“Just a Game” Would be Best-Case Scenario for Pitt-Penn State

I promised I would keep my mouth shut until Saturday, so stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

In an ironic turn of events, the dominant story of Pitt-Penn State week has become Pitt’s self-imposed media blackout in preparation for an opponent already notorious for silence.

I told you stop me…

Pretty much how McQueary told Paterno…

Hey! I told you…

Okay, maybe I’ve made this a little too much about me. Maybe there are other Pitt fans who have made this a little too much about themselves. I shouldn’t be happy about what happened at Penn State. Nobody should. I apologize.

In that respect, I suppose I’m no better than the media who have made the Pitt-Penn State game a little too much about themselves.

I really don’t mind what Pitt has done, surprising and unconventional though it is. And even if I were still a member of that group, I wouldn’t give a damn.

But how will Pitt get any national exposure? This is a rare opportunity, and they blew it!

What, you mean like this?

Or this?

Okay, so why can’t the players handle a few questions? Last time I checked, the game itself is a lot harder.

It’s a long season. They’re going to have plenty of chances to answer tough questions. I doubt the players will regret the lack of media scrums this week. This is one way in which athletes, even the most habitual creatures of habit among them, go with the flow.

Personally, my only regret is the noon kickoff. Despite my cynicism toward television networks’ overdoing of late-afternoon and/or prime-time college football, this is a game that, for obvious reasons, should have been better isolated. If anyone, blame ESPN for burying this game, not Pitt. Or perhaps better yet, blame Major League Baseball for scheduling a 7:00 Pirate game this Saturday night, of all nights.

But you just said it–the noon game isn’t enough. You want attention? Get the media to pay it. Nobody does that to a successful program that unconditionally embraces the attention.

I’m sorry, didn’t Notre Dame have to play a noon game at Heinz Field just a year ago? And again five years ago? Gee, I thought “nobody does that” to Our Lady.

But this could be the only time all year the national media would pay attention to Pitt. What does it gain by shooing them away?

How do you know that? Did Doc Brown tell you we’re finishing fourth in the Coastal?

I’m a big fan of ESPN’s 30 for 30 on the rise and fall of Miami Hurricanes football–the first one, in particular. There’s an apt quotation early in the film about the decrepit state of that program before the Eighties: “When you’re in a city [as opposed to a college ‘town’], you’d better win.”

If Pitt wins and rewrites the script (no pun intended) by continuing to win, the Panthers will have all the eyeballs they can handle.

No they won’t. Houston is a successful team in a city. It just beat Oklahoma. How many of those guys can you name?

They’re fairly new to the whole “hey, look at me” thing. So is Pitt. Have some patience.

Oh, and, friendly reminder: they’re in Texas. I’d wager they have just a teeny bit more intrastate competition than Pitt does:

Fine, just don’t complain about a “lack of coverage” of your team next time.

Who’s to say I ever did? Don’t get me wrong, local media has too many PSU ties for my comfort–another conversation altogether–but that doesn’t affect my feelings about how Pitt is covered. Maybe this strategy won’t make Pat Narduzzi’s team play any better, but let’s stop pretending it’ll make them play worse.

I don’t want my friends in the media to think I don’t empathize. When I was one of them, I was raised on the same wholesome values of minimum wage and self-importance that made that industry–nay, America–great. (And we didn’t even need the stupid hats.)

During my time in “the business,” the Steelers and Penguins were classic cases of live and let live. The two entities that were, by far, the most paranoid about their respective images were the Pirates and Pitt. No matter who was truly at fault, I didn’t agree with that. As far as I was concerned, neither was in a position to complain about anything. This, however, is different.

In a sane world, Saturday’s game would be “just a game,” and Pitt could get away with treating it like any other. The events leading up to this game have made it not sane.

I respect Pitt’s awareness of the volatile political atmosphere surrounding this game, and under these mitigating circumstances, I respect Pitt’s desire to protect itself from itself. This is one instance in which the program and its administrators need to be forgiven, if not commended, for wanting their student-athletes to be more focused than usual–to be above the noise, and above any temptation to be part of it.

Next week, it can be business as usual on the South Side. Just not this week.

So, for those you who have acted like you own the narrative, please stop. The narrative will be there with or without you. The narrative will be written organically, on Saturday, by the players who decide this game. This game should not be all about you. It never was.

This game is about those up-and-coming Panthers finally getting a chance to walk the walk on something other than the recruiting trail. It is about those Nittany Lions, Pennsylvania’s self-proclaimed “unrivaled” team, actually getting to experience a real rivalry. It is about growing up a Pitt fan during all those years of verbal abuse from Penn State folks.

