Off-campus location a factor in Pitt game attendance
Dave Wannstedt's debut as Pitt football coach was met with a raucous reception, as the Panthers drew ESPN's College GameDay crew and a standing-room-only crowd of 66,451 to Heinz Field for the 2005 season opener.
Pitt lost to Notre Dame, 42-21, and was 0-3 by the time it had another home game. Despite a 12-7 home record, the Panthers have drawn more than 50,000 to Heinz Field only once since, in the 2006 edition of the Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia.
"My vision would be to get the people as excited for a non-conference opponent as they are if we're playing West Virginia," Wannstedt said. "That's a constant challenge."
With Pitt (4-6, 2-3 Big East) headed for its third consecutive season without a bowl berth and its worst attendance since moving home games from its Oakland campus to the North Shore in 2001, Panthers fans regularly debate the merits of playing at an off-campus venue.
College football analysts believe fans should be looking not at the location of the stadium, but at the record and relevance of the team that plays in it.
"What it really comes down to is winning football games," said former Pitt quarterback John Congemi, now an ESPN college football color analyst. "If you win, people don't care where you play. Heinz Field is a great facility, but it's a big place. Pittsburghers love their football. If you're winning, they'll come out and watch and be as loud and exciting as anywhere in the country."
Although there is a direct correlation between attendance and atmosphere, turnout is even more connected to winning. The Big East is a prime example that drawing a crowd has less to do with the venue than it does with contending for the conference championship.
"It's more to do with winning and losing and how the crowd is into the game," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Whether you have an on-campus or off-campus facility, you can get the crowd - in particular, your students - to be vocal at home. That's the thing that every coach wants. For a true home-field advantage, your fans have to be into the game and making noise for the other team when they have the ball and trying to make it difficult for them to communicate."
Expectations play a tremendous role in drawing a crowd. The preseason-favorite Mountaineers have sold out every game at their on-campus facility. Coming off a Cinderella season, Rutgers has a waiting list of 10,000 for season tickets, coach Greg Schiano said, and it is considering expanding its on-campus stadium.
"It really makes for a great atmosphere on game day. It makes a big difference," Schiano said. "I think it has to do a lot with winning. I do think there is a big positive to having your stadium on campus. I've been involved in both situations during my career, and I really like it a lot better with a stadium on campus."
Two of the best draws in the Big East this season, however, play at off-campus venues. South Florida plays at 65,000-seat Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After ascending to No. 3 in the national rankings following an upset of West Virginia that drew a standing-room-only crowd of 67,012 on Sept. 28, the Bulls rank second in attendance after finishing seventh last year.
"That's coming from a team that hasn't been in existence that many years," USF coach Jim Leavitt said. "I've always said they love college football here, and it does show. It's real exciting. I love playing in Raymond James. It's a great venue."
USF has drawn an average of 61,906 to its past four home games, and its once-empty home field now is an enthusiastic environment for college football. Although Heinz Field and the "Ray Jay" are similarly sized stadiums, their atmospheres were "markedly different," Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said after playing at both this season.
"The atmosphere at Raymond James was electric," Kelly said. "The way the stadium is configured, they're right on top of you. I've played in front of 103,000, 104,000 at Penn State and Michigan. This was an exciting crowd."
Of course, the Pitt-Cincinnati game drew 33,423, and the Cincinnati-USF game drew 57,379. Not to mention the Panthers were in the midst of a four-game losing streak.
Perhaps only at Connecticut is attendance rarely reflective of the record. The Huskies draw sellout crowds whether they are 4-8, like last season, or 9-2, like this season. Never mind that Rentschler Field is located in East Hartford, about 24 miles from UConn's Storrs campus.
"With our stadium being off-campus, I think it's ideal for our situation because of where we're located," Connecticut coach Randy Edsall said. "Our stadium is located right in the middle of the state. It's accessible to major highways, so it's an easy in and out for everybody ... everything is right there. We have enough parking around it where you can have the tailgating that people can enjoy that."
That's a point Pitt is trying to sell. Heinz Field is only 4.8 miles from Heinz Chapel, a mere 10-minute commute from campus with more accessibility and parking than Oakland.
"It is closer from the Cathedral of Learning to Heinz Field," Wannstedt said, "than it is from the athletic facilities to the football stadium at some schools that have on-campus stadiums."
If nothing else, Pitt has proven it can draw for quality opponents. The Panthers have had four sellouts in seven seasons at Heinz Field: West Virginia in 2002, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech in '03 and Notre Dame again in '05.
Pitt's best attendance was in '03, when the Panthers started the season ranked in the top 10 nationally and drew an average of 59,197. This season, Pitt is averaging 33,680.
E.J. Borghetti, Pitt's associate athletic director for media relations, has watched the Panthers for 30 years and ranks those games, along with Pitt's 28-14 loss to Miami in '03, among the "most electric" home games he's witnessed.
"Those were high-stakes games with tremendous crowds and atmospheres that I would compare to any home venue in the country," Borghetti said. "ESPN College GameDay absolutely loved the environment at Heinz Field. They were thrilled with the unique combination of a big-time college football game played right underneath a big-time city skyline. ... The atmosphere was fantastic."
Three of those four games ended in losses, with the lone victory a 31-28 win over Virginia Tech in '03. When it comes to Pitt playing football at Heinz Field, it's a game of win, lose or draw. The Panthers already know the answer to that equation.