On a cool October day in 1897, two teams met on the football field for the first time, beginning one of the greatest rivalries in all of college sports. These teams hated each other then, and they hate each other now. They have nicknames, taunts, and songs devoted to the other side. Even in the face of utter dominance by one over the other for a stretch of time, neither would ever claim that they weren't the better team.
I'm talking, of course, about the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry.
However, four years prior to the birth of what has become the biggest rivalry in college sports, another rivalry was born, one that has now become an afterthought, a relic of days past, an antiquated reminder of football in "the olden days." This is the Pitt-Penn State rivalry.
Since 1893, the two teams have met 96 times, with Penn State holding a narrow 50-42-4 edge in the series. Had they continued playing, the Pitt-PSU series would be just one game shorter than the Michigan-Ohio State series. Unfortunately for fans of the series, the last game was played in 2000, and the teams have apparently gone their separate ways, with no current (or, seemingly, future) plans to rekindle the old flame.
That all changed last week when newly minted Pitt coach Todd Graham told media in State College, "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."
With that as the backdrop, the Penn State and Pitt writers here at SB Nation Pittsburgh decided to engage each other and see where each stood on this issue. Surprisingly, many similarities exist.
Should Pitt and Penn State renew their yearly matchup?
Anson Whaley (Pitt): From a fan standpoint, I think the answer is pretty obvious - yes. Now, I know what differs among fans from both sides is the level of interest each has, but I have a hard time believing either side would prefer to play a I-AA team instead of renewing this rivalry with everything else being equal.
Obviously, the administrators disagree that the rivalry should be renewed. Penn State feels (rightly, by the way) that it makes better financial sense to schedule a two-for-one with other opponents rather than make a home-and-away series with Pitt. I used to fault Penn State for doing that, but I've kind of come around on this issue. At the end of the day, they have to make decisions that are in the best interest of the school. And when you factor in that more money is being made with Penn State sticking to their two-for-one format with other opponents since they sell those games out anyway, then it's hard to argue with not wanting to renew the series.
Jeff Junstrom (PSU): Absolutely. I'm probably in the (growing) minority of fans under 30 who want to see this series renewed, but I feel that an out-of-conference yearly matchup, especially one against a geographic rival, is one of the best parts of college football. There aren't too many left in America, and with conference expansion ever-looming, there are fewer chances for teams. But for two teams to have played as consistently as these two teams have over the past 110 years and then to just stop seems wrong to me.
Like Anson said, the administrators are the ones that are disagreeing. Coach Graham has openly stated he wants to play PSU, and I think the stubbornness of Coach Paterno is greatly exaggerated (why did they keep playing the game if Paterno was snubbed by Pitt in the 1980's?). The fans on either side would welcome a yearly rival instead of the two or three cupcake games we get every year. Penn State has Alabama on the schedule this year, which is nice, but our marquee out-of-conference games over the next few years include Virginia, Rutgers, and Navy - not exactly a who's-who of marquee scheduling.
When do you think the rivalry will be renewed, if at all?
Anson: I do believe the rivalry will be kick-started again at some point, but not in the near future. It's going to take two coaches who really want to make it happen, and right now, we don't have that. Joe Paterno hasn't seriously lobbied for it and while Todd Graham says he wants it to happen, he has few or no ties to the area, and I can't imagine it's at the top of his list. With the dismissal/resignation of Dave Wannstedt, I believe we're actually further away from it happening because Wannstedt was passionate about it, having played in the rivalry and being from the area. Graham may not mind playing Penn State, but he has bigger things to worry about right now - like trying to live up to the high expectations fans have of him and his new offense.
Jeff: We're closer than you might think, barring two major conference- and nationwide issues. First, if the Big Ten moves to a nine-game conference schedule, this series will never be renewed. I've written it in the past and I'll say it again - with a move to a nine-game schedule, Penn State will not, and financially can not, schedule marquee games out of conference, at lease not regular home-and-home series. Second, conference expansion was all the rage last offseason, with Nebraska joining the Big Ten and some movement out west. If the expansion talks continue, and larger conferences are the way of the future, there may be no room left for out-of-conference scheduling of this nature.
However, if neither of those things happen, I'd be willing to bet that we're one new head coach at Penn State away from renewing this rivalry, or at least beginning serious talks to renew it. I'm not saying that Coach Paterno is the reason we haven't restarted the rivalry. But once some new faces arrive in Happy Valley, some things will probably change, and I'm hoping that this is one of them. With 2011 as his last year under contract, and even though PSU President Graham Spanier has said he doesn't need a contract to coach, this could very well be Joe Paterno's final year at Penn State.
Many different arguments have been made as to why the teams stopped playing in 2000. What do you think the real reason for the stoppage is, and can that be overcome in the future?
Jeff: Economic inequity and relatively unfair ticket practices are the likely culprit, though a myriad of issues are in the mix. A home-and-home series does not make economic sense for Penn State, as there is little doubt in my mind that Heinz Field would be packed to the gills for that game, while the rest of the year it struggles to fill up for Pitt games. Recognizing this in the past (before Heinz Field), the Pitt athletic office would require fans to purchase a package rather than individual tickets. This allowed them to inflate ticket sales for the remainder of their home games, even though a good portion of the people that bought tickets would never use them for any game other than the Penn State game.
In any negotiation, concessions need to be made, and this is the crux of my argument. Whatever caused the rift in the past can be overcome. If Pitt demands a ticket package sale, then Penn State is more than OK to ask for a two-for-one (or more) type of arrangement. Some sort of revenue stream analysis is likely required to renew the series, so I'll leave that to the capable accounting hands of the respective universities.
Anson: There are lots of reasons, but maybe the biggest is that Penn State can make more money under that two-for-one structure I mentioned. On Pitt's side of things, I know one thing that annoyed Penn State fans is having to buy a Pitt game at Heinz Field as part of a package. But if we're talking about giving a bit to make this game happen, then both schools need to make some concessions. Penn State can agree to a home/away and Pitt can decide to offer the game without a package deal.
The problem for Pitt is that it has more to gain than Penn State right now from renewing the series. And when you're negotiating from that standpoint, it's always difficult. Pitt may need to get more creative if it wants to get the series resumed. Penn State agreed to that Syracuse series in large part due to a third game at the Meadowlands. What about a Pitt-Penn State game at Lincoln Financial Field as a third game? That would undoubtedly annoy Pitt fans, as it's a much farther trek for its western Pennsylvania fans, but again, it's about compromise, and Penn State would be giving up quite a bit by trading a two-for-one series by playing a home/away with a third game at a neutral site.
Finally, assume for the moment that the rivalry never ended, and the teams were still playing yearly. Who wins in 2011?
Jeff: I'll say Penn State, though it would probably be closer this year than the past five years (except maybe last year, when Penn State was mediocre at best). Penn State has the talent, it's just a matter of putting it all together on the field and finding cohesive position units. Pitt lost a lot of talent to the draft (which is why they possibly could have taken Penn State last year), and with a new head coach, the uncertainty is just too high. Penn State wins 48-14.
Anson: I'd go with Penn State in both 2010 and 2011, though you've got to factor in home-field advantage as well. Pitt is not in a full-scale rebuilding year, but losing five players in the NFL Draft (and presumably a few more as free agent signees), would hurt their chances this season. Now 2009 - that's a different story.