Penn State football announced this week the addition of three future opponents to its football schedule, including two for the 2020 season. Notably absent from the announcement was the inclusion of the Pittsburgh Panthers, which consequently means that the rivalry renewal will come to an end after the 2019 season.
The four game series began in 2016 with Pitt winning a 42-39 thriller at Heinz Field, while Penn State won 33-14 in 2017 in State College. For 2018 and 2019, however, Penn State is likely to be heavily favored with the teams trending in opposite directions. The Nittany Lions won the Fiesta Bowl and have brought in a top-5 recruiting class, perhaps the best in the program's history. The Panthers, despite once again knocking off a top ACC team, could not reach bowl eligibility in their third season under head coach Pat Narduzzi.
You can understand why Penn State is reluctant, and why Pitt is eager. The rivalry inherently implies that the programs are equals, and with both sides recruiting western Pennsylvania extensively, the benefits of that clearly go to Pitt. It is also a huge bump in season ticket sales for Pitt, who play in the regularly empty Heinz Field, while it does not significantly move the needle for the Nittany Lions. And Penn State would rather use their home-and-homes, of which they generally only take one at a time, against better Power 5 opponents like Auburn and Virginia Tech.
Even among fans it is a dichotomy. Older fans of both programs look back fondly on the classic matchups between the two programs when they were both regularly competitive. But younger fans missed 16 straight years of the rivalry, and for that reason do not view it as such.
But the group most angry about this announcement? Sports reporters in the greater Pittsburgh area.
It would actually be understandable if they cited the real reason they are so upset about Penn State eschewing the team they cover: it makes their jobs less interesting. Pitt fans care very much about Penn State, and it leads to more angles to cover, more articles to write, more traffic to their sites, and more callers to their radio shows. They are now being deprived of something that made their livelihoods easier and more enjoyable.
Instead, they have elected to get extremely mad online about it and make arguments that are at once disingenuous, hysterical, and detached from reality.
The early responses on Monday displayed disappointment but generally made reasonable points.
Youre missing the point... nobody can deny there is a lot more excitement when Pitt and PSU play. Like it or not. Media coverage, hotel reservations, attendance doesnt lie! https://t.co/IDwH2YGSDu
— Rich Walsh KDKA (@RichieWalsh) February 12, 2018
That is more or less accurate, though Pitt's trajectory suggests that it may not be the case in a few years' time. I can tell you from experience that Penn State-Temple games were, while more interesting than games against small schools from Ohio, not exactly exciting on a yearly basis. Still nothing objec-
Pennsylvania should get involved and force Pitt and Penn State to play every year.
— Rich Walsh KDKA (@RichieWalsh) February 12, 2018
NOW WE'RE TALKING. If there is one thing Pennsylvanians believe in more than the sanctity of rivalry games that occasionally take 16-year hiatuses, it is that the commonwealth's government exercises excellent judgment and should have a hand in more things. And Walsh knows a little something about good judgment.
Walsh's idea became popular around some Pittsburgh media circles, with AP baseball writer and Pittsburgh Sports Now contributor Alan Saunders taking particular interest in it. Saunders parroted Walsh's ideas while getting into inane arguments about state-run vs. state-supported universities, whether threatening to withhold funding is actually a penalty if it forces a university's hand, and (probably) what the definition of "is" is.
Things settled down on Tuesday, but the debate was picked up with fervor Wednesday morning as Pittsburgh Sports Now columnist John Steigerwald heard about what was happening.
All the usual arguments have been dragged out. Penn State doesn’t want a home and home schedule with Pitt and would rather fill their stadium for a guaranteed win than risk losing a game to Pitt. Even though they insist that Pitt is nowhere near Penn State in football right now and the risk would be minimal.
It is hard to tell whether Steigerwald is being willfully obtuse here or not, but in the interest of arguing in good faith, I will briefly rebut. Penn State is not choosing San Jose State, Nevada, or Bowling Green over Pitt. They are choosing Virginia Tech and Auburn over Pitt. Penn State needs seven home games every year to make the athletic department budget work, and they are only guaranteed four or five home games from conference play every year.
With a nine game conference schedule, this means that over a two year period, only one of every six non-conference games can be a road game. Thus, Penn State can only have one home-and-home series going at any given time. It is not because they are risk averse in terms of wins and losses, as Steigerwald and others contend; it is because they cannot financially afford to have a season with six home games.
Despite that major blunder in understanding where Penn State is coming from, Steigerwald's column is very good, because it argues that Pitt's low attendance numbers are not the result of fan disinterest, but rather taking a moral stand against playing weak opponents.
Pitt fans have shown themselves not to be stupid enough to show up in big numbers for games against Ohio U. and Old Dominion but if their program were in the same position as Penn State’s, they’d stay away but also think that scheduling guaranteed wins was a good idea.
You cannot see it, but I am doing the "Italian chef kissing his fingers after making a great meal" thing. Protesting is so important, especially in these wild times. I do not know about you, but I cannot even tell the difference between the Women's March and the yellow seats at Heinz Field.
Frankly, Pitt Twitter's reaction to this news is more entertaining than what I imagine a Penn State-Pitt game in 2020 would be. Here's hoping they make like Rich Homie Quan and never stop going in.