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Why the Penn State-Pitt rivalry still matters, just as it always has

One of college football’s oldest rivalries disappeared for 16 years. Now it’s back, and it means different things in different places. A native Pennsylvanian spoke with coaches and historians on both sides.

1997: Joe Jurevicius runs from E.C. Varoutsos at Beaver Stadium
1997: Joe Jurevicius runs from E.C. Varoutsos at Beaver Stadium
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH – Penn State and Pitt are separated by 135 miles of mostly interstate highway. They used to hate each other, officially. But Saturday’s game (noon ET, ESPN) is the first in 16 years.

The schools started playing each other in 1893. They alternated stretches of dominance, but let’s jump to 1973. Joe Paterno had built Penn State into a national power, finishing top-10 in the AP Poll in five of six years. Pitt had been a car fire when new coach Johnny Majors showed up with top assistant Jackie Sherrill.

Beaver County running back Tony Dorsett decided to stay home and play for Pitt. The Panthers went from 1-10 in 1972 to 12-0 national champions by Majors’ last year there, 1976, all before Paterno won Penn State's first two titles, in the ‘80s. (Pitt also claims eight titles from before the 1940s.)

Still, Pitt had only beaten Penn State once under Majors: in 1976, to snap a 10-year losing streak. When Sherrill took over in 1977, the rivalry really got rumbling.

Penn State won three of five. Both finished in the top 10 in four of those years. One score decided three of the games. They were nasty, national-TV games with Eastern supremacy on the line, and Pitt took pride in punching at a power that was suddenly its peer.

"I was recruited by Penn State, and I always had this sour taste in my mouth, because when they recruited me, they treated me like I should be fortunate to be offered a scholarship by Penn State," Mark May, a New York offensive lineman who joined Pitt in 1977 and now works for ESPN, told SB Nation. "Pitt had just won the national championship that year, and they recruited me like they wanted me."

Paterno and the hard-charging Sherrill were not friends.

When Paterno was rumored to consider leaving for politics in the late-1970s, he said, "I’m not going to give up college football to the Jackie Sherrills and Barry Switzers of the world."

"That was made during a period of time where we were very serious competitors," Sherrill told SB Nation this week. "I took recruits from him, and we battled back and forth, and he was no longer the king of the mountain."

Penn State, today, is the state’s top recruiter. It was that way before Majors and Sherrill. But Sherrill gave the Lions trouble. He lured locals like Dan Marino, Russ Grimm and Bill Fralic. Players the Lions wanted.

Paterno and Sherrill eventually reconciled, as grudging competitors. Sherrill left Pitt after 1981, and he spent the next six years at Texas A&M. Years later, the Aggies played Paterno’s Penn State at the Alamo Bowl.

"I walked up to him on the field right before the game, and I said, ‘Coach, good luck,’ and he put his arm around my shoulder and he looked me square in the eye and said, ‘Jackie, you don’t mean that,’" Sherrill recalls. "And I started laughing, and he started laughing, and I said, ‘Well, I guess not.’"

After Sherrill had stopped coaching, Paterno had him over for dinner in State College. There’s a photo somewhere of Sherrill holding Paterno’s grandson in the TV room.

"I don’t see Harbaugh or Meyer going to dinner," Sherrill says.

Penn State-Pitt was grueling, but it’s only now being raised from the dead.

Why’d they stop playing? Why has the series sat at 50-42-4, Penn State, for a period of time nearly as long as the lifespan of the players who will suit up Saturday?

"You tell it from a Pitt perspective, you’re gonna get it a little different from a Penn State perspective," says Lou Prato, a Penn State historian who’s written seven books on the school and ran its all-sports museum.

Paterno, in the early 1980s, wanted to form an all-sport conference that would’ve included Pitt, West Virginia, and others. Both the Nittany Lions and Panthers were powers as independents, and Paterno figured football would continue to rule, but a conference for other sports could still work.

"I’ll give the guy this: He was right," says Sam Sciullo, a former Pitt athletic communications professional who’s written six books about that athletic department. "In retrospect, that would’ve been a good idea."

Pitt didn’t go along. Neither did anyone else.

Paterno, in the last days of the Penn State-Pitt series, wanted Penn State to schedule two home games for every one in Pittsburgh. For long stretches until the 1960s, almost every game was in Pittsburgh. This was fine for Penn State, because the old Beaver Field was tiny, and Pittsburgh offered a hefty Penn State alumni presence. Of 96 total games, 74 have been in the city.

"Joe said, ‘OK, look, we went to Pittsburgh for so many times,’" says Prato. "Two games here, one game there. Two games here, one game there. Pitt said, ‘No no no no,’ one game, even. So they couldn’t get a deal. That was a good rivalry, just without any games being played."

