Pitt and Penn State are still five months away from reviving their rivalry on the football field, but Monday they did so on the golf course.
Teams of former Panthers and Nittany Lions played at Oakmont Country Club as a part of media day for the 2016 U.S. Open, which will take place there in June 16-19.
The winner of the friendly competition might be a mystery — both teams claimed to have won handily — but the more important result will come Sept. 10 when the teams meet on the football field for the first time since 2000.
“It’s big for Western PA,” former Pitt punter Tony Recchia said. “For our program, and their program. I think [the rivalry going away] was a really negative thing that happened to the players in Western PA.”
Recchia represented Pitt at Monday Oakmont along with former offensive lineman Jimbo Covert and linebacker Troy Benson. On the Penn State side were linebacker Shane Conlan, offensive lineman Mark Battaglia and kickers Matt and Chris Bahr.
Both teams were captained by representatives from the Steelers. Former running back Jerome Bettis played with Penn State, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played with Pitt.
Even Bettis, who went to Notre Dame, said he was looking forward to the Pitt-Penn State series resuming.
“For a guy who hates both teams, but has lived in Pittsburgh for 10-plus years, I think it’s a very important rivalry,” Bettis said. “Very important. The fact that they didn’t play for so many years, I think, took away from both programs. I think it really deprived this whole area of a game that everybody wanted to see.”
All seven of the players said they plan on being at Heinz Field for the game this fall, and look forward to reminiscing about some of their experiences playing in the series.
Matt Bahr said his “proudest game as a kicker” came against the Panthers in 1977, when he made three field goals on a bitterly cold afternoon at Pitt Stadium as the Nittany Lions claimed a 15-13 win.
“I was so happy with the way I kicked in such horrible conditions,” he said. “That rivalry is truly one of the great college rivalries.”
Players on both sides also recalled their 24-24 tie in 1983, when it looked as if Pitt had won as the seconds ticked off the clock, but officials ruled there was still time left and Penn State kicked a field goal to even the score.
“They were all leaving like, ‘Yeah, we won,’” Conlan said. “Then they had to come back and we kicked a field goal to tie it.”
Recchia said he realized that the players who re-ignite the rivalry in 2016 may not feel the same passion about it as he and his teammates did, but hopes both sides will take some time to do their homework.
“I think the players today should go back and look at the history, the history of the Pitt program and the Penn State program,” he said. “Look at the games we play and the players who played in those incredible games.”
The two teams are scheduled to play four games — two at Heinz Field and two at Beaver Stadium — before the series goes on hiatus again.
Pitt athletic director Scott Barnes said in September that he reached out to Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour about extending the series even longer, but the Nittany Lions balked at the proposal.
Still, for the alumni Monday at Oakmont, they just hