The bar has been raised by Pat Narduzzi in his second year at Pitt, hence the program’s adoption of the hashtag #ThePursuit. Imagine if, one day in the not-too-distant future, his vision were realized, and #ThePursuit led to Charlotte–or beyond.
Imagine the celebration that would take place at Heinz Field if the Panthers punched a ticket to the ACC championship game in front of their fans. They would become heroes, rivaled only by those hardy enough to still show up at Heinz Field on Saturdays long before Narduzzi, his players, his staff and his bosses made it a thing.
Their reward, besides getting to play for the school’s first(!) outright conference title since shedding its independent football status a quarter-century ago, would be the eternal gratitude of this fanbase. I was there “that day” against Cincinnati. For a while I wondered when Pitt would ever sniff such an opportunity again.
Their punishment: the vocal minority that will probably still complain because it didn’t happen in an on-campus stadium.
You know who you are. You buckled at attendance jokes; heck, you might have even cracked a few yourself. You bemoaned the Steelers logo that bled through midfield. You complained about The Panther Pitt using “Sweet Caroline” as a stage direction (exit right) instead of the strange, borrowed battle cry it is so it could catch a shuttle or cram for finals. To a certain degree, the ball is in your court–or on your occasionally divot-filled natural surface, as it were–to make Heinz Field what Pitt always dreamed it could be.
Granted, if 2016 ticket sales are any indication, many of you have already taken that ball, run with it and spiked it in the faces of the naysayers. Kudos.
For the rest of you Pitt fans, a friendly reminder who will be there, with a remarkably clean bill of health, this Saturday (lest we forget who will be there the Saturday after):
So as far as I’m concerned, you have few acceptable excuses not to be.
This is not to say Heinz Field is without some of the issues fans have raised. It was built on the cheap. It lacks the character of modern football stadiums, regardless of the makeshift Pitt decor on game days, and it fails to take advantage of its surroundings. Heinz Field will never sell itself like PNC Park did in the lean years.
Its yellow seats, an homage surely paid with good intentions but an eyesore on television nonetheless, have only made Pitt an easier target for those attendance jokes, which hurt the program’s image without even ringing true. Of all the football attendance increases reported by FBS programs in 2015, Pitt’s was the greatest.
So why are we there in the first place? Furthermore, how do we make it better, short of playing political football with overly idealistic, if not fantastical, retro Pitt Stadium proposals?
Think back 20 years to when Steve Pederson took over Pitt athletics. Pitt fans resent Pederson for acting like he had them over a barrel. To be fair, when he began his first tour of duty at the university, he did.
The football program was so down and its stadium so dilapidated practically any change would be refreshing–even his doing away with “The Script,” which has since, in hindsight, rightfully returned. The facilities were about as competitive as the team was, and even as the team slowly reversed fortunes, people were using geography and accessibility as excuses not to come to games anymore. It was time to either build a new stadium or save money by sharing the modern one that was under construction just a few miles away.
We can debate the prioritization of basketball under Pederson, but we can agree the turnaround of that program probably doesn’t happen without a new, state-of-the-sport home of its own where Pitt Stadium once stood. He can share credit for that renaissance, at least, which began on his watch and continued when he returned for his ill-fated second tenure. If he was guilty of anything, it was not so much entering into a relationship with the Steelers, but not doing enough to accentuate its positives. His penchant for austerity would prove to be both his and his program’s undoing.
As time marches on, it will be harder for kids not already familiar with Pitt’s proud history to appreciate the names Dorsett, Ditka or Marino, but they will most assuredly know what the name “Steelers” means. Even Todd Graham, a scumbag in any other context, recognized the value in Heinz Field as a recruiting tool and butted heads with Pederson over its use.
Narduzzi and new AD Scott Barnes have done a fine job not just embracing the NFL, but selling Pitt as a preparatory path to the NFL. The new regime has brought the spring game back to Heinz Field, where it belongs, and where those kids get up for playing. Can you blame any of them for wanting to play in the home of a world-renown NFL franchise? Still, there’s an even simpler way to create a true home-field advantage for Pitt football.
The idea that winning cures all is one fans have seen put to the acid test. On “that day,” Heinz Field was as full and fired-up as ever when a top-20 Pitt team with 30 seniors and NFL talent up and down its offense hosted Brian Kelly’s Bearcats in a uniquely high-leverage situation for both programs. The winner would take the Big East crown and accompanying BCS berth.
We all know how that game ended. We all know how the next five seasons ended.
Pitt football stepped backward, and thus, stepped back into being background noise until the Steelers, Penguins and/or Pitt basketball got underway. Many times at Heinz Field there wasn’t much noise at all. The eventual ascent of that other team on the North Shore from the ashes of irrelevance didn’t help, either.
Remember what the Pirates were like when Clint Hurdle first got here? They started raising eyebrows, and fans started showing up. All was suddenly well on Federal Street…until the stretch run, when they returned to all-too-familiar form, and their fans tuned out all over again. If you kept going to Grand Concourse and they kept serving you steak that was under-cooked, would you want to go back there?
The 2016 Panthers are not a finished product. Narduzzi will probably need another year or two to turn the University of Pittsburgh into MSU On The Mon. Nevertheless, they laid the foundation last season, and we saw–and heard–what happened when the Panthers roared. If this talented group can build upon that foundation, those vacant yellow seats will be out of sight and out of mind.
The era of Pitt football from 2001 to present day has taught us, if nothing else, an abject lesson: people will come watch their product if they are given a product worth watching.
Hurdle said of PNC Park very early in that first year at the helm, “When we win, this place is going to rock.” Perhaps Narduzzi could pacify the Pitt Stadium 2.0 camp by making the same pitch for Heinz Field?
He doesn’t strike me as one to swing and miss very often.
Featured image courtesy of Pitt Football via Twitter @Pitt_FB.