Starkey: Farewell, Big East
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Big East football was a marriage born of desperation, and those kinds of marriages often fail.
It began in 1991 when four independent football schools — Pitt, Miami, Boston College and Syracuse — grew tired of the single life and settled down.
Soon, four more came along: West Virginia, Rutgers, Temple and Virginia Tech. But the union never seemed stable.
Temple got kicked out. Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech left after a torrid affair with the Atlantic Coast Conference. Lawyers got involved. Pitt, West Virginia and Syracuse would eventually sign divorce papers, too.
Beginning next season, it is entirely possible that only Temple (reinstated and it feels so bad) will remain from the original eight.
For Pitt, the 22-year marriage had its moments but was by and large a massive disappointment, reflected in a single number: zero. That is how many outright conference titles the Panthers won.
So maybe it's cause for celebration, rather than sorrow, that Pitt plays its final Big East home game Saturday against Rutgers — a contest that like so many others over the past 22 years will garner precious little attention outside of (and even within) Pittsburgh's city limits.
Still, for better or worse, Pitt did have plenty of memorable days in the Big East. What follows is by no means a comprehensive list but merely one man's compilation (conference games, only, were considered):
3 best wins
3. Pitt 21, Miami 17 (Sept. 18, 1997, Pitt Stadium). Fans tear down goal posts after rookie coach Walt Harris upsets No. 22 Miami — Pitt's first win over a ranked team since 1989.
2. Pitt 16, West Virginia 13 (Nov. 25, 2004, Heinz Field). Tyler Palko engineers dramatic late drive, paving way to Fiesta Bowl.
1. Pitt 13, West Virginia 9 (Dec. 1, 2007, Mountaineer Field). A 28-point underdog, Pitt shocks the football world and saves thousands of Morgantown couches.
3 worst losses
3. UConn 46, Pitt 44 (Nov. 11, 2006, Rentschler Stadium). A ridiculous — but classically typical — loss in which Pitt blows a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and makes somebody named D.J. Hernandez look like Michael Vick.
2. Temple 29, Pitt 27 (Oct. 14, 1995, Veterans Stadium). In the pouring rain before 4,968 human beings, Temple scores its first Big East win after starting conference play with 27 straight losses. This is what we call rock bottom — at least until Pitt loses to Miami and Syracuse the next year by a combined score of 100-7.
1. Cincinnati 45, Pitt 44 (Dec. 5, 2009, Heinz Field). With Sugar Bowl on the line, Pitt blows 31-10 lead, largely because it keeps kicking the ball to Mardy Gilyard.
• Instead of stepping out of bounds, Tyler Palko blasts Boston College corner Peter Shean, knocking Shean's helmet off. The hit propels Pitt toward an unexpected run to Fiesta Bowl.
• With WVU fourth-and-3 at Pitt's 26 late in the '07 classic, Scott McKillop drops center Mike Dent and chops Steve Slaton at the knees.
• Backyard Brawl
Will never miss
• River City Rivalry
• Darrell Strong raises a finger (not the one indicating ‘We're No. 1') to USF crowd.
• Palko is ordered to slide (he was safe) to set up a field goal instead of, you know, trying to score a touchdown in '04 loss to Big East novice UConn.
• Andrew Janocko fumbles PAT snap in bitter loss to Cincinnati.
Which is worse?
• Johnny Majors was 0-4 against West Virginia in his second stint, losing by a combined score of 154-62.
• Pitt was 1-10 against Miami in Big East competition.
• In third OT at WVU in '97, Pete Gonzalez hits Jake Hoffart on fourth-and-17, setting up winning pass to Terry Murphy.
• Darrelle Revis embarks on an epic '06 punt return that no reasonable person believes will end with a touchdown. Derek Kinder smashes two Mountaineers on one block to provide background music.
• Larry Fitzgerald: Played two seasons, still holds conference record for career TD catches (34).
• Dietrich Jells had 3,003 yards receiving (on just 160 catches), tied for second in conference history behind Kenny Britt.
The coaching tenures
• Walt Harris (28-27 in Big East): Salvaged program, settled into mediocrity.
• Dave Wannstedt (24-18): Couldn't finish the deal.
• Todd Graham (4-3): Barely started the deal.
• Paul Hackett (4-5): Last Big East game was 41-10 loss to Syracuse.
• Johnny Majors (7-21): Disastrous second act.
Proof of what Pitt football could be …
The final two home games of 2003 were played before rollicking packed houses at Heinz Field.
The first was an upset of No. 5 Virginia Tech as 66,207 looked on. The second was a loss to Miami, a night the great Fitzgerald probably lost the Heisman Trophy.
Sellout crowds. High stakes. Great players. Pitt didn't hit that combination often during its 22 years in the Big East.
Maybe life will be happier in the ACC.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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