Growing up in Pittsburgh while being raised in a Penn State household was tough at times. I was in a sea of Pitt sports fans with no allies. I’ll admit I was a pseudo Pitt basketball fan, only because the Penn State basketball program has always been dog shit at best (only 4 NCAA tournament appearances since 1990). But with both of my parents graduating from Penn State in the 1980’s, I was conditioned to despise Pitt football, due to the heated rivalry that used to have national championship implications year in and year out. I grew up hearing all about Dan Marino vs. Todd Blackledge and Jackie Sherrill vs. Joe Paterno. I heard about how the Panthers beat the Nittany Lions 7-6 in 1976 and went on to win the national championship that year. I heard about how the #9 ranked Nittany Lions came into Three Rivers Stadium in 1981 and throttled the #1 ranked Panthers to spoil their national championship bid. This rivalry was one of the best of its time, and since I grew up behind enemy lines, I had it built up in my head as something bigger than football.
However, this was not the reality in the time period I was growing up. Penn State accepted an invitation to join the Big Ten in 1990, and Pitt football eventually joined the Big East. This put the long-time rivalry on hold until the schools agreed on a four-game series from 1997 to 2000. The Nittany Lions won the first three meetings, but the Panthers took home the dub in 2000, which turned out to be the last game for quite a while. The football rivalry that I had grown up hearing about was effectively dead, and I was too young to truly recognize the significance of that four-game set.
Fast forward to 2016, when the Pittsburgh-Penn State football rivalry was renewed once again. Both schools had agreed to a four-game series, starting at Heinz Field on September 10, 2016. Now that I was a student at Penn State, this game took on a whole new meaning for me, especially since all my buddies from back home were students at Pitt. It was finally time for me to participate in the trash talk that my parents had taken part in back in the 80’s. From my perspective, it was the biggest game Penn State had ever played in, or at the very least, the most meaningful game they’ve ever played in. I even made the trip back to Pittsburgh for the game…
The Panthers held off a late Penn State comeback and won 42-39. Jesus Christ, what a let down.
As disappointed as I was, I realized that the rivalry was back on. The game in 2016 was the largest attended sporting event in Pittsburgh history. Even as a Penn State fan, I have to say that the crowd was insane that day.
The Penn State loss perfectly set the stage for the second game of the series in Happy Valley in 2017. State College had one of the most electric atmospheres I had ever been a part of. I had my Pitt buddies come up for the game to tailgate. This time, the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions were coming off of a Big Ten Championship and were a popular pick to represent the Big Ten in the College Football Playoff. Penn State jumped on the Panthers early and never let go, going on to win 33-14. It complete ass-whooping on our home field. The GOAT, also known as Saquon Barkley, was incredible…
… and Marcus Allen made my personal favorite Penn State football play of all time…
This picture still gives me goosebumps.
If you’re a Pitt football fan, you probably don’t want to remember the 2018 matchup between these two teams, so I won’t go that much into it. The Nittany Lions took the third game of the series in a blowout 51-6 victory. I get it, we lost to Michigan this year 42-7 in a similar fashion. It sucks. It was a rough night for Pitt football, and the terrible weather didn’t help the mood at Heinz Field.
Pitt and Penn State will meet one final time on September 14, 2019 in Happy Valley to complete the four game series. I personally think this year’s game will be much closer, since Penn State is losing Trace McSorley to the draft. McSorley was arguably one of the only things that made the Nittany Lions offense work down the stretch in 2018, besides steady play from running back Miles Sanders (who is also leaving for the draft). Penn State is losing a few other key players to the draft and experiencing transfer issues, so I have a bad feeling they will take a bigger step back than people might expect. Pitt is coming off of a strong finish in their regular season, where they won the ACC Coastal with a 6-2 conference record.
After this upcoming matchup in 2019, Pitt and Penn State will not play again until at least 2025, and probably won’t until at least 2030.