About how much Pitt sucked. About how “unimportant” and “irrelevant” we were relative to a team that was fortunate to finish with its own head barely above water. About how Penn State was so much “better” than us. About how Joe Paterno was so much better than us and our merry-go-round of coaches. About how some five-star linebacker could fart in a Baptist church in Bellefonte, and how Joe would know the instant it happened while he was calculating the light bill for the Lasch Building. About how, when their coach-is-king culture collapsed, horrifically, in their faces, they were noticeably dismissive of what else he knew.

I really don’t care that Penn State is honoring him next week, though I would encourage you to check out Paul Zeise’s spot-on deconstruction of their bullshit (I know because I’ve seen Pitt treat certain news the same way) in the Post-Gazette. It’s like watching Batman chase the Joker for pulling a bank job, then he catches him doing 60 in a school zone. It’s not so much the crime, it’s just the idea that nothing is sacred to some people who, sadly, will never change.

The best way to embarrass a team, plain and simple, is to beat it. This is about Pitt fans letting their team, the football gods willing, do their talking for them. Pitt fans would do well to remember that.

They would do just as well to forget the 9.5-point offseason line, which was a bit much. It said more about national faith in Narduzzi compared to James Franklin than anything it said about their respective teams. If it’s truth you’re after, coming off season openers that left a few things to be desired, there probably isn’t much separating these teams at all.

They’ve shown they can run. They’ve shown flashes of excellence on special teams. They’ve shown they need to tighten up their passing games. They’ve shown they can defend the pass, maybe even better than given credit for. Loyalty aside, I’m guardedly optimistic about Pitt’s chances, but whoever wins will likely have to out-ugly its opponent in a low-scoring game dominated by the defense–not unlike the last time these teams met.

This shouldn’t be about the media. This should be about reviving a grand spectacle of college football that died for the wrong reasons. I only wish Joe had lived long enough to see it.

After he had to face the truth.

Featured images courtesy of SBNation.com via Matthew O’Haren/USA Today Sports and Lance King/Getty Images.

5 Pitt Freshmen to Watch at This Year’s Spring Game

Well, that was fun while it lasted.

No, not Pitt basketball’s winning streak; rather, the unseasonably mild weather is that of which I speak. El Niño makes me yearn for El Spring Game.

God bless the common sense of Pitt’s new athletic administration for cleaning up that mess. It was so awkward under Steve Pederson it actually made me defend Todd Graham.

The two buttheads butted heads on the relocation of the event. Graham, to his credit, saw marketability in Heinz Field that Pederson did not.

Recruits might not be old enough to fully appreciate names like Dorsett, Marino or Fralic, But they sure as heck know the name Steelers, and they know Pitt as a school that not only shares facilities with them, but also matriculates players to the NFL regularly.

There’s no better place than Heinz Field for these ones to get their start, especially if fans pack the place like they haven’t for Blue-Gold games past. With Pitt boasting an increasingly star-studded recruiting class in 2016, they’ve got good reason to catch an early glimpse of these stars who might shine sooner than later:

Damar Hamlin, Defensive Back –

The Panthers already have a potential All-American at safety for the next two or three seasons. Imagine how much more formidable their secondary will be with two.

That’s not to say Pat Narduzzi can’t make extraordinary defensive backs out of ordinary ones. After all, he did it at Michigan State. And while Pitt ranked toward the bottom of the ACC in pass defense last year, it wasn’t quite the smoldering tire fire we saw under overwhelmed Matt House.

Hamlin was probably the best get of this class. It proved Pitt can still attract top-notch talent locally. The fact a player of Hamlin’s caliber even seriously considered Pitt shows how far the program, and perception thereof, has come in a short time under Narduzzi. Furthermore, it gave the Panthers a hell of a lot more athleticism where it was sorely needed.

@CoachDuzzPittFB didn’t need to pay any attention to his timeline last season to know he needs taller defensive backs. Hamlin, listed at 6’1″, is taller than anyone on his two-deep for the Military Bowl.

His smashmouth style is a perfect fit for Pitt. That jarring hit from the state playoffs (Central Catholic fans know the one I’m talking about), seen at the end of the highlight reel below, says it all.

Could the Panthers boast two ACC Defensive Rookies of the Year in a row?

Chase Pine, Linebacker –

Despite fielding one of the youngest teams in FBS in 2015, Pitt loses three players at the so-called “star” linebacker position, which opens a few doors. In the meantime, this linebacker is already a star to begin with, and he could be the star of this defense someday.

Pine comes to Pitt as one of the top-ranked outside linebackers out of Virginia. Panther Digest, in fact, put him first overall. This made him another outstanding–and difficult–get for Narduzzi, considering the other D-I teams that were after him, not just the two ACC rivals in his own home state.

For those of us who aren’t X’s-and-O’s guys, the “star” linebacker is one who juggles the responsibilities of a linebacker and defensive back. Pine certainly would be athletic enough to handle that. More likely, though, he will be called upon to bolster a pass rush that made Pitt among the national team sack leaders in just Narduzzi’s first year on the sideline.

