On Saturday, I covered the No. 24 Pitt wrestling team as they walloped West Virginia, 37-3, and avenged last year’s loss in the Backyard Brawl.
It was the first time I had covered wrestling, a sport I love, since high school, and it was a ton of fun for me. It also seemed to be a lot of fun for the fans, as partisans from both sides packed into the Fitzgerald Field House to watch the meet.
After Pitt’s big win, my tweet of the final score was re-tweeted 27 times and liked 168. Those aren’t necessarily viral hit numbers, but when compared to the men’s basketball game a few hours earlier, the difference was massive. After Jeff Capel’s Panthers dominated Maryland-Eastern Shore, my final-score tweet was liked just seven times.
Pitt wrestling has its die-hards and while the program certainly appears to be on the upswing under head coach Keith Gavin, the team certainly doesn’t move the needle on a meet-in, meet-out basis.
But the fans sure do love beating West Virginia, regardless of the season. That was definitely part of the reason for the reaction on Saturday.
Pitt has also had some tough luck against its rivals recently. The Mountaineers dominated the men’s and women’s hoops double header earlier this month and also won in men’s soccer this fall. The wrestling win, erasing a loss in that sport a year ago, and women’s tennis are the only places the Panthers currently own bragging rights over WVU.
It’s only a little better against Penn State, where victories by Pitt’s softball and men’s soccer teams in 2017 and baseball and tennis teams last spring still leave the Panthers trailing, 7-4 in current bragging rights.
Take a closer look at that graphic, though. Everyone is aware of the unfortunate structural forces that prevent Pitt from playing Penn State and West Virginia annually in football. But the women’s soccer team hasn’t played either since 2012.
Pitt and Penn State — the two premier wrestling programs in a state that’s absolutely wrestling mad — haven’t faced one another in a dual meet since 2014. Pitt volleyball hasn’t played West Virginia since the Big East days.
Even Pitt’s crosstown rivalry with Duquesne, where the Panthers have a decided edge, hasn’t been regular. They haven’t played in men’s soccer since 2014 and volleyball since 2015.
Some exceptions to the rule are understandable. Everyone understands the dynamic in football. As much as everyone would love for Pitt to play PSU & WVU every year, that’s just not possible. Even scheduling one every year has been difficult.
Certainly, some of those circumstances exist in other sports. But it doesn’t seem like there’s an impetus from the athletic directors for there to be broad-based competition between Pitt and its rivals.
At Pitt, one of the hallmarks of Heather Lyke’s tenure thus far has been the idea that Pitt should strive for “comprehensive excellence” and competing at a high level in all 19 sports the Panthers offer. In order for those teams to have success, they need to have fan support.
The best way to get people to take notice of a sport they haven’t in the past is to win. Pitt’s volleyball team has certainly shown the way down that path this year. Of course, winning cures everything. Winning without that support is hard.
A way to cut the line, so to speak, and get people talking about, noticing and caring about a program is to play those games and matches that people will come out for and celebrate, regardless of the season.