Rossi: New Pitt Stadium is lone solution
A college football game was played in Pittsburgh on Thursday night. Did you notice?
It's a fair question because there wasn't even a half-capacity crowd at Heinz Field, and because the popular Penguins played at home, and because the TV competition also included postseason baseball, an NFL game and two of the top scripted programs on a network.
You probably didn't notice Pitt and Virginia Tech.
Part of that is on Pitt.
This game should have felt big, certainly bigger than it did. Thursday night contests represent the unofficial opening kickoff to college football weekends. Pitt unveiled its football schedule Jan. 22, and everybody knew then that ESPN was bringing its cameras to town, looking for sights and sounds unique to the city's university.
Excitement was not an unreasonable expectation.
Instead, stadium parking lots featured plenty of vacant spaces only 90 minutes before Pitt hosted its first Thursday night game since 2011.
Dan Marino could have jaywalked across Tony Dorsett Drive without notice. Ruben Brown, Pitt's returning legend for the contest, probably did.
Heinz Field resembled a “Gold Out” because of all the empty seats. Dozens decided to watch from the end-zone upper bleachers. Five people were seated in Section 516 at the start of the opening quarter. None of the 271 sections were packed.
The students showed strong, but they had to feel embarrassed. Their football team appeared abandoned in its home. That makes for a bad night no matter the result.
Students deserve better from Pitt.
Alumni deserve better from Pitt.
It is a lousy state of affairs when even the good fails to inspire confidence, but that is the sad way of Pitt football.
Winning streaks never last more than two or three games. Frustrating losses follow feel-good wins. High-profile recruits come (Tyler Boyd), but they also make habit of going (Rushel Shell).
The Panthers looked great early Thursday night. Their offense was imaginative. Their tackling was crisp. Their special teams were sharp.
Never felt sustainable, though. Never does. Why would it?
This team was once 3-0, up at home on an average Iowa squad, and then the very imaginable happened. Iowa rallied, and losses to Akron and at Virginia sent the Panthers to 3-3 and seemingly needing to win against Virginia Tech to save a once-promising season.
It was a familiar script to a bad movie that runs on a loop.
James Conner deserves better from Pitt.
Curtis Martin deserves better from Pitt.
So, what makes Pitt better?
More wins? Better players? More attractive opponents?
The wins will start coming more often. Paul Chryst inherited a mess. This is his third season. He is a football lifer. If he can't make Pitt better, nobody can, because nobody will work harder to provide this program an identity.
The players will come because of Chryst.
The opponents won't sell many more tickets, at least not the ones from the ACC Coastal division. If it feels like a mix of the old Big East and the best of the ACC basketball schools that's because it is a mix of the old Big East and the best of the ACC basketball schools.
Playing more attractive opponents won't make Pitt games more interesting in these parts.
It's about where those opponents go. It's about where Pitt plays.
Pitt doesn't have a football problem. Pitt football has a positioning problem. Fix that, and nights like Thursday will look a lot different.
College football is about everything that Pitt football isn't: atmosphere, emotions and connection. There was none of that at Heinz Field. There won't be the next time Pitt plays at home, either.
Athletic director Steve Pederson must ask himself a hard question: What can turn around Pitt football?
Pederson said Thursday night he was “grateful for the people” who were at Heinz Field, which he called “the best stadium in the ACC.”
“We're playing big-time (football), so we're in a big-time place,” Pederson said. “It's the perfect place for us.”
No, it isn't.
There's only one place where nights like Thursday are going to become special for Pitt. That place is Oakland, where the students are, were and always will be.
It won't be easy. It won't be cheap. It won't be for a while.
It's time, though.
Even the Riverhounds have their own place to play.
It's time to hail a new Pitt Stadium.