Potentially, a mere 120 minutes separate the Pittsburgh Penguins from the Stanley Cup. If they finish off the San Jose Sharks, it’ll be the fourth such championship during the lifetimes of most of our readers. And there’s no reason to assume that this has to be the last one they’ll get before most of us leave this mortal coil.
Similarly, unless you are one of our “under 8 years of age” readers, you’ve also been alive for at least one Steelers’ Super Bowl championship. And even if we have to endure another Brister-eqsue era of darkness like some us trudged through in the eighties, it’s likely we’ll see another Lombardi trophy come back to Pittsburgh before a very a large percentage of those reading these words ascend to that big Primanti Bros. in the sky.
But will any of the other three major teams in this city (The Pirates, Pitt football, or Pitt basketball) win another title in our lifetimes? And if so, which one has the best chance?
Sadly for most of you clicking to this page, it isn’t Pitt football. Those Panthers have the longest shot in my opinion. In fact, they may have no shot.
Before I explain that opinion, we should probably set the parameters of “our lifetime” since we’ve probably got readers anywhere between eighth graders and octogenarians jumping on this post. Pitt hoops has never won a modern NCAA basketball bracket. It’s been 37 years since the Pirates last World Series victory. It’s been 40 since Pitt last won an NCAA football title.
Let’s go with that, then. Let’s say forty years. That’d make me 81 and even make the youngest of our whiper-snapper readers old enough to have kids in school. And that would double Pitt’s current title drought.
Trust me. I don’t think the Pitt Hoops team or the Pirates have a very good chance of winning one. Heck, look at the numbers I just pointed out! Who is to say either of those streaks ever have to end.
But the Pirates have shown that even in a non capped sport, you can at least make the post season for a few years in a row and give yourselves a chance to win it all. And if the Royals or Twins can win a World Series (which has happened for both teams on multiple occasions since 1979), then in theory the Pirates can too.
And when it comes to the NCAA basketball tournament, there is such a randomness to it that I refuse to rule out the idea of any above average major conference team from ever winning the whole thing. Just because it hasn’t happened yet for Pitt hoops, doesn’t mean there are competitive balance issues that preclude them from envisioning the possibility.
Pitt has played in a stellar conference (ACC/Big EAST) for 34 years. They’ve consistently made the tournament out of those conferences. In 2016 a 21 win Pitt team made the big dance while beating a 19 win Final Four team (Syracuse) in the process three times. So someday a 25 win Pitt team may be able to win six straight eliminations games as opposed to just three in 2009.
But in college football, that door doesn’t open as widely. The opportunity to win in college football is so much smaller than any of the other major North American sports, it’s hard to quantify the gap.
First of all, college football is an elitist sport. Reputation and legacy matter. Pitt hasn’t had those elements to its program since Dan Marino got drafted by the Dolphins. In fact, since Marino’s departure, the Panthers have never been ranked higher than 7th in the AP poll in any given week. They haven’t finished a year higher than 15th. You need to be in the top four to play for a title.
Secondly, the gap is widening between “the haves and have nots” in the sport. That’s not from a “Hey, but Temple beat Penn State!” kind of view. But it’s from a reason to believe you can hoist the crystal football trophy kind of view. College football has already done whatever it can to eliminate the chance of anyone outside of the five major conferences from winning. And the trickle up reality of the sport has even created subdivisions within the major conferences, especially within the ACC. Maybe a four star recruit a few years ago would’ve considered going to a Pitt, Louisville, or Syracuse because he felt that team could’ve won an eight or nine team Big East Conference as a starter. But with schools of that ilk having so little opportunity to win a 14 team ACC, might that same player be more inclined to perhaps take lesser playing time but be part of a perennial contender at Virginia Tech, Florida State or Clemson? And might he feel like he has a better chance of getting noticed by NFL scouts even with lesser snaps?
The last 14 years indicate “yes,” since those are the only three teams to win the conference in 12 of those seasons. The likes of Kansas, Rutgers, Colorado, and Kentucky in the other four major conferences can probably empathize.
And lastly throw on top of that every other rehashed reason (or excuse, if you prefer a negative presentation) that Pitt defenders have offered up over the years to explain why they can’t compete with the big boys of the sport: budget, academics, TV exposure, northeast urban campus in an NFL town, shared stadium, less centralized &/or shrinking local recruiting base, etc.
We’re all tired tired of the topics. But it doesn’t mean they aren’t without merit on a macro scale.
Fans of the Penguins and Steelers always feel like they have a chance because those sports are set up the right way. Pirates fans always feel like they have a chance because someday a Taillon/Cole/Glasnow trio could become the next Maddux/Smoltz/Glavine before their first big contract. And Pitt hoops fans can always hold out hope because, well, Jimmy V. n’at.
But college football is a different story. And even if the Panther program changes for the better in the foreseeable future, I don’t see the sport widening enough that’ll I’ll ever be around to enjoy the type of autumn in Oakland that they are enjoying down Fifth Avenue this spring.
And if I am around, I might needed one of the nurses at Shady Acres to explain to me what everybody is so excited about!