Steve Pederson, Pitt’s athletic director at the time, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a two-for-one never became part of his discussions. Both teams also had to consider conference schedules and a limited number of non-conference games.

This week, an apparent reference to that history:

There’s a strong sentiment from the Pitt side that Paterno never got over Pitt’s decision not to join his conference. Pitt hopped to the Big East for basketball in 1982, then gave up football independence in 1991. Two years later, Penn State started in the Big Ten.

"When Pitt made the decision to go to the Big East, and they didn’t want Penn State – I’m Sicilian; I’d hold a grudge," Prato says. "Whether Joe would hold a grudge, you’d have to ask him, and he’s not alive to tell you. But obviously Joe was ticked off about it. Why shouldn’t he have been?"

Sherrill sees Pitt’s Big East decision another way.

"If Pitt had an opportunity to jump ahead of Penn State, Pitt would do that," he says. "If Michigan had a chance to jump ahead of Michigan State or vice versa, they would do that. Same thing with Texas and Texas A&M. Penn State had a chance to jump into the Big Ten, and Pitt didn’t have it."

"There was a lot of jealousy in the Big East toward Joe," says Prato.

Pitt likely could’ve salvaged the series by agreeing to an extra road game every three years. Penn State likely could’ve salvaged it by not asking for it.

Penn State and Pitt’s differences start with the map.

SB Nation, Google Maps

Between Pittsburgh in the West and Philadelphia in the East, an old political saying goes, Pennsylvania is Alabama.

That’s true, both in how we vote for our presidents and how we root for our sports teams. The perception that Pittsburgh cares most about the Steelers is accurate. In the city, Pitt is a firm fourth behind the Penguins and Pirates, and Penn State’s fifth.

Penn State has no such company in State College.

Pitt’s attendance at the Steelers’ Heinz Field was a mediocre 48,000 last year, on average, with many dressed as yellow seats. Penn State can put 100,000 inside Beaver Stadium for a big game. Penn Staters are happy to dig at Pitt about this, and Pitt people are happy to dig back.

"In those places, everybody gets behind the college team," Sciullo says. "Here, the blue-collar, non-college-educated general public, for the most part, will lean, or is much more apt, to support the pro team, or see that as ‘our’ team. I don’t buy the big brother, little brother thing. It’s just a totally different situation. Here, if you wanna go to a Major League Baseball game, you can. If you wanna go to a hockey game, you can. You wanna go to an NFL game, you can. You can’t do that in State College. It’s a fraternity party, or whatever else. You go to a movie, or something. I don’t know; I’ve never lived there."

Pitt needs to win for fans to show up. Penn State isn’t sharing much of its spotlight with the class-A State College Spikes.

The urban-rural divide factors in how the schools recruit. Sherrill made a drastically different pitch than Paterno did, or than he did himself when he later coached at A&M and Mississippi State. State College, College Station and Starkville share little in common with sticky, bustling Oakland, the city university’s neighborhood.

"When I recruited a kid, a young man, I always would bring up and ask him: If he wanted grass under his feet, then Pittsburgh wasn’t the place for him," Sherrill says.

In the mid-2000s, Pitt men’s basketball coach Jamie Dixon built a dominant program behind recruits from New York and Philadelphia. (Football’s best talent is less concentrated in big cities, and a city-living pitch isn’t always as broadly effective.) This relates to Penn State’s longtime basketball misery and its current rise, driven by new inroads in Philadelphia.

In Penn State, Pitt’s found a football game to get up for.

When I stopped in Wednesday, the manager of the school’s flagship merchandise store had just one branded Pitt-Penn State T-shirt left. He got a shipment of 72 last week; usually, almost none sell until the day before a game. He was getting more.

The workers at The Original Hot Dog Shop, a Pitt institution along Forbes Avenue, expect a crush of enthusiastic fans. (In Pittsburgh, when we win, we don’t just drink. We eat.)

Most Pitt students were barely alive when the teams played last, in 2000. They know nothing of 1990s-era realignment. But Pitt and Penn State are the dominant universities in this half of the state, and nearly every Pitt student has a Penn State friend or 20. Is there any genuine dislike?

"Not really," says Brendan Schuster, a sophomore. "But as someone from around here, I know a lot of people that go to Penn State that are coming to this game, so I just kind of want to rub it in their face that Pitt’s a better football program right now, because that’s always the argument: if we’re better than Penn State in sports, and this’ll be an actual time to decide whether we are or not."

Pitt has had two standout football rivals: West Virginia, in the currently defunct Backyard Brawl, and PSU. At this point, Penn State has varying degrees of rivalry against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State and has used "Unrivaled" as a hashtag slogan.

From Penn State’s standpoint, Pitt’s just one minor rival of a larger group, and any momentum the Panthers have taken is a result of Penn State’s post-Jerry Sandusky sanctioning.

