STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 09: Penn State University head football coach Joe Paterno watches his team during practice on November 9, 2011 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Conference affiliations and Joe Paterno's passing have changed the dynamic of a once-great in-state feud.
The future of the Pitt-Penn State football series wiggled its way back into the news cycle last week when new Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien told Scott Brown of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he'd like to see the game played on an annual basis after the two teams meet for a home-and-home deal in 2016 and 2017.
The schools have not met on the gridiron since 2000, when the Panthers downed the Lions 12-0 at Three Rivers Stadium, and ever since, media members, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ron Cook in this 2000 column, have chided former Penn State coach Joe Paterno for it.
Paterno will mention how Pitt betrayed him when it joined the Big East basketball conference in 1982 rather than join Penn State in an all-sports Eastern conference. He can't help himself. He has to mention it every Pitt-Penn State week ... [H]e is a small man when it comes to Pitt. It doesn't matter that Pitt didn't join the Big East until after Penn State had applied and been rejected. He blames Pitt for ruining his dream. That's his story and he's sticking to it.
"One of the most disappointing things in my life that happened at Penn State was that ... It was a bitter pill to swallow. I was disappointed. There's a little frustration on my part."
That's the only reason the Pitt-Penn State series is going on a long hiatus.
Of course, it's unwise to trust the opinion of one who talks in absolutes. Cook's narrow focus here and over the course of the last 12 years ignores the many obstacles both schools face in scheduling each other as members of different conferences that have nothing to do with the late Nittany Lions' leader, who passed away in January.
But Cook and Co. pounded away at that message for so long up until Paterno was fired on Nov. 9 in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, that by that point, Paterno had become Pitt's rival, far more so than Penn State at large.
Make no mistake. Pitt-Penn State was an excellent rivalry long before Paterno took the reigns at Penn State in 1966, and there have been plenty of unforgettable on-field moments that will always define it far more than one man.
The media's obsession with casting Paterno as an omnipotent villain, solely responsible for the series' suspension over the last decade-plus, however, has produced almost an entire generation far more familiar with Paterno's alleged refusal to continue the series than his participation in it.
Now, with Paterno gone, who on either side can generate the level of contempt from the other side necessary to fuel a spirited feud?
O'Brien can't. He hasn't pounded Pitt to the tune of 23-7-1 over the years and hasn't denied the Panthers a national championship, as Paterno did when he led the Lions to a 48-14 victory against No. 1 Pitt at Pitt Stadium in November of 1981.
New Pitt coach Paul Chryst can't, either. The former Wisconsin offensive coordinator is an enigma in central Pennsylvania, where gigantic names like Alabama's Nick Saban, Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Nebraska's Bo Pelini and Wisconsin's Bret Bielema roll through on a regular basis.
Without Paterno, the series is simply devoid of polarizing characters capable of stirring the pot.
Sure, proximity will always play a part in agitating both sides. Western Pennsylvania's loyalties will always be divided and competition for bragging rights will always get the blood going.
Times have changed, though. Given the choice between beating each other in what amounts to a mid-September exhibition and taking down a conference rival in late November with a conference title on the line, fans on both sides will take the latter in a heartbeat.
Paterno was the man who added the extra meaning to the rivalry after both schools' Eastern independent days ended in the early 1990s. Without him in the picture, there's little left to distinguish this in-state rivalry from any other.