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Kovacevic: On-campus football at Pitt? Get real

| Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, 10:43 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pitt student attendance at football games has increased since the team began playing at Heinz Field. The final season at Pitt Stadium saw fewer than 1,000 student season-ticket sales. The current figure at Heinz, according to athletic director Steve Pederson, is 11,000.

Close your eyes if you're a Pitt football fan. Squeeze extra tight if you caught even a nanosecond of the Navy game.

OK, now try to picture something truly special happening Saturday night when the Panthers kick off against Notre Dame. Picture gaining revenge for the triple-OT loss last fall in South Bend, Ind. Picture Paul Chryst being carried off by players. Picture Aaron Donald and Tyler Boyd celebrated on a national stage. Picture, no matter how hard, the crowd being predominantly pro-Pitt.

Picture Heinz Field, a full dozen years after Move-In Day, finally feeling like home.

Yeah, I know. Can't pull off that last one, huh?

Me neither.

I've never had a connection to the university, but I do know that every time I'll write Pitt football, I'm hit with all manner of complaints about recreating Pitt Stadium on the Oakland campus or restoring the old script logo or, for all I can remember, rehiring Johnny Majors.

The stadium stuff, in particular, never stops. And it's way past time it does.

A few facts:

1. Pitt loves Heinz Field.

“Without a doubt,” athletic director Steve Pederson was telling me. “The opportunities for us there are limitless.”

The athletic administration isn't alone. This goes all the way up to chancellor Mark Nordenberg, all the way down to the fifth-string long snapper and on out to potential recruits — Boyd was once one of them — who are a lot more interested in what Heinz Field has to offer than in their elders' black-and-white memories. Chryst and his staff will be the first to attest it's been a tremendous tool in that regard, being a highly recognizable NFL brand.

Moreover, all concerned have no issues with the stadium's potential to foster a winning college atmosphere.

If you want to talk winning, out of 125 FBS schools, 25 don't play on campus. Among those are five ranked among the top 19 in the BCS standings: Oregon, Baylor, Miami, South Carolina and UCLA.

If you want to talk atmosphere ...

“I had another college administrator who was at our Florida State opener tell me that was one of the best college football atmospheres he'd been in all season,” Pederson said.

I don't know about that, but it was suitably lively.

2. You can't build it.

Setting aside the obvious that there's zero will at the university for an on-campus stadium, there's no feasible way to build one.

The people who advocate this usually sound as if they haven't visited the thriving Oakland corridor in decades. Breaking news: “Rocky Horror Picture Show” isn't playing anymore, and there's barely a square foot of free space. Only way that changes is if someone hires the demolition firm of Salk & Starzl to bulldoze a few of those pesky hospitals.

The nuttiest plan put forth actually has a dedicated website — panther-hollow.org — and that really is what you'd guess: They want to construct a 60,000-seat stadium in a valley that's not only an epic topographical challenge but also one of the city's more vibrant green spaces for bikers and hikers.

That'll happen when the O starts skimping on fries.

“Somebody told me they've got it worked out where you can park 500 cars there,” Pederson said with a small laugh. “And I said, ‘Yeah, that'll work.' ”

3. The motive lacks merit.

The most common narrative among on-campus proponents is that the atmosphere would bustle like Petersen Events Center if the students had an easier commute.

It's verifiable nonsense.

Pitt's student enrollment for the 2012-13 school year was 28,769. Of that, only 43.5 percent, or roughly 12,500, lived on campus. That isn't enough to fill even the Pete if every single student drops his or her pencil to show up.

Moreover, student participation actually has increased exponentially since the move to Heinz. The final season at Pitt Stadium saw fewer than 1,000 student season-ticket sales. The current figure at Heinz, according to Pederson, is 11,000.

This despite braving … um, a 10-minute ride on school-provided buses to a stadium three miles away.

“We couldn't be happier with our students' commitment,” Pederson said. “We feel it's a great situation that's only going to get better.”

That I don't know. It's hard to envision Pitt being successful until it's, you know, successful. That'll mean Chryst needs to get around to winning, just like Jamie Dixon did.

Chryst acknowledged that Thursday: “To truly make Heinz Field that kind of place for us, where we've got a true home-field advantage, that takes place over the course of years. Certainly we've got to win.”

It would help if their whole community finally hopped on that bus.

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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