"A lot of schools have a rival, and that’s clearly the rival. When you’re at Penn State, you take a six-hour radius of this campus, we’re kind of unique," Penn State head coach James Franklin told SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey in February. "So probably you get to Ohio State, it’s one in terms of history, in terms of tradition, in terms of fan base, in terms of stadium, that’s similar. So that goes back to my point. If all these schools we’re talking about, if they can keep Penn State down and take advantage while Penn State is on sanctions, it helps."

Schuster, the Pitt sophomore, will let his Penn State friends stay in his house. But if he runs into a Penn Stater he doesn’t know, he says he’ll treat them "not well at all."

"A lot of Penn State fans don’t wanna go to Pittsburgh, because they don’t know what the fans are gonna be like," Prato says. "And fans can be nasty anywhere. We have nasty fans here. Everybody has nasty fans. And if this gets nasty, there’ll be fans saying, ‘Don’t ever play them again.’"

"For some reason," May says, "they always tried to think that they were royalty and we were second-class, because we were the boys from the city. So there was always that chip on our shoulder that we wanted to play Penn State and beat Penn State."

Narduzzi Franklin Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports, Lance King/Getty Images

Both teams are 1-0, having beaten non-power opponents in Week 1. Pitt is in its second year under Pat Narduzzi, Penn State its third under Franklin. Both have terrific running backs: Pitt’s James Conner (thunder) and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley (lightning). Both have lots of players from Western Pennsylvania.

But expectations aren’t the same.

Pitt’s 8-5 season under Narduzzi in 2015 was a smashing success, while Penn State’s 7-6 under Franklin has plenty of people thinking he’s coaching for his job. If Franklin loses to Pitt, as Las Vegas thinks will happen, it could set up an underwhelming 2016.

"Why is it gonna be any bigger problem for Franklin than it’d be for Narduzzi?" wonders Prato.

Narduzzi’s got the security of a December contract extension. This is part of Penn State being Penn State and Pitt being Pitt, scarred by mediocrity under seven head and interim head coaches since Dave Wannstedt's 2010 exit.

"Take another program where we go 7-6," Franklin said to SB Nation’s Godfrey a few months ago, not mentioning Pitt by name. "There's other programs that have very similar records, and because the expectation is not the same at those programs, at those places, it's viewed completely different. There's programs within hours of here that had one more win, but you would think they played for a national championship. But again, that goes back to the expectation at Penn State. To me, that's a good thing."

Pitt’s peak in the 1970s coincided with Penn State also being a top-10 program. But to Franklin, Pitt can’t be its best if Penn State is, too.

"I don’t think there’s any doubt that Penn State [being] down helps all the schools that surrounds us. Because when Penn State is rolling, it makes it really difficult for the schools around us," he said at the time. "So what does that create? That creates all those schools taking shots to keep us down. Because they know if they keep us down that’s the only chance for all those to have the type of success they want."

The biggest shot Pitt could land on Penn State is a victory.

The teams have gone about game week differently. Narduzzi closed practices to the media and opted not to make players available for interviews, while Penn State offered up eight. Both coaches publicly downplay the game, but Narduzzi does it while hyping it at the same time.

"Every game is the same. The only game that matters right now is this one. This one is a little bit different," he said at a press conference, but continued. "It’s an in-state rivalry. It’s ACC versus Big Ten. I know everybody in the country is going to be watching."

Franklin’s been mellower.

"I think being in the same state and the past history of the game, there's going to be a major emphasis put on it," he said at his news conference. "To me, a rivalry isn't something that you have to have a discussion about. The fans, the media, the players and the coaches all view it that way. Our guys are excited about it. I think everybody understands the significance of it. We've been hearing about it all offseason."

This is the first of a four-game series – two home games each. Narduzzi wants it to happen every year, and why not? As long as Penn State rules the recruiting roost, every chance to punch at the Nittany Lions is a positive.

Whoever wins Saturday will holler about it.

In his postgame presser, the winning coach will nod to recruiting. The loser will tamp it down. It will be a Significant Day For Our Program, for someone.

Yet, Saturday is Pitt’s show. Heinz Field will be full, which usually only happens for the black and gold, not the blue and gold. (Pitt AD Barnes said this week he expects a crowd of about 70,000; Heinz’s capacity is listed at 68,400.)

Pitt can host legions of recruits, and they’ll see a packed stadium full of rowdy fans from both teams. Penn State will get the same chance next year, with fewer visiting fans.

It’ll be a specific kind of boost for whoever wins, the type not received in 16 years by Pitt and 17 by Penn State.

"I think in Western Pennsylvania recruiting and the state of Pennsylvania recruiting, this is big. It’s big for both schools," May says of the rivalry. "I think the coaches understand it. A lot of people in the administration definitely understand it, and the players will come to understand it when they step on the field this weekend."

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