A couple years ago Anthony Gonzalez, another quarterback-turned-linebacker like Pine, became a mainstay in House’s and then-coach Paul Chryst’s defense. Picture Anthony Gonzalez 2.0–someone who has the same physical tools, but could add a lot more big-play capability to the linebacker corps in the long haul.

Chris Clark, Tight End –

Pitt has enjoyed an embarrassment of riches at this position in recent years, but the Panthers become a little less rich with J.P. Holtz graduating. Clark, however, could be a proverbial cash cow, whenever he sees the field.

He was perhaps the top tight end prospect in the entire country when he entered UCLA, meaning, technically, he’s a freshman already, and also meaning Pitt is pushing hard for the NCAA to reconsider his 2016 eligibility as you read this. Seemingly, he was all set to transfer to Syracuse until, suddenly, he wasn’t.

Some feel his character is suspect, though Clark seems to have his head in the right place regarding his recruitment. Pursuing him was a calculated risk by Narduzzi, who, despite changing offensive coordinators this offseason, will be nonetheless shy about dialing up plays for his tight ends.

Returning starter Scott Orndoff has gotten his Pitt career off to a fine start, and he should prosper again this season. If he has an extraordinary talent pushing him for attention every week, then more power to him–and to the Panthers offense.

Brandon Ford, Offensive Lineman –

This Upper St. Clair standout was one of the first players in the freshman Class of ’16 to commit, so let’s see if his skill ultimately matches his enthusiasm.

Most of Ford’s offers came from Group of Five schools. That reminds me a little bit of this other local two-way lineman who, once upon a time, played for WPIAL Quad-A rival Penn Hills and excelled, but didn’t get many Division I looks from high-profile programs.

I wonder whatever happened to that guy?

Of course, I’m not ready to call that an apples-to-apples comparison yet. The point is, Ford has a lot of respect around these parts, and with plenty of polished players returning to Pitt’s offensive line, he’s a talent with whom Narduzzi and his staff can take their time.

As is the case with Clark, the more guys the Panthers have at that position who are equally capable of playing first-string quality football, especially early in their careers, the more likely they’ll be able to move the ball with greater consistency going forward.

Thomas MacVittie, Quarterback –

On the other hand, considering Pitt put its offense at the mercy of an unproven quarterback–and a transfer, at that–last year, maybe we should downplay the inconsistency a tad? Nate Peterman still has his job for now, but we’re all anxious to see what MacVittie can do, because finding the right QB for Pitt has been like Spinal Tap trying to find the right drummer.

I’ll admit my interest in scouting MacVittie this spring is somewhat personal. Pitt football media director E.J. Borghetti likes to playfully jab at my Cincinnati ties; thus, for me, it would be delightfully ironic if one of that area’s most terrific high school talents fulfilled prophecy and became the program’s next great signal-caller.

Some of our country’s best athletes have come out of Moeller (the name Griffey, for one, ring a bell?). That’s where MacVittie, one of the nation’s most highly touted pro-style passers, played through injury, piled up yards, piled up points and, most importantly, piled up wins.

Of just the same importance, he did all that without turning the ball over. MacVittie threw for 22 scores and was picked off just once as a senior. What more could Narduzzi want?

What more could Pitt fans want?

(Featured image courtesy of Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

Take Your Ritalin, Garth, and Bring on the Nittany Lions

Who is Pitt’s biggest rival on the gridiron? More specifically, which rivalry should have its more permanent renewal prioritized by Pitt’s athletic administration: Pitt-Penn State or Pitt-West Virginia?

That should be a no-brainer–even for a Mountaineer.

(Ain’t I a stinker?)

I suppose, now that shots have been fired from my own musket, I would be remiss not to say the return of the Backyard Brawl would excite me. That series produced some of the fondest Pitt football memories I’ve ever had, from Pete Gonzalez to Terry Murphy in triple-overtime to Kevan Barlow running wild at Three Rivers Stadium, to the shot heard ’round the world: 13-9.

Right now, though, it’s more fun watching them ride shotgun to Oklahoma and most of Texas in the Big XII (are we still doing Roman numerals for college football, or nah?), where their nearest rival–pardon me, “rival”–is Iowa State.

In the immortal words of Pittsburgh’s own ‘Count Floyd,’ “Ooh, scary!”

With the egregious exception of Trump supporters, I’d be hard-pressed to find a group that actually scares me, or brings my blood to a rapid boil, more than Penn State apologists. They just don’t get it.

Hearing “Eat shit, Pitt” from the mouths of Morgantownians just rings hollow anymore. If you want to play the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately card, that program has been mired in pretty much the same mediocrity as Pitt. I’d much rather throw shade at Penn State’s fanbase, because it is constantly poisoned by the lowest common denominator, which deserves nothing less. Four years and three months ago, its I Was Born Better Than You Syndrome, which has bothered me since childhood, got worse.

lot worse.

