For a brief period from 1976-1983, Pitt was among the elite of college football, playing in the Sugar, Cotton and Fiesta Bowls.
For nearly 30 years now, Pitt’s fans and alumni have been clamoring for a return to the upper echelon of college football.
If one had to pick the top 10 all-time college football programs, most would agree on (in alphabetical order) Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Tennessee, Texas and USC as being college football’s all-time top 10.
In fact, it should come as no surprise that these schools are the top 10 schools in all-time victories.
In the last 30 years, Miami, Florida and Florida State have emerged as national powers in college football as well.
Whenever any of those elite 13 football programs appears on Pitt’s schedule, that game always provides great anticipation for Pitt’s fans and alumni. If you want to be considered among college football’s elite, you have to play those elite programs—just ask TCU or Boise State.
As an independent back in the '70s, Penn State felt it lacked the respect it deserved nationally. As the only undefeated 12-0 team in 1973, the Nittany Lions finished the season only ranked fifth behind Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Alabama.
Penn State then began to schedule games with Alabama, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Ohio State in the late '70s and '80s, earning greater respect nationally. Penn State went on to win two national championships in the '80s.
In recent years, Pitt’s games against Notre Dame and Miami were the non-conference games casual football fans in Western Pennsylvania circled on their calendars. In addition to Big East Conference rival West Virginia, the Fighting Irish and the Hurricanes are the only teams in recent years that regularly come close to helping Pitt sell out Heinz Field.
There’s just not that buzz of excitement to watch the Panthers play New Hampshire or Florida International, nor will there be to see Pitt play Maine or Central Florida.
It’s surprising to look at when Pitt last played some of college football’s elite 13. Even though it’s only a 4.5-hour drive from Pittsburgh to Ann Arbor, Michigan, Pitt recently declined an offer to play a home-and-home series against the Wolverines, opting instead to play Utah.
Utah’s a quality program but provides far less excitement than playing Michigan. In addition, Michigan would certainly sell its allotment of visitor’s tickets to Heinz Field and more.
Pitt has faced Michigan only twice in its long history, but apparently Pitt had enough of scheduling the Wolverines after two crushing defeats in the '40s. I suppose being outscored 109-0 will have that effect. Pitt last played the Wolverines in 1947 and lost 69-0. The only other meeting between the two schools took place in 1941, and Michigan blanked the Panthers then as well, 40-0.
Surprisingly, Pitt has never played the University of Alabama in football. With both schools having played football for over a century, it seems unfathomable that the two schools have never met. A Pitt-Alabama home-and-home series might even inspire former Bama QB and Western Pennsylvania native Joe Namath to appear at Heinz Field for that one.
Pitt last played USC in 1974 and Florida in 1977. Pitt would improve its attendance figures if it scheduled elite programs such as Michigan, Alabama, Florida and USC. Playing the likes of Iowa and Michigan State is not going to fill Heinz Field; that’s been proven. Neither will playing Utah.
Pitt is good enough to annually contend for a conference title in the weak Big East Conference. Head coach Dave Wannstedt was brought in to get the Panthers to the next level. After six years, Pitt fans are still waiting and are growing impatient.
As the standard-bearer for the Big East Conference, Pitt should take it upon itself to schedule more games against college football’s elite. If Pitt wants to get more respect nationally than for winning a very weak Big East Conference and return to being amongst college football’s elite programs, it has to play the elite college football programs. It’s up to Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson to get that scheduling done.