15 May 2011
It's the middle of May already. That means one thing: completely meaningless chatter about the unlikely renewal of the Pitt-Penn State game!
Like last year, the venue is the Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Association (PSFCA) meeting, where the media gets the rare treat of having Joe Paterno and the current Pitt coach in the same room. (Last year's meeting led to this unintentionally hilarious photo.) The topic came up then, and of course it came up again.
Todd Graham was asked about the series and for the first time, we got the take of Pitt's new coach:
"I can remember watching that game growing up and the tremendous tradition that that game was, and we would actually love to play that game in the future," Pitt's first-year football coach said Friday at Penn State's Lasch Football Building. "It would be something that we'd be very much in favor of."
And, of course, that opened the floodgates and very bored college football writers spilled on out:
Our guess? There’s a chance you won’t see the two schools meet on a football field again until JoePa steps down, which we’re guessing will be 2020 at the earliest. Pitt turned down what was essentially the legendary coach’s idea of an all-sports conference made up of Eastern(ish) schools back in the early eighties and, as the Lehigh Valley Express Times wrote back during that mini-push in ’09, Paterno has never forgiven Pitt for its decision.
I've generally stayed away from the Pitt-PSU thing. Mostly because it just isn't relevant to where Pitt is as a program or where it wants to go. But also because it's fairly clear that a majority of Pitt fans want the series back and a majority of Penn State fans generally don't care. There's a number of speculative reasons for that, including Penn State fans getting their fill of "big" games during the course of their Big 10 11 12 10 schedule, while the Big East generally affords Pitt fans one game to get excited about annually. Constantly talking and writing about it makes the program seem small. I'm of the opinion that Pitt doesn't need Penn State and Penn State doesn't need Pitt. It would be nice to have another "big" game every year to go alongside of West Virginia and Notre Dame (ND is scheduled through 2016 and the series seems likely to be renewed), but both teams are fully able to achieve their goals without the other.
That being said, the whole "Joe Pa won't play Pitt" thing is getting old. Pitt and Penn State don't play for several reasons, the most important of which is money. Diversity of schedule is another. And while some level of animosity may exist since they're geographic neighbors who share recruiting territory, it's likely toward the bottom of a list of reasons why Pennsylvania's two biggest programs haven't played in over a decade.
Yes, the "Paterno has a grudge" thing is far more entertaining - and could be true for all I know, although anyone at Pitt associated with the supposed betrayals is long gone - but that's not the reason they don't play. As part of the Big 10, Penn State gets a balanced conference schedule (imagine that!) which gets them four conference home game and four conference away games. That leaves four games to schedule their warm-up games, which seem to be a diet of two MAC schools and two BCS schools. As a result of their current unbalanced conference schedule, Pitt schedules five out of conference games: generally a 1-AA school, a MAC school, two BCS programs and Notre Dame. That's probably the right mix, since they're essentially getting a conference-level game with Notre Dame every year. And when TCU jumps in, Pitt will have to chose whether to bump one of their BCS-level games, their MAC game or their I-AA game and sadly, I think it will be one of their BCS-level game that gets bumped.
So what does that have to do with the Pitt - Penn State series? Well for starters, it just got a bit tougher for Pitt to work them in the schedule, although I would imagine they'd find room if it came down to it. But once TCU joins the Big East, both teams will face the same obstacle: who do you cut for the rivalry game? The most obvious solution is to replace one of the cupcakes. But those cupcakes bring in quite a bit of cash for their schools since they cost the fans the same amount as West Virginia or Notre Dame or Ohio State. So while we can complain all we want about the two low level games to open the schedule, they're infinitely important to the financial health of each school's athletic department because they're guaranteed revenue with no return game necessary. Not to mention that eliminating one of the two warm-up games would really put both schools in a tough spot to be ready for their conference games, let alone compete for a national championship.
The other option is to replace one of the two BCS level opponents. For Pitt, this would mean eliminating the one meaningful game that will change yearly once they start a balanced schedule in 2012. They sure as hell aren't dropping Notre Dame for anyone - even Penn State - nor should they. As much as you may want to see Penn State on the schedule, would you really want a schedule of I-AA, MAC, Penn State, Notre Dame & 8 Big East games year after year after year? It would be great for the first few years, but as the saying goes, variaty is the spice of life. I'm looking forward the upcoming home-and-home with Virginia Tech. Results aside, I'm sure Penn State fans enjoy the ability to schedule Alabama. I like that Pitt gets to schedule series with Iowa and Navy and Virginia and Michigan State. I'd like to play Penn State, but at the cost of playing the same schedule year after year? No thanks.
As for the personal grudge angle of all of this, color me a skeptic (circa 2002):
Penn State Coach Joe Paterno said he didn't know if Pitt would ever return to the schedule, but he said the best way for the series to resume would be for the Big Ten to add a 12th team.
Yesterday, Paterno lobbied for the Panthers to be the 12th team that the conference coaches so desperately covet.
"Our problem is we have to play eight games in the Big Ten," Paterno said. "If the Big Ten added a 12th team, and we only had to play six or seven [conference] games, that would be a great opportunity for us to get back to playing Pitt. In fact, I'd love to see the Big Ten try and get Pitt to be that 12th team."
So Pitt turned down overtures to create an Eastern conference. So what? Penn State is now a member of one of the most prestigious (gag) and financially rewarding conferences in the country. I'd say things have worked out well for them. And like I wrote above, the only person around at either school when these supposed slights went down are long gone, with the exception of Paterno. Maybe Paterno is still feeling hurt about the whole thing decades later. Maybe not. His public comments certainly seem to indicate otherwise.
And finally, I can't find any print of it locally (surprise), but Graham had some nice things to say about Paterno:
"It's an honor for me to spend time with him today," Panthers coach Todd Graham said Friday, with Owls coach Steve Addazio looking on at a gathering to promote Pennsylvania high school football.
"It's a thrill to be here, to be around him," Graham said, "around someone who's made that kind of impact for a long period of time."
It ain't happening. Not because old gripes and not because of fluctuation of which program is better at any given point in time. It ain't happening because it just doesn't make sense to play anymore.
It is what it is.
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