clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Pitt Vs. Penn State And Joe Paterno's Role In The Rivalry

On Monday, this writer published a feature contending that any modern incarnation of the Pitt-Penn State rivalry will lack the intensity the historic series boasted for decades now that former Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno has passed. Since then, a couple of SB Nation Pittsburgh writers have added their two cents to that conversation in other corners of their respective blogging empires. So because it's May, and because college football is hard to blog about in May, now seems like as good a time as any to keep that conversation going.

Over at SB Nation's Pitt blog, Cardiac Hill, Anson Whaley argues new Pitt coach Paul Chryst and new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien have the potential to develop into the type of polarizing figures every good rivalry needs to foment contempt, even if they aren't at this point in time.

I get it - Chryst isn't exactly Mr. Charisma, but it's way too early to determine that he can't have a personality that can stir things up in a Pitt-Penn State rivalry. But more to the point - I think O'Brien, a guy that fought openly on the sidelines with Tom Brady, definitely can add a bit of fire to it. Rivalries bring out the best (and sometimes, worst) in coaches. Even if hatred isn't there immediately, it can be developed.

Hard to disagree with that last point, especially. If there's one thing I've taken away from O'Brien during his first few months in Happy Valley, though, its that while he may be fiery on the sideline, he's also polished and versed in the art of coach speak to the point that he almost artfully says nothing when he speaks.

Where Paterno was a colorful and gregarious personality, O'Brien sticks to his talking points and projects himself in the same sanitized manner that his mentor in New England, Bill Belichick, does. If O'Brien is going to get under Pitt fans' collective skin, the guess here is that he'll do it the same way Belichick does it to Steelers fans: by beating the home team like a drum.

Elsewhere, Pat O'Mahony writes over at The Incline that rivalries are bigger than the coaches.

While true, coaches don't play the games. Coaches don't breed hate among fan bases. Players, controversy, geography, and legendary games add more to rivalries than a coach.


Yes, both Pitt and PSU aren't what they used to be. However, we were deprived of seeing Lesean McCoy and Larry Fitzgerald going up against those "legendary" PSU linebackers. We never got to see Tyler Palko try and knock a PSU DB into the 4th row at Beaver Stadium. Bert and Ernie could coach these two teams and I wouldn't mind one bit. The competition among kids who all know each other from high school and the recruiting circuit would breathe life back into Western PA football.

Oh, oh! Don't forget Anthony Morelli vs. Darelle Revis! Right? Anyone? No? Whatever.

Jokes aside, Pat's point is a good one. The two schools certainly offer each other the type of regional tension absent in their respective conference rivalries. Penn State fans, for example, aren't exactly tripping over their Nebraska counterparts on their way to work, nor are Pitt fans clashing with Maryland fans all that often.

And if Terrelle Pryor's ignominious Ohio State career has taught us anything, it's that one high-profile recruiting battle, the type Pitt and Penn State have fought countless times in the WPIAL through the years, can really turn the intensity up a notch or two between rivals on the field.

It's hard to imagine any player or group of players ever dominating the rivalry as Paterno did, though. As mentioned in the original post, Paterno was turned into the boogeyman by the local media over his perceived role in suspending the series after the 2000 meeting to the point that he became the catalyst for most Pitt-Penn State arguments during this "Cold War" period in which the game hasn't been played. All this, and he was the face of Penn State's program during the rivalry's golden years in the 1970s and 80s, when the games frequently carried national championship implications deep into November.

Even if the renewal of the series in 2016 and 2017 exceeds fans' expectations on both sides, two things remain true: Pitt fans won't get the satisfaction of sticking it to their greatest nemesis in victory and Penn State fans will still have a Big Ten title to hope for in defeat. So long as that's the case, it's hard to expect the level of animosity to rise to the level of Ohio State-Michigan, Alabama-Auburn, Duke-North Carolina, etc. as it once did.

That's not to say the two schools shouldn't make an effort to get fans a series once every five years or so, if not a game annually. When Pitt jumps to the ACC after next season, both programs will be without a true-bred historic rival in their respective conferences and intermittent home-and-homes could go a long way toward keeping that dynamic alive on both teams' schedules.

It's just not going to be like it was when Paterno was stalking the sidelines, at least not until Pitt and Penn State are national championship contenders again.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.