An extension of the storied series might be revisited at some point after 2030, Nittany Lions athletic director Sandy Barbour said Tuesday at Penn State’s first Coaches Caravan stop. But in the short term, relatively speaking, another renewal isn’t in the cards.
This comes just two weeks after Pitt AD Heather Lyke told reporters in the Steel City that she sent Penn State a four-year contract proposal, starting in 2026.–John McGonigal, Centre Daily Times, May 8, 2018
So the questions I have are: why isn’t this rivalry being renewed, and should it?
Let’s take a look.
The main way to make the College Football Playoff nowadays is to compete at the highest level while playing a very difficult schedule. One of the main criteria that the playoff committee looks at is strength of schedule. While I’m not sure the committee always abides by their own criteria, you have to assume this is the case if you’re an athletic director putting together future schedules.
From 2020-2025, Penn State has agreements to play the following Power 5 opponents instead of renewing their rivalry with the Panthers: Virginia Tech, Auburn (home-and-home series), West Virginia (home-and-home), and Virginia Tech again. Off the top of my head, I’d say these programs are traditionally very competitive, and have had more recent success than Pitt. But in order to actually see how these programs compared, I dug into the numbers a little more and compared the winning percentages between Virginia Tech, Auburn, WVU and Pitt over the last ten years. I also included Penn State as a reference.
Yes, I did actually make an Excel sheet for this. At least I learned one useful skill while getting my overpriced engineering degree.
Anyway, Pitt only has a 0.546 winning percentage over the last ten years. Compare that to the next lowest record, WVU’s, at 0.617 over the same span, which is a good bit higher. Virginia Tech has a winning percentage 10% higher than Pitt over the last ten years. Auburn, who has an even slightly higher winning percentage than VT, appeared in two national championship games in that span. What’s the point of all of this? It shows Penn State opted out of renewing their rivalry with Pitt to play much tougher teams in their non-conference schedule, at least as recent success is concerned. So as far as non-conference competition goes, this move makes sense.
It’s all about the money, baby
According to 247 Sports, the Penn State football program is currently valued at $518.8 million, which puts them at the 13th most valuable program in the country. This past year, the program brought in $81 million in ticket sales, conference distributions and media rights. While I couldn’t find how much the Pitt football program is currently worth, their value came in at $114.5 million as of 2017, which was only the 58th most valuable program at that time. Clearly, there is a major imbalance here. While it might look like the Nittany Lions are acting all high and mighty towards their neighbors to the west, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to play a program like Auburn, who is currently valued at $871.9 million? Auburn is a much bigger and more prominent brand, which in turn will most likely produce higher profits from media coverage when the Nittany Lions play them in the upcoming years.
Rivalries are still great for college fooball
Like I said before, the 2016 Pitt-Penn State game broke the attendance record for a Pittsburgh sporting event. People from western PA, whether they were Pitt or Penn State fans, came out in waves for the renewal of the rivalry. The next year in Happy Valley, the 109,898 that came out to Beaver Stadium made that game the seventh-highest attended game in the stadium’s history. That means MAJOR money and exposure for both schools. There have been also been shots fired by both sides over the past three years.
SPICY. Regardless of whether or not you agree with what is said between these two teams, college football needs this stuff and always will. Alabama vs. Auburn, Florida State vs. Miami, and Michigan vs. Michigan state are just some of the annual in-state rivalry games around the country that drive up ratings. It makes the sport more fun to watch, period.
To Penn State fans: I get it. You want a more competitive schedule and to not play teams you see as your “little brother” (even though the Panthers do have a chance to split the four-game series next year). But at the same time, isn’t this kind of thing what makes you love sports? The rivalries with neighbors, the debates at bars, and the non-stop trash talk? This is what makes the game fun. And because of that, even as a Penn State student and fan, I definitely think this rivalry should be renewed as soon as possible, despite all the “logical” reasons. Who knows, Pitt football could turn it around and be a legitimate contender before 2026, right?
Besides, videos like this make this rivalry SO worth it. Fifty-one to six, folks.