Maybe moving to Heinz Field wasn’t such a good idea.
Back in the late ‘90s I was all for Pitt tearing down Pitt Stadium and moving football games to Heinz Field. And after a 7-5 season and a trip to a bowl game, you couldn’t blame the head coach, Walt Harris, AD Steve Pederson or Chancellor Mark Nordenberg for being excited about the impending move.
They all believed that it was a sign to recruits, recruits’ parents and Western Pa. football fans that Pitt football was about to return to the glory years of the mid ‘70s and early ‘80s.
That was 2001.
It hasn’t happened yet and it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen any time soon.
I can remember quite a few of my friends in the media laughing at me long before local politicians stole money from taxpayers to build Heinz Field and PNC Park, when I said the Pirates needed to build a smaller ball park. I felt for a long time that the size of Three Rivers Stadium was terrible for Pirates attendance. Not only because if was a hideous baseball venue, but because the 50,000-plus seats created no urgency for fans to buy tickets in advance.
The Pirates have drawn way more fans than they deserve at PNC Park and one of the big reasons is that fans can’t wait to check the weather or the team’s record before buying tickets for a Cardinals game on a Friday night.
Or a fireworks night.
I thought about all of this on Saturday when I saw the depressing atmosphere at Heinz Field. There were a ridiculous number of empty seats when the game started and by the end of the blowout loss to Oklahoma State it was beyond embarrassing.
ESPN was taking close-up shots of sleeping fans surrounded by empty seats. That’s not what Harris, Pederson and Nordenberg had in mind when they said Heinz Field would help with recruiting.
As I was surfing the channels, I also came across the Notre Dame-Boston College game. It was a 49-20 Notre Dame blowout but the stadium was full. It only takes 44,000 to fill Alumni Stadium on the BC campus, six miles from downtown Boston.
Notre Dame could probably fill Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, where the Patriots play and Pitt-ND has no trouble filling Heinz Field, but it was the size of the stadium that caught my attention.
It should be obvious to everybody at Pitt that Heinz Field was a bad idea. Pitt needs a 40-45,000 seat stadium on campus. Think about the difference in atmosphere when an ACC opponent like Virginia Tech or North Carolina comes to town. If Pitt has a competitive team, fans will want tickets and they will know that they have to buy them in advance. A 38,000 crowd for Virginia Tech would create a real college football atmosphere and if Pitt does finally become a a Top 10 program, games could be moved to Heinz Field for the biggest games.
The 1976 National Championship team played Penn State at Three River Stadium.
Here’s what former Chancellor Nordenberg said back in 2001, “This is a visible sign of a community on the move. About all we need now is 60,000 people and lots of wins by the Panthers and Steelers.”
It happened for the Steelers and there is no reason to believe it’s going to happen for Pitt.
There were plenty of doubters back then but Nordenberg thought he knew best. “This was a break with tradition. This was a significant change. I think anyone’s first impression would be one of caution, if not opposition. There may be some people out there who are still doubters. I doubt there will be any left once they get to experience Panthers football in the new facility.”
The people caught sleeping by ESPN on Saturday are probably starting to doubt it.
If Pitt would improve to Top 10 or even Top 20 status, an had a 42,000 seat stadium and scheduled a team like Oklahoma State, the tickets would be sold out in January and the seats would be filled.
Why would anybody feel the need to buy Pitt football tickets in advance now? If Pitt is ever going to draw big crowds again it’s not going to be by getting Pitt fans more excited. It’s going to take getting local football fans to accept Pitt as a Pittsburgh sports team approaching the same level as the Steelers, Penguins and Pirates.
Believe it or not, that’s where Pitt football was once a long, long time ago.
It would be a major undertaking for Pitt’s new Athletic Director Heather Lyke to find the money and the space for a new stadium and to escape from Heinz Field, but it says here that the football program is going nowhere if she doesn’t.