows of empty gold seats at Heinz Field.

Pitt fans like to tout their 50 All-American football players, 10 more than Penn State, while Penn Staters like to drop the nuclear bomb of Pitt put downs: “48-14,” referring to the score of the heartbreaking upset of the No. 1 ranked Panthers by Penn State in a come-from-behind win in 1981 that ruined their bid for the national championship.

Will the Rivalry Continue?

With that much passion on both sides, it would seem to be a lock that this matchup would continue beyond the four scheduled games, but presently, the Pitt-Penn State game, once again, ceases after the 2019 match. Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour has nixed continuing the matchup beyond 2019, dashing the hopes of many, but Barbour may be having second thoughts. In a July 2016 interview with PennLive she said, “We’re taking a look at our scheduling philosophy and where that [game] fits. We’re very interested in playing Pitt. We have a four-game series coming up. I’ve never been a part of a Pitt-Penn State game; we have to come up with a long term scheduling philosophy. We’re playing Auburn, where does Pitt come in? We’re very interested.”

How Will This Year’s Game Go?

College Football News recently released their rankings for the upcoming college football season and projected Penn State at 21 and Pitt at 32. The Associated Press, the longest running college football poll, in August came out with its rankings of the nation’s best football programs from its 80 years of ranking teams. Penn State came in at No. 12 in the nation and Pitt No. 23. These rakings will certainly provide more grist for the rivalry mill and sports talk shows.

But if the past is any indication of the future, fans from both sides know that anything can happen when these two teams square off. So no matter how the teams are ranked and what the outcome of the game is, this next installment in the rivalry between Pitt and Penn State will certainly score big with football fans in Western Pennsylvania and across the state.

See Also:

Pitt Football
“Pittsburgh Steelers” Greats and Their Fans Have Worn Ruts in the Road to Canton

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