If you’re a Pitt fan with a Twitter account and a pulse, you’ll agree that Pitt-Penn State is the real rivalry. Pitt-Penn State is the game I had circled on Pitt’s schedule long before its recent release in full. Quite frankly, I wish it were on last year’s schedule.

Sure, a part of me will miss bragging tongue-in-cheek that Penn State hasn’t scored on us in 16 years, but Pitt-Penn State is the matchup that should be here to stay, and by “stay,” I mean longer than four years. Just don’t ever tell that to the Penn State apologists, including those at the administrative level.

When one self-important narrative is sucked dry, they simply leech another, the latest being that Penn State “doesn’t need” Pitt. Oddly enough, attendance seemed to fall just a *trifle* short of their vaunted “107K” for that riveting PSU-Buffalo affair back in September (although, like many ACC officials, I haven’t been to an eye doctor in five and a half years). Their average home attendance is starting to stagnate, while Pitt’s is starting to pick up–and did so more than that of any other Power 5 team in 2015, according to CBS Sports.

Or, failing that, they just make up a new narrative before bothering to check a mirror, as when assistant managing editor David Garth called Pitt fans “out of touch with reality” in an editorial Pittsburgh Post-Gazette blog this weekend.

I could write a whole other post about how, for all the great people in print media I’ve come to know and work with, there have been too many Penn State ties to both major Pittsburgh newspapers for the greater good. At this point, I might have to.

Sticking to the subject of delusional college football fans, however, why don’t we discuss how far some go to create a coach-is-king culture on and around campus, then, when it backfires horribly, scramble like a harried Hackenberg to convince us their patriarch–or JoePa-triarch, as it were–did nothing wrong?

Maybe Mr. Garth would like to ask some of my old college buddies how that worked out for them?

Former Cincinnati basketball coach Bob Huggins arrested in 2004

Maybe he needs reminded that, when you-know-who told those Penn State officials to get the you-know-what off his lawn when asked to resign, Curley and his fellow stooges ran out of there like Moe, Larry and the third wheel at the end of a movie?

Oh well, at least we agree on Light Up Night.

Come on, Penn State folks. You mean to tell me you wouldn’t help us fill all those yellow seats at Heinz Field every other year for the chance to say you told us so? You mean to tell me Beaver Stadium would be the least bit empty when Pitt came to town on a non-conference weekend every other year?

You mean to tell me it doesn’t bother you in the slightest that James Franklin, the man who promised on day one to “Dominate the State” (only to see the state’s best player at the time commit to a conference rival on day two), has watched Pat Narduzzi crush it in his own backyard over the past year?

Here’s a quarter; buy a clue. At least it’s less for you to spend on that damn commemorative beer.

Those of you who are of my generation certainly have had a taste of the Pitt-Penn State rivalry, but not enough of one. It used to be that Pitt-Penn State, in any context, was one of the biggest college football games of the year and must-see TV around the Thanksgiving holiday.

After this past Thanksgiving, on what is widely used as “rivalry weekend” by college football, Florida played Florida State, Georgia played Georgia Tech and Alabama played Auburn, just to name a few. That same weekend, Pitt hosted Miami and Penn State visited Michigan State–oh, and West Virginia hosted the aforementioned Cyclones. Naturally, Pitt and West Virginia played in half-empty stadiums.

What’s wrong with that picture?

Penn State might not want to believe it “needs” Pitt. Penn State might want to believe Pitt fans are the crazy ones for worrying about a school 200 miles away.

I believe Pitt and Penn State need each other to push each other to be better and to better grow each other’s brand. Both play in conferences that yield no true geographic rivalries–not to be confused with made-for-New-York-TV-money rivalries. They are constantly competing for the same audience and the same talent, and together, for minimal travel costs and maximum national exposure, they could put on one hell of a show for all of us. In seven months, I’ll expect nothing short.

I believe Pitt and Penn State football, for some time, have been the same crap in different piles. Pitt has accidented its way into one New Year’s Six bowl game since abandoning its independent status, and Penn State hasn’t won one since 2005, a year in which college football was USC, Texas and everyone else.

I believe Pitt will change this, now armed with a head football coach and administrators who are passionate, engaged and, above all, competent. I believe this is the first time in my life it has had those things simultaneously.

I believe, in a real rivalry, each school cares more about the other than it wants to let on. I believe what really annoys the likes of Mr. Garth is that Pitt is methodically putting itself in position to threaten the status quo.

Maybe, apropos of my recent review of the new Star Wars movie, he would appreciate the wisdom of Master Yoda:

Oh, and, totally off topic, I know–the Riverhounds do more than “exist,” my friend.

But we can talk more about that after September 10th.

(Featured image courtesy of Rick Stewart/Getty Images.)