Pitt-Penn State rivalry provides a boost for high school football
When Pitt and Penn State renewed a rivalry Saturday after a 16-year hiatus, the game created a lot of interest and excitement throughout the state.
And the game turned out to be exactly what football fans around the state, and Western Pennsylvania specifically, needed. Pitt held on to defeat Penn State, 42-39, setting off a long-awaited celebration in Oakland and a buzz around the area.
Depending on whom you talk to, many of the high school football coaches in Western Pennsylvania feel the Pitt-Penn State rivalry helped create excitement for their players.
And it also will help revive football.
“I'm hoping it will,” Valley coach Muzzy Colosimo said. “Numbers are down everywhere, so getting the two largest schools in the state playing should help. The game created a lot of buzz. I had players who asked me to get some tickets. Players rooted for different teams and, for at least this year, the Pitt fans get to brag.
“Renewing the rivalry was like what the Pirates did for baseball around Pittsburgh. For years, the kids didn't care about the Pirates. Now they are wearing the team's gear, and cars are displaying stickers.”
Woodland Hills coach George Novak, who earned his 300th career victory last Friday, agreed with Colosimo that the rivalry will help high school football.
“It's good for high school football in the state,” Novak said. “The top two teams in the state should play every year. Big 10 versus the ACC. I think it's good.”
Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta said he also hopes the Pitt-Penn State game will help spark participation at the high school level.
He has had discussions with different coaches from the WPIAL about the state of football and said there are a lot of reasons for the decline of numbers over the last five to 10 years. They include concussion concerns, injuries, time involved, kids not wanting to wait their turn and the physical demands of the sport.
“I've had to bring my ninth graders up to create depth,” Botta said. “I'm hoping it will help. There were a lot of people excited to see the game. The players were excited, I was excited, and hopefully more will be recruited.”
Some coaches said a lot of their players went to the game. Many weren't even born or old enough to remember the last time Pitt and Penn State played in 2000.
Jeannette senior lineman Eric Hall was in the stands for the game and said it was an unreal environment.
“I've never been a part of that type of atmosphere. It was unbelievable,” Hall said. “Everyone was into the game, and I was glad to be part of it.
“Both teams were going at it. They played hard. It felt like a rivalry.”
Hall admitted while his favorite team is Ohio State, he was rooting for Pitt.
Pitt and Penn State coaches spend a lot of time recruiting Western Pennsylvania, and both are able to secure some of the top players each year.
Penn State got Woodland Hills running back Miles Sanders last year, and Pitt nailed down defensive back Jordan Whitehead in 2015.
Those recruiting battles will continue even if they don't renew the series.
But those battles and games were intense from the mid 1970s through the mid 1980s. Friends became enemies when they went to different schools.
The biggest thing Pitt and Penn State will try to do is keep some of the best high school players from leaving the state.
Ligonier Valley safety Collin Smith is committed to West Virginia; Pine-Richland junior quarterback Phil Jurkovec, North Allegheny's Josh Lugg and Central Catholic's Kurt Hinish and David Adams are headed to Notre Dame; and McKeesport tackle Curtis Harper is committed to Syracuse, among others.
Then there are the other BCS powers lurking — Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State — trying to lure Clairton defensive back Lamont Wade, Beaver Falls defensive end Donovan Jeter, Beaver senior Darius Wise and others away.
In the Class of 2017, Pitt has snagged verbal commitments from Steel Valley's Paris Ford, Pine-Richland's Grant Carrigan, Upper St. Clair's Gabe Houy and Neshannock's Tyler Sear.
Penn State received a verbal from Central Catholic lineman CJ Thorpe.
Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak, who played at Pitt and Steel Valley, said he's not convinced the game will help get more players to play.
“Back in the day, there were only three or four games on TV,” Cherpak said. “Now, most of them are on. The players know about the schools.
“Both schools recruit the area hard and all over hard. The Internet has also helped. I know one thing; it helped Pitt sell out a lot of games, that's good for them.”
Sell out it did — the game drew nearly 70,000 fans to Heinz Field, the largest crowd to attend a Pittsburgh sporting event.
High school coaches are hoping that same rivalry aspect will have an effect on their attendance figures, especially in the new six-classification system.
Botta said the new conferences in the WPIAL have created some natural rivalries.
When his Panthers played at McKeesport and Kiski Area, there were large crowds even though the teams were playing in the newly created Class 5A Big East 9 Conference.
The Hempfield at Greensburg Salem and Derry at Latrobe games brought out some of the largest crowds in years.
“We play Plum on Friday, and if the weather is good, I expect a standing-room only crowd,” Botta said. “Rivalries are good, that's why I hope the largest schools in the state continue to play.”