Saturday, April 25, 2009

Pitt vs. Penn State -- it never was all that

When this former basketball player was growing up in Pittsburgh, I learned the history of high school hoops and especially its great players. (I won't mention any of their names here because they won't mean anything to most of you.) Up until the 1980s the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, originally pitting the best players in Pennsylvania against the best of the rest of the country, was played here at what is now the Mellon Arena; I knew two guys, one of which was a junior-high teammate, who played in it. When it came to college they went to the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University, some schools in Philadelphia and even others across the country.

But one place none of them attended: Penn State. And that's why I think the "rivalry" between the two schools has been overhyped.

Recently, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno signed for a home-and-home series for his school to play Rutgers University in New Jersey, stoking the anger of Pitt fans because Paterno decided long ago not to renew the rivalry in football. Paterno has given all these excuses -- "we need more home games, we need to recruit in other areas" -- but won't come clean on the real impetus for his refusal to play Pitt.

And men's basketball was at the heart of it.

In the early 1980s, when Paterno also was serving as State's athletic director, he applied for membership in the young but already-successful Big East Conference, then-basketball driven. The hope was to get State on TV and play top teams on a consistent basis, thus making it more attractive to potential recruits.

You see, State's main campus, which literally is in the geographic center of Pennsylvania and very rural, has a reputation, deserved or not, of being inhospitable to African-Americans; according to the College Board, in the late 1970s only 3 percent of State students were minorities. As a result, it has a hard time recruiting not only in Pittsburgh but also in Philadelphia, where most of the good players are, and the program has always languished in relative obscurity with very few fans outside of its immediate locale.

Trouble was, the conference -- all of whose members even today are in major television markets or steeped in basketball tradition -- didn't see State as a good fit because it fit neither category, so a majority of schools said no.

Paterno then came up with the idea of an Eastern all-sports conference that would include State, Pitt, West Virginia University, Rutgers, Temple -- and Boston College and Syracuse, two charter Big East members and the only ones at the time with Division I football programs. The conference didn't like that, so it successfully courted Pitt, which of course is in a major TV market, and in the process collapsing Paterno's plans.

Paterno has had it in for Pitt ever since. After he got State into the Big Ten in 1993, he announed that there was "no room for Pitt" on the football schedule. (The two schools last played in 2000.)

In the nearly nine years since the schools last played football it finally hit me, who grew up a Penn State fan but attended Pitt and now a Pitt basketball season ticket-holder, that the rivalry was never that strong in the first place. You see, a good college rivalry -- say, Michigan-Ohio State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Southern California-UCLA, Texas-Texas A&M -- should include grudge matches in every sport; that's what makes them compelling. Having also attended Georgia Tech, I saw up close that even a game of tiddlywinks with UGa would draw a crowd. (And to this day I root for whomever Georgia plays.)

But Pitt's primary men's basketball rival has always been Duquesne, and you can't simply build history over a period of just a few years; as I mentioned, State's basketball program has always been an afterthought because few players came from the Pittsburgh area. (It cancelled its own series with Pitt because the last five games weren't competitive, Pitt winning each game handily.) Other sports also don't generate the fan interest.

In December 2004 I made my one and only visit to State College for the basketball game. I was able to buy a ticket at the gate (the attendant, seeing me wearing Pitt gear, said, "Enjoy the game -- but not too much"), and when I got into the Bryce Jordan Center (which is as nice as, if not nicer than, the Petersen Events Center) I noticed thousands of fans disguised as empty seats. And even today, while Pitt is now fielding top-20 teams in an always-sold out arena and went to the Elite Eight, State is still struggling to get players and establish a fan base -- and this despite winning the National Invitation Tournament last month.

So maybe trying to rekindle this rivalry is not worth the hassle. Pitt has something going with West Virginia, which is closer anyway, even a catchy nickname ("the Backyard Brawl"). Besides, due to Big Ten rules, any football game against Penn State would have to come very early in the season. Yes, Pitt vs. Penn State football does have a history -- and that's apparently where it will remain. And probably should.

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