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Pitt's ACC debut thrills with visit by exciting foe Florida State

| Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013, 9:50 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
University of Pittsburgh football coach Paul Chryst rallies students on Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013, during the annual bonfire on the Oakland campus.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
University of Pittsburgh football fans learn new student body dances on Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013, during the annual bonfire on the school's Oakland campus.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
The Cathedral of Learning is highlighted on Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013, before the start of the annual bonfire on the University of Pittsburgh's Oakland campus.

A possible sellout crowd at Heinz Field and a national television audience could welcome the University of Pittsburgh's first football game as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference on Monday.

Anticipation has been running hot for the 8 p.m. game against Florida State University, a new conference rival and marquee name.

“As far as the city and our alums and the university, it's a big deal, and I think people are treating it as such,” second-year coach Paul Chryst said. “We are truly excited about joining the ACC.”

People have debated and dissected, pontificated on and moralized about the football-fueled realignment of big-time college sports. It is a complicated, controversial topic that embraces such weighty issues as loyalty, money, honor, money, geography and money.

Guess which issue is most important. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, a different world has emerged. Expediency and reality have prevailed.

For Pitt, reality is about to hit home.

“I don't remember a game to open the season that has been this anticipated,” athletic director Steve Pederson said.

Pitt and Syracuse University announced nearly two years ago that they would leave the Big East Conference for the ACC. Inspired mainly by more than $17 million annually from TV and increased exposure, and a better brand of football, the move further affected a terrain altered by the end of long-standing conference affiliations, traditional rivalries and geographic integrity.

“The financial considerations determine a lot of those maneuvers,” said emeritus Pitt trustee Tom Bigley, long a supporter of his alma mater and the former head of the board of trustees' athletic committee. “They're not necessarily good for everyone, but I think in our case, it worked out very, very well.”

The move certainly was not good for the Big East, which had been pummeled by earlier departures. Feelings once again were bruised — but worse, the Pitt and Syracuse departures confirmed the inevitable end of the league's prestige as a serious football entity. Its TV money had become pocket change compared with the riches offered by other conferences, such as the ACC. It was only a matter of time.

“I hated to leave the Big East, which was the best basketball conference ever, but as it turns out, it was held together with safety pins and chewing gum,” said Bill Hillgrove, who is starting his 44th season in the radio booth calling Pitt games, his 40th as the play-by-play man.

“With the current landscape in college football, when the tremors start, you never know how big they're going to be. I look at it as musical chairs. If the music stops, you better have a chair to sit in.”

Pitt found a cushy seat in the ACC, a pretty fair basketball outfit in its own right. As a football conference, it might not rank as high as the Southeastern Conference, Big Ten or Pac-12, but overall the competition is better than that to which the Panthers were accustomed.

“We're excited. We're honored to be in the ACC with the cream of the crop, the Miamis, the Florida States, teams like that,” senior wide receiver Devin Street said.

According to Pitt officials, more than 90 percent of available season tickets are sold. Associate athletic director Craig Ferris said crowds at marketing events throughout Western Pennsylvania have been larger than before.

Pederson, who brokered Pitt's move with Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, said he is “shocked” at the extent of the enthusiasm he sees.

“People say, ‘I love the ACC. I can't wait for this game,' ” Pederson said. “I was just at an event on the North Shore, and people were just buzzing about it. It has been very noticeable.”

Bob Cohn is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BCohn_Trib. Staff writer Jerry DiPaola contributed to this report.

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