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The quarter-century of bickering that will kill the Penn State-Pitt rivalry again

The long-running story of how a sour off-field relationship killed a rivalry series twice and will soon do it once more.

Penn State v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Penn State and Pitt have one of college football’s most storied old rivalries. The teams have played 98 times since 1893, with PSU’s advantage at 51-43-4. But they’ve been in an off-again, on-again relationship for 26 years, after a run of playing every year ended in 1992.

The teams picked things up from 1997 to 2000, after agreeing to a double-home-and-home, but didn’t renew again after that. The same thing’s about to happen again. The schools are in year three of their latest four-game series, with nothing scheduled beyond 2019. Public indications are that they won’t schedule more games for the foreseeable future.

So enjoy the game they’ll play Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC). There’s one more after it in Happy Valley. Then a historic rivalry will go dormant again.

The actual games are less than half the battle. The series’ great drama is over who gets blamed for not wanting to play whom.

The schools and their fans been making the same arguments for a quarter-century. You will never, ever get the two sides to agree on whose fault it is that the series died in the early ‘90s and again in the 2000s, before its four-year revival started in 2016. And they won’t agree on who to blame when the series goes away again in a year.

But there’s a long backstory here, with two critical, agreed-upon facts.

The first key fact: Joe Paterno and Pitt had longstanding bad blood.

Paterno was long angry at Pitt for not going along with a 1980s conference realignment plan, when both were independent, that would’ve put the teams in the same league.

“It’s Pitt’s fault,” Paterno said in 1999, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. “They were the ones who chose the Big East for basketball as opposed to our all-sports conference. It’s Pitt’s call. Penn State was doing everything possible that we made sure to play Pitt forever ... Pitt decided that was not as important as going into the Big East for basketball.”

Paterno’s gone now, but he’s been a lightning rod for Pitt fans forever, and the hostility engendered when the schools weren’t playing has held up.

The second key fact: Penn State long preferred (and may still) for Pitt to play two games at Penn State for every one in Pittsburgh.

This was an explicit ask of Paterno’s for years. Penn State hasn’t publicly asked for a two-for-one lately, but enough dot-connecting suggests the school still wants it.

Paterno’s idea was that Pitt should make extra visits, both for money reasons and as payback for years of PSU visits to Pitt Stadium. Of 98 total games in the series, 75 have been played in Pittsburgh. Pitt people will say Penn State wanted those games so it could reach alums and recruits in the city. PSU people will say that’s not the point.

”Joe said, ‘OK, look, we went to Pittsburgh for so many times,’” longtime Penn State author and Paterno confidant Lou Prato told me in 2016. “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.”

In the late ‘90s, nearing the end of a four-year agreement, then-Pitt coach Walt Harris urged Pitt to consider a two-for-one. Pitt AD Steve Pederson didn’t go along.

“Quite honestly, I was corrected on that,” Harris said in the Allentown Morning Call in 2000, shortly before the last game the teams would play for 16 years. “The philosophy of the university athletic department is that we play straight up or we don’t play.”

Pitt’s last athletic director, Scott Barnes, had a similar view.

Pitt’s current AD, Heather Lyke, also hasn’t bitten on a two-for-one.

Penn State’s current preference is to play at least five non-conference home games every two years, to make money. That’s similar to a Paterno argument that’s two decades old.

“I make this spiel every year,” Paterno said in ‘99, before the series’ first death. “When you really feel as you have to have six home games to get the revenue we need to support the sports we have, you can’t afford to have a home-and-home.”

PSU has future home-and-home series scheduled with Auburn, Virginia, Tech, West Virginia, and Temple. Penn State does have room for home-and-homes. It just hasn’t had room for them with Pitt, and now its schedule has only gotten more crowded.

Arguments over who’s being reasonable are as moot now as they were 25 years ago. A lack of common ground on how to best fit the games has endured

The College Football Playoff and PSU’s nine-game Big Ten schedule factor in, too, joining all the old reasons for this scheduling drama.

Penn State’s rationale here is not hard to crack: why expose yourself to a team that could beat you and hurt your Playoff hopes but doesn’t, at the moment, present a shot at a marquee win?

“I don’t know if it makes a whole lot of sense,” PSU coach James Franklin told reporters in May 2018. “Strength of schedule’s a huge part — or was supposed to be a huge part — of the selection committee. That really hasn’t panned out. You wouldn’t necessarily say that after looking at it the last couple years.”

