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Steigerwald: Pitt-Penn St. One of the Great Rivalries in Sports History



There is no better indicator of the stupidity that is college football than the Pitt-Penn State rivalry.

For 16 years after the rivalry stopped in 2000 fans were told that it’s no longer a big deal that one of the best rivalries in American sports no longer exists.

Then one year ago, on September 4, 2016, Pitt beat Penn State in a spectacularly exciting game in front of 69,983 people at Heinz Field. It is the biggest crowd for any game or sports event played in Pittsburgh – a place were some pretty good teams played some pretty big games in the last 50 or 60 years.

There is no good excuse for Pitt and Penn State not to play every year and when the two athletic departments try to come up with one they insult everybody’s intelligence.

I’m old and I remember when Pitt playing Penn State was just another game. I think the West Virginia rivalry–the end of which is another example of college football’s stupidity–was more intense.

You would have to have lived through Pitt football in the mid-60s to get an appreciation for just how bad it was, so, there were no big Pitt games to get excited about, Penn State or otherwise.

The big football discussions in Pittsburgh back then were about who was worse, Pitt or the Steelers.

And it was close.

Pitt went 1-9 in 1966, 1967 and 1968. Then it was 3-8 in 1971 and 1-10 in 1972.

The Steelers had two winning seasons in the ‘60s and hired Chuck Noll in 1969 and then went 1-13.

That was Pittsburgh football when I was in college.

Pittsburgh didn’t become a football town until the mid-70s when the Steelers started winning Super Bowls and that’s when Pitt hired Johnny Majors to turn the football program around.

So, people who experienced a big Pitt-Penn State rivalry before Majors showed up are either a lot older than I am or dead.

And unless you lived it, you have no idea how great it was from the mid-70s through the mid-80s.

Pitt-Penn State week knocked the Super Steelers off the front pages and the talk shows. The game was one of the two highest rated games on ABC every year. And, unlike now when you have 25 or 30 games to choose from on a Saturday, when Pitt played Penn State the night after Thanksgiving at Three Rivers Stadium in 1976, it was the only college football game the country could watch.

It was tied 7-7 at the half and Majors moved Tony Dorsett from tailback to fullback. Pitt won 24-7.

I started covering Pitt-Penn State in 1977 and it, along with Pitt-Duquesne basketball games were in my top three or four favorite assignments every year.

Always around Thanksgiving and at least one of the teams was ranked in the top five–sometimes both were.

My favorite game was 1983. Maybe because I called the game on the radio along with Myron Cope. I don’t remember why, but WTAE-TV televised it locally with Bill Hillgrove on play-by-play.

Pitt was 8-2, Penn State was 7-4.

Pitt Stadium was packed.

Bill Wallace made a great catch in the end zone on John Congemi’s pass to give Pitt a 24-21 lead with 1:15 left.

Penn State drove into Pitt territory close to field goal range. The scoreboard clock didn’t reset after a penalty and showed only a few seconds left but the players and coaches knew there was more time.

After Penn State ran a play and the clock went to zero, fans rushed on to the field thinking Pitt had won.

The field was cleared and Penn State kicked a 29-yard field goal for a 24-24 tie.

I think Myron gave it a double yoi.

Pitt accepted a bid to play Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl after the game. Penn State accepted a bid to play Washington in the Aloha Bowl.

There just was nothing better in sports than the Pitt-Penn State football rivalry during that time.

You think Steelers fans and Ravens fans hate each other?

Multiply that by at least 10 and you’ll get a feel for what it was like for Pitt and Penn State fans.

A lot of things have happened to the two programs since they stopped playing each other in 2000 and Penn State fans like to dismiss the rivalry and say they don’t need it.

Only someone who didn’t live through one of the greatest rivalries in football history would say that.

And the only explanation for all those Saturdays since 2000 when Pitt would be playing an Ohio U and Penn State would be playing an Akron instead of the two teams playing each other is world class, historical, unnecessary stupidity.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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