Yesterday, it was announced that Penn State and Pittsburgh would renew the in-state rivalry which began over 100 years ago. The two storied programs have met 96 times, and Penn State holds a slight 50-42-4 advantage in what has been an extremely competitive, intense rivalry in the past.
However, to newer college football fans, or say, students currently enrolled in either school, most have no experience with the rivalry. For those who do, they were not even in junior high the last time the two programs met. The last matchup between the two programs was in 2000, when the Panthers won a grinding 12-0 game. This would be the last game played between the rivals in over 15 years.
What happened? How did a century-long in-state rivalry just die at the turn of a new century? It ended partially due to the recent change in conference affiliations with both programs. Prior to 1980, both Penn State and Pittsburgh were independent (like Notre Dame today) and had no conference affiliation. Both had the ability to schedule with impunity, with no mandatory conference games. This opened up the schedule for the rivalry each and every year. Then, Pitt moved to the Big East in 1982, which wasn’t a problem initially because Penn State was still independent, and Pitt’s conference schedule did not prevent it from scheduling the in-state game each year. When Penn State moved into the Big Ten after the 1989 season, however, the task became much more difficult each year. Penn State now had to schedule 8 conference games, along with Pitt’s 8 scheduled games, and both teams had to include other rivalries on the schedule. For example, both teams have a rivalry with Notre Dame, which began because both programs were previously independent, as Notre Dame was and remains today. In addition, with the sizable Pitt Stadium in Pittsburgh (now the program plays at Heinz Field) and the mammoth Beaver Stadium at Penn State, both programs wanted to utilize their facilities to have as many home games as possible each season. As college athletics became more expensive, competitive, and national, more and more programs wanted most or all of their non-conference games at home. This doesn’t really work when a home-and-home rotation each year is thrown into the mix. Combine all these factors with a 12 game season, and it just became difficult, if not impossible, to make the century-long rivalry a continued tradition into the 21st century.
What does this all mean for the series beginning in 2016? It will be a fun series, there is no doubt, but any significant venom or hatred between the programs will be somewhat fabricated. Now don’t contrive a “holier-than-thou” argument about why this rivalry still is ripe today; it simply is not. The programs have not played in 15 years, they are in different conferences, and one can name 5 programs for each team that are more bitter rivals than Penn State is for Pitt and Pitt is for Penn State. That is just the simple fact. Granted, there is still a connection around both programs for recruiting, but even in that light, both programs have different pipelines for recruiting. Rutgers, Syracuse, and Pitt are more hated recruiting rivals than Pitt and Penn State are, simply because the pipelines overlap much more frequently.
So lets not jump overboard. It will be an interesting series, and reminiscent for alumni of both universities, but the rivalry will not pick up where it left off. Because when it left off, both programs were much different than they are today. Both programs have different rivals today than they had then, both teams are now fully ingrained into their conference structure (although the Big East is still in limbo as a whole), and both programs aren’t fighting for the same recruits with the same vigor that they were in the 70s and 80s.
I realize that neither fanbase wants to hear this. Penn State doesn’t have a true rival in the Big Ten due to the late entrance into the conference, and is looking for one. Pitt fans, students, and alumni simply do not like Penn State. Multiple sources have confirmed that Penn State score updates evoke the harshest reaction when the PA announcer at Heinz Field updates the stadium, and that there have been anti-Penn State cheers at Pitt football games when the Penn State team is nowhere to be found. However, the rivalry is, in many ways, a one-way rivalry. Pitt does not like Penn State, in fact Pitt fans hate the Nittany Lions. Penn State fans want to hate Pitt, because the Lions lack a true rival, but can’t, because there really is no basis to hate Pittsburgh. Therefore, expect a lot of fabricated and exaggerated venom in 2016 and 2017, but don’t buy it. It’s not real. If the two programs really want a rivalry to rebuild (and it won’t happen overnight), then schedule an out-of-conference game each year, rotating between home and away. But because of the stubborn nature of the Penn State athletic department, and also Pitt’s for that matter, don’t hold your breath.