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Pitt, Penn State to resume gridiron rivalry

Jerry DiPaola
| Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Pitt-Penn State rivalry is back â€" but maybe not for long.

"I guess it's going to be two games and nothing more," ESPN college football analyst Beano Cook said. "Pitt wants to play more, Penn State doesn't, but life goes on."

After a 16-year interruption, Pitt and Penn State will resume their previously spirited and tradition-rich football rivalry with a two-game series beginning in 2016. The first game and the 97th in the series will be Sept. 10, 2016, at Heinz Field. The second will be Sept. 16, 2017, at Beaver Stadium.

It was almost by accident that series will resume.

For years after joining the Big Ten in 1993, Penn State insisted on two home games for every game in Pittsburgh, an arrangement Pitt officials repeatedly rejected.

Penn State officials claimed the school's eight-game conference commitment, which helped trigger the series' first hiatus in 1993, made it difficult to resume. Yet, Penn State annually scheduled teams such as Syracuse, Rutgers, Temple and Alabama for home-and-home series.

Just last year Penn State athletic director Tim Curley said scheduling Pitt would be difficult, especially with Nebraska joining the Big Ten beginning in 2011. He offered no guarantee to Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson that the series will resume after 2017.

Curley called Pederson last week after talks fell apart with Miami (Fla.) officials about a two-game series in '16 and '17.

"I appreciate the fact that they were willing to approach us about discussing that opening," Pederson said. "Tim and I worked pretty quickly to put this together."

Curley issued a statement, trumpeting the renewal of the rivalry, saying, "There have been many memorable Penn State-Pitt games, featuring outstanding players and coaches, and we look forward to playing the Panthers again."

He declined a Tribune-Review request for further comment. Coach Joe Paterno also had no comment.

After a four-year hiatus, the series resumed for four games beginning in 1997. The teams haven't met since Pitt defeated Penn State, 12-0, in 2000 at Three Rivers Stadium. Then-Pitt coach Walt Harris, who high-fived reporters in the postgame news conference, yesterday called the victory "a great day for Pitt football."

Penn State historian and author Lou Prato said the series â€" even if extended beyond the currently scheduled two games â€" won't be the same.

"Pitt-Penn State, they have to be in the same league, the last game of the season and when one team beats another, it ruins someone's season. It will never reach that place again unless Pitt gets into the Big Ten."

Pitt figures, past and present, greeted the news with enthusiasm.

"It's good for the state of Pennsylvania," said former Pitt coach Jackie Sherrill, who presided over five Pitt-Penn State games from 1977-1981 and now runs a Dallas-based sports nutrition company. "But it's better for (the University of) Pittsburgh than for Penn State.

"Penn State didn't have to play Pittsburgh," said Sherrill, who votes in the Harris Poll that helps assign BCS rankings. "Now with Pitt having the chance to play Penn State and having the chance to beat Penn State, it only gives (Pitt) a chance to build on their worthiness. Not only in recruiting but in putting bodies in the seats and to help financially with exposure and recruiting."

Former Pitt Heisman Trophy-winning running back Tony Dorsett said the game was important "irregardless of the (teams') records."

"Penn State was the big dog and the game was always something for us to test ourselves and see where we are at," he said.

Johnny Majors, who led Pitt to a national championship after breaking a 10-game losing streak against Penn State in 1976, said the rivalry was the equal of any of the "top-tier" games in college football, including Alabama-Auburn, Texas-Texas A&M and USC-UCLA.

"The fans, bands, teams and spirit of both teams carried across the entire state of Pennsylvania," he said.

What they're saying ...

"That was the great thing about Penn State-Pitt. It didn't matter if both teams were terrible; the stadium always got filled. No matter how bad your season was, you know if you beat Penn State, in a three-hour span you could salvage a 12-month dismal period." Former Pitt and NFL star Burt Grossman

"I remember very physical, very passionate games. As you talk to our former players, they talk about this game as the rivalry for Pitt. Our players want to play in these type of games. I don't think anywhere I have been when I have talked to alumni and lettermen and fans, they haven't mentioned that this (is) our greatest rivalry." Pitt coach Todd Graham, on memories of watching Pitt-Penn State games as a child growing up in Dallas

"We played a lot of good football teams. We played Army when they were No. 1. We played Syracuse when they won the national title. We played Notre Dame every year. But I think for everybody at Pitt and Penn State, when we went into that game, it was the biggest one on the schedule." Former Pitt All-American tight end Mike Ditka, who played from 1958-60

"Auburn-Alabama, USC-UCLA, Texas-Texas A&M and Penn State-Pitt. It was the equivalent, if not bigger, than all of those rivalries. It was for eastern supremacy. The rivalry will be restored as soon as both teams step on the field." Former Penn State linebacker Chet Parlavecchio, who played from 1979-1981.

"The Pitt-Penn State series has the potential to be great, but I don't know if it's on that level (of the Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia). It'll be close. It's big-time football, no matter how you look at it." Former Pitt quarterback Rod Rutherford, who scored the only touchdown in Pitt's 12-0 victory against Penn State in 2000, the last time the schools met.

"It's long overdue. When we played Penn State, it wasn't just another game. It was bragging rights. It's a win-win situation." Former Pitt offensive lineman Emil Boures, who played against Penn State four times from 1978-81

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