Why the Penn State-Pitt Game's Time Has Passed
Like the swallows returning every year to San Juan Capistrano, you just knew this week was coming. It comes every year, right? Some sportswriter gets bored, drags out the "why doesn't Penn State play Pitt anymore" line and stands back while the mouth-breathers from both sides emerge from their caves and begin to drag down the collective IQ of the blogosphere with their worn-out rhetoric.
Looking at the calendar, you could have predicted this would be the week as well. The Penguins are setting the NHL on fire but headed for a long West Coast trip. The Steelers have a bye week and Pitt does as well. Penn State plays a hardly noticed game against Northwestern a week after burying another Big Ten ghost in Ann Arbor.
Three days into the writing, yelling, and screaming, this is just like every other year. Nothing has changed and nobody has been educated. I don't have the power to touch the first part, but I'll take a crack at the second.
All of this started at the desk of then-athletic director Joe Paterno. Paterno saw a huge payday in an All East Sports Conference and talked most of the big names of eastern football (Syracuse, Boston College, Maryland, West Virginia) to at least think about the idea. The brass at Pitt decided that they didn't want any part of any of Paterno's idea, money or no money, and instead cast its lot with the fledgling Big East. Without Pitt, everyone else stayed put.
Paterno was angry and extracted his revenge. He dumped Pitt, Syracuse, West Virginia, and Maryland from his football schedule, with only the Orangemen making a two-year cameo long after the folks who didn't back Paterno were long gone from power. He took on new partners in the Big Ten, and all the money and publicity he predicted with his sports conference came with the new affiliation. He didn't need his former eastern foes to make headlines and money anymore. He could sell out shiny new Beaver Stadium's 107,350 seats every week, even if it meant bringing in I-AA tomato cans to kick around.
The money brought lots with it. Two expansions of Beaver Stadium, the Bryce Jordan Center, an airport expansion, and now a 5,000 seat baseball stadium that is the envy of college sports. But it also meant that Joe had to keep raking in the cash. Five home games became six, which became seven, and now eight.
Penn State is one of only 19 BCS schools whose athletic department is financially self-sufficient. Sometimes, that means saying no to a good opponent in favor of another payday. That's just the way college sports runs these days.
Penn State and Pitt have gone their separate ways in more than just football. The women's basketball teams will play again this winter, and Pitt's baseball team will make another trip to Happy Valley in the spring, but that's it. The divorce is complete.
Expecting these two teams to meet in a BCS bowl game this year is like mortgaging your future on a lottery ticket or expecting to be elected Pope. The odds are far more likely you are going to be hit by a bolt of lightning. No bowl game is interested in taking two teams from the same shrinking geographic area, especially when one of those teams doesn't travel well at all.
Joe won't be on the sidelines forever, maybe another two years. But long after he's gone, his lieutenants Tim Curley and Fran Gantner will be calling the shots and remembering what Joe said about taking care of what's important. What is important will not be a phone call to Steve Peterson, or whomever is running things in Oakland by then.
Every team that has played football since the 1890s has had a rivalry or two fall by the wayside because the business of college football changed. For Pitt CMU, Duquesne and Washington & Jefferson were once rivals, but no more. For Penn State, the list includes Penn, Lehigh, and Lafayette. For both, it now means the other. Mr. Peabody's wayback machine existed only in the cartoons of our youth.
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