When Belle Vernon offensive lineman Blake Zubovic committed to Pitt this week, he started his Tweet with the words “I’m coming home.”
In some ways, that’s true, as Zubovic joins Butler’s Jake Kradel and Thomas Jefferson’s Noah Palmer as WPIAL players committed to Pitt’s Class of 2018.
In other ways, not so much. After all, Belle Vernon is 30 miles from downtown Pittsburgh — hardly around the corner — and is only slightly closer to Pitt’s campus than Morgantown, West Virginia.
The City of Pittsburgh dominates its entire region unlike a lot of other places, so people that live 30 or 45 minutes from the city center still associate with the city, its institutions and yes, its sports teams.
But that’s not necessarily true when it comes to college football. While Pittsburgh’s pro sports teams can count on having a majority of fans in a far-flung area that stretches from Erie to Altoona to Clarksburg, W.Va., Pitt’s reach is pretty much centered around Allegheny County.
This data is a few years old, but it still mostly applies. (From the New York Times)
Even the Pirates, by far the least successful of Pittsburgh’s three professional sports teams, claim a vast geographic fanbase when compared to Pitt.
Zubovic said he’s “coming home,” but in reality, he’s an outlier. Of the 37 former WPIAL players that were on Pitt’s roster last year or are expected to be on Pitt’s roster next year, 26 of them came from Allegheny County high schools.
When people say they want Pitt to be successful in recruiting in the WPIAL — they usually mean Allegheny County, because that’s where most of the talent is. Schools like Aliquippa, Central Catholic, Clairton, North Allegheny, Upper St. Clair and Woodland Hills are where the vast majority of WPIAL Division I recruits come from.
Those places represent Pitt’s backyard and if there is one place that there’s an expectation that Pitt should be able to punch above its weight class in recruiting, that’s where it would be.
That’s what makes the commitments of Kradel and Zubovic noteworthy. Butler and Westmoreland County are not Pitt strongholds. According to the Times, just 30 percent of Belle Vernon Facebook users prefer the Panthers, compared to 25 percent for Penn State — hardly a dominant majority. In Butler, it’s flipped the other way, with the Nittany Lions at 30 percent and Pitt at 25. It’s also worth nothing that Ohio State posted a high-single-digit figure in each of those places, as well, despite being 200 miles from Columbus.
Kradel and Zubovic each had over a dozen Division I offers. Kradel had opportunities at Iowa, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Zubovic was sought by Michigan State and Penn State. Both had Virginia Tech and West Virginia offers.
I don’t want to make it sound like Pitt can’t compete with those schools for recruits — they can and have. But the vast majority of that success has come in those traditional Allegheny County and Beaver County locations.
Pitt didn’t have a lot of local recruiting wins in 2016, with the majority of the most talented WPIAL players finding homes elsewhere. It left many to wonder if Pitt would ever be able to dominate the region, or if continued plucking of the best talent by Notre Dame, Ohio State and Penn State was inevitable.
It’s hard to predict the future — we are, after all, dealing with high school kids — but the fact that in his third complete class, Pat Narduzzi has been able to have success on the fringes of what has been historically Pitt’s home turf is a pretty good sign.