Kevin Gorman: Pitt scores by bringing back colors but must build pride in Panthers
Pitt’s search for an athletic identity started with a switch from its iconic script logo and school colors by turning its uniforms into a Notre Dame knockoff, a poor man’s version of the Panthers.
Finally, Pitt is back where it belongs.
A change of heart finally led to a change of colors, a university-wide return to the royal blue and gold that separates Pitt from so many other schools trying to maximize marketing athletics.
Pitt celebrated its change on campus Sunday afternoon with a bash on Bigelow Boulevard called “The Reveal” and a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its Nike Store at The Pitt Shop on Forbes Avenue, where fans lined up to buy the new merchandise.
“This is the culmination of that entire process,” Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke said. “I’m really excited to reveal our new look that’s going to stand the test of time. … We hope to build a sense of pride behind the brand.”
The football uniforms aren’t exact replicas of those worn by Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino — the blue and gold are brighter, there are numbers on the sleeves instead of stripes and a new Panther head logo on the neckline — but you’ll know it’s Pitt playing when you see players wearing those colors.
And that’s the point, for Pitt to stand out.
“I know it’s not identical to the Marino and Dorsett era, but it is a resembling, and I think this is a contemporary look of that era,” said Lyke, who recognized the need for distinction when she sat between Georgia Tech and Notre Dame at her first ACC athletic directors meeting two years ago.
“I looked at our name tags, and they looked pretty much interchangeable because our colors were so identical. And I really thought, ‘How are we going to be unique? How are we going to stand out in the ACC? How are we going to distinguish ourselves, from a looks standpoint and from a competitive standpoint?’ ”
The pride of Pitt is evident in the two-year Nike redesign, which incorporates the centerpiece of campus, the Cathedral of Learning. Not only are its Gothic arches evident in the numbers but the new secondary logo, a front-facing Panther head that will appear on the uniforms of teams in every sport, is inspired by the fountain on the entrance to the cathedral.
“You can only design so much art into it,” Nike art director Sean Butterly said. “A lot of it comes down to what happens when people are wearing them.”
That’s what administrators at Pitt long failed to recognize, that the pride in the script and colors were because of their association with the success of the football program through greats like Dorsett, Marino, Jimbo Covert and Bill Fralic, who wore those uniforms when Panthers fans shouted, “Pitt is it!”
Instead, for the better part of the past two decades, people have been asking a different question: What is Pitt?
Former athletic director Steve Pederson insisted on it being called University of Pittsburgh in an honest attempt to connect the campus to the city. But Pitt fans felt he took things too far, starting with the demolition of Pitt Stadium and move to Heinz Field to switching the color scheme and secondary logos.
Even when the university returned to calling itself Pitt, it did so grudgingly. It refused to switch to the script, being blockheads by unveiling block letters. After finally making the concession to resume the use of the script Pitt, going back to the old colors became an obvious choice.
Roslyn Munsch was a freshman at Pitt in 1976, when Dorsett won the Heisman Trophy and led the undefeated Panthers to the national championship. That season got her hooked on Pitt football — she since has missed only five home games — but found a challenge in connecting to the Navy and Vegas gold.
Munsch was ecstatic about reconnecting to Pitt’s new/old colors.
“I think shows that they listened to the true fans who said, ‘This is who we are,’ ” said Munsch, a 1980 Pitt graduate who serves on the alumni association’s board of directors. “When it changed, we weren’t happy. It’s about pride and tradition. That’s what we identify with.”
While Pitt can identify with its past success, the change in colors and logos will mean little if there isn’t a change in culture. That’s what had Terrell Brown excited as the 6-foot-10 forward watched the unveiling of the uniforms. Wearing the colors of Charles Smith and Jerome Lane will carry more responsibility.
“With the new colors, it feels different,” Brown said, standing on Bigelow. “There’s more accountability. The change in colors means we can’t settle for less. We have to be the best. We have to hold each other to a different standard. It’s the gold standard.”
A royal blue-and-gold standard of the 1970s and ’80s, when Pitt boasted one of the nation’s premier football programs and its basketball team elevated to the best of the Big East.
Pitt’s color change brings back excitement. What it needs to bring back next are the winning ways that were the cause for the emotional attachment to that script logo and those colors.
“It’s about execution,” Pitt football coach Pat Narduzzi said. “The uniform doesn’t matter if you don’t go out and execute and win football games or basketball games or soccer games. But you better look good. It’s nice to have this new look.”
It’s nice that this new look makes Pitt look like Pitt again.
But the best way for Pitt to look good is to win again.
That’s how to build both a brand and pride in the Panthers.
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Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .