ACC-bound Pitt finds itself without natural football rivals
The ACC offers Pitt many benefits that the Big East lacked. But for its first few years in the new conference — maybe longer — Pitt will have no natural rivals in football.
No teams for fans to hate. No annual games against Notre Dame. No more mocking the opponent by singing its state song, as Pitt players did in 2007 after famously upsetting West Virginia, 13-9.
You want a rival, Pitt fans? Wait until Penn State emerges from its NCAA sanctions in 2016. It will be only 16 years between games.
Rivalries come and go in college football — mostly they disappear after the recent wave of conference realignments — and Pitt coach Paul Chryst need look no further than the dinner table for proof.
“I know the teams my son hates are not the teams I hated when my dad was coaching,” he said.
Danny Chryst grew up in the midst of a significant Big Ten rivalry between Wisconsin and Michigan State. His dad is a former Wisconsin quarterback and offensive coordinator.
Wisconsin's true rival is Minnesota. To the winner goes the Paul Bunyan axe, but the rivalry lost some its appeal under the weight of Wisconsin's dominance (victories in 16 of the past 18 games).
When Wisconsin and Michigan State meet, it's usually a battle between Big Ten heavyweights, often with a championship or national prestige at stake.
“My son can't stand Michigan State, because those games mattered for him,” Chryst said. “That is the rivalry (now).”
A rivalry doesn't have to emerge from a specific opponent. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said rivals appear weekly on his schedule.
“When you only have 12 games and you work hard for those 12, it doesn't matter who the name is, whether it's Pitt or East Bogo Community College,” he said. “It's big, and people want to win. That's why they have that big, old scoreboard hanging up. And they keep making it bigger and bigger and bigger to remind me that it matters.”
Rivalries can develop between unlikely opponents. Clemson and Boston College are separated by 990 miles, but they play for the O'Rourke-McFadden Trophy, named after players from the schools' leather helmet days. The trophy was created in 2008 by the Boston College Gridiron Club, whose members liked traveling to Clemson after BC joined the ACC in 2005. Likewise, Clemson fans enjoyed the trip to Boston.
The teams have met only 22 times, with Clemson holding an 11-9-2 edge, but they played in the 1940 Cotton Bowl and there were spirited games when Doug Flutie was the Boston College quarterback. In the three games immediately prior to the trophy's inception, BC won all three — in overtime, double overtime and by three points. That's how you build a rivalry.
Georgia Tech athletic director Mike Bobinski hopes for a rivalry with Pitt, despite the distance. After all, the teams did play in back-to-back Sugar and Gator Bowls in 1955-56. Since then, there have been two games in the series. Perhaps when they meet Nov. 2 in Atlanta, the game will be memorable, someone will win by a field goal and a rivalry will be born.
“Certain schools, not by design or pre-selection, will develop rivalries just because the competition sort of works,” Bobinski said. “I don't think you can predict that moving forward. Those things will naturally evolve.”
Although it's a nonconference game, Pitt/Penn State could gain new life, with the teams scheduled to play four years in a row from 2016-19. Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson and PSU coach Bill O'Brien are in favor of even more games.
It's probably unlikely, however, that Pitt will find an ACC rival such as Penn State or West Virginia in the near future.
“Pitt and West Virginia came over time and were warranted. There were some great games,” said Chryst, who was involved in the 1989-90 Backyard Brawls as a WVU graduate assistant.
Pitt and Virginia Tech played for 11 consecutive seasons from 1993-2003 — the only games in the series until last year — with the Panthers defeating some ranked Hokie teams in thrilling fashion. The series will live, with the Coastal Division teams playing each other annually.
But will they be rivals?
“If we can put ourselves to (Virginia Tech's) level,” said Chryst, who beat the then-No. 13 Hokies, 35-17, last year at Heinz Field. “I don't know if Virginia and Virginia Tech supersedes something like that.”
That's the thin line colleges must walk: Keeping up with conference commitments, playing enough home games to satisfy financial responsibilities and maintaining ties to the traditional past.
“We will try to honor and protect (the old rivalries),” Chryst said. “But we are excited about where we are going.”