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Starkey: Pitt football for 99 cents

As it turned out, West Virginia fans did not occupy Heinz Field on Wednesday night.

Hardly anyone else did, either.

The 65,050-seat stadium looked at least half empty for a prime-time start against defending Big East champion Connecticut. It marked the second time this season Pitt played a weeknight ESPN game in front of a minuscule audience.

I would call it an embarrassment, but I'll let a season-ticket holder do that.

Tom Moran, 45, has been going to Pitt games since he graduated from the school. He is a Steelers season-ticket holder, as well, and has a 15-game Penguins plan. He was tailgating when I asked him what people around the country might think if they tuned in.

"It's embarrassing," he said. "Not only to Pitt fans but to the city of Pittsburgh."

Not that the large pool of available tickets was bad news for everyone. Joe Bryan, 34, is a 14-year Army veteran who'd just returned from a tour in Iraq and hadn't been to a game since the team played at Pitt Stadium. He scored a pair of prime seats -- but he also wondered if the opportunity to buy them for 99 cents apiece reflected poorly on the state of Pitt football.

"I couldn't believe it," Bryan said from Section 102, Row C, Seat 5 -- three rows from the playing surface. "I went on StubHub and found these seats for 99 cents each, and I was like, 'What do I have to lose ... other than 99 cents?' "

A section away sat five West Virginia fans -- some made the trip, after all -- who'd paid $8.50 apiece on StubHub (man, did they get ripped off).

Outside the stadium, desperate scalpers were asking $2 for tickets. Inside, fans with seats in the upper levels were asked if they'd like to move lower, apparently to make the stadium look better on television.

A large portion of the student section filed out at the beginning of the fourth quarter, right after Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."

This can't be what athletic director Steve Pederson envisioned when he returned to the post in November 2007 after a five-year hiatus. But this is what all those squandered opportunities under Walt Harris and Dave Wannstedt -- plus a less-than-inspiring start under Todd Graham -- have wrought.

Bryan invited friend and fellow Smithton native Robert Prah to the game.

"I said, 'How much do I owe you?' " Prah said. "He was like, 'Ah, don't worry about it. It was only 99 cents.' "

If you're wondering what else 99 cents buys you these days, wonder no more. A quick web search revealed the existence of 99-cent stores in West Hollywood and Midtown Manhattan -- and the following items for sale: an air freshener, dog biscuits, cotton facial pads, the complete works of Joseph Conrad, a wooden spoon, a pack of bamboo skewers, Tic Tacs, Band-Aids and a bar of soap.

Granted, it's a tough market in Pittsburgh sports these days. It's tough in any business. People have to make hard choices with their time and money, and they obviously don't consider Pitt football to be worth much of either.

Somehow, some way, Pitt football must become an event, the way Pitt basketball did.

What's it going to take?

"They have to be in the national picture, and for that you need big-time talent," said Jack Degener of Brookline, a 30-year season-ticket holder. "Unless you make it an event, Pittsburgh's not interested."

Most I spoke with at tailgate parties are willing to give Graham a chance and are excited about next year's big recruits -- tailback Rushel Shell and quarterback Chad Voytik. They also had to like what they saw from Graham's offense last night in a 35-20 victory.

"I think Graham was the right hire," said Mike Waterloo, 24, of New Kensington. "Hey, they could turn it around. It happened with the Penguins. They had their Ramzi Abid years. Then they got Sidney Crosby."

True, though getting Crosby was something of a miracle. If the Penguins hadn't won the draft lottery on a 6.25 percent chance, they'd probably be in Kansas City.

So much damage has been done. Winning big is Pitt's only hope. In the meantime, Tom Moran and loyal fans like him will make the best of it.

Was he looking forward to the game?

"Yes," he said. "Me and 20,000 of my closest friends."

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