But it’s not all logistical. Penn State has talked about ditching Pitt for ages.

That started around 1990, when Penn State had committed to join the Big Ten but wasn’t yet a member. The schools were entering the last season of their contract at the time.

In a preseason media session, Paterno told members of the Penn State press that when the team started playing a Big Ten schedule in 1993, if PSU would need to choose between playing Pitt or sorta-rival West Virginia, he’d prefer to schedule WVU. As he would years later, he cited Pitt’s decision to skip out on the conference he’d proposed earlier.

An August 1990 story in the Latrobe Bulletin, a Pennsylvanian newspaper that covered both schools, outlined a relationship then that’s similar to the one now:

A Penn State schedule without Pitt and-or West Virginia would be a big disappointment to long-time Nittany Lion fans because the close proximity of the schools made the games a “happening” for many, especially alumni.

And since Penn State has dominated its series with West Virginia while the Pitt-PSU meetings usually are more competitive, the latter game is a lot more meaningful to alumni and fans.

A football season without a Penn State-Pitt game would leave a big void but most certainly hurt Pitt more than it would PSU.

Panther fans don’t support their team except when the opponent is Penn State. The rest of the Pitt schedule is a wash, and Pitt’s pitiful home attendance figures verify that.

Penn State and its fans then were fine playing Pitt, if everything worked for them. But the game had become a bigger event for Pitt, a 1970s championship program that had fallen on harder times. Even now, Penn State visits to Heinz Field are Pitt’s marquee event of the year. They’re the rare occasion in which a pro football town goes mad for the college game.

Pitt’s stance has never changed. It wants to play Penn State, but it doesn’t want to spot PSU extra home games.

In 1991, Pitt athletic director Ed Bozik said Penn State was dodging.

“It was obvious that they didn’t want to play the game,” he said, per the Bulletin. “We suggested that maybe we couldn’t play in 1993, but let’s look beyond and announce a date when we’d resume. They didn’t respond. They gave dilatory excuses.”

When the series has been paused or approaching that point, Pitt has always come off as the more eager party to play again. That’s the case now, with the Panthers saying they’ve proposed a four-game series starting in 2026 — two games in each city — and PSU declining.

Penn State’s public posture is that it’s outgrown Pitt. Games with Michigan and Ohio State mean more to the school now.

Penn State’s fans make this point explicitly and often. As student-run Onward State put it in a 2016 column titled “Penn State Deserves a Better Rival Than Pitt,” before a Pitt win:

While history isn’t everything, to be at a school like Penn State (which has only had five losing seasons since WWII) and to play a team with five losing seasons since 2005, makes it feel like a win this week would be par for the course and a loss, while embarrassing, would do nothing to prove Pitt is the better program.

At first, James Franklin was tongue-in-cheek about sharing the same view. See if you can figure out which 8-5 team from the year before he was talking about with SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey in 2016 here:

There’s programs within six 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.

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. 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 those to have the type of success they want.”

A lot of schools have a rival where that’s the rival. At Penn State, you take a six-hour radius of this campus we’re kind of unique. You probably have to get to Ohio State to get a school that’s similar, in terms of tradition and stadium size and success.

By the time Penn State beat Pitt in 2017, Franklin had dropped all subtlety:

Franklin has insisted that wasn’t a slight. You can be the judge.

When a reporter asked Pat Narduzzi about the quip a few days later, the Pitt coach replied: “You can ask him. They went low, we went high.”

But Narduzzi’s taken a few shots at Penn State himself, giving the series extra zest. In 2015, he suggested Franklin and his staff mishandled five-star QB Christian Hackenberg.

“You could have a talented quarterback with a bad play-caller and make him look bad,” Narduzzi said then. “You see that around the country, some closer than others.”

After Franklin raised a legit officiating gripe following PSU’s 2016 loss at Heinz Field, Narduzzi deadpanned, “I guess that’s just another excuse.”

The overarching dynamic has stayed about the same, though: Penn State looks down on Pitt, which takes jabs at a school it sees as sanctimonious.

These evergreen sentiments came before the 2016 game:

“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, the Penn State historian, 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,” class-of-1981 Panther lineman Mark 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.”

The game will die again in a year. But the snark and dislike between the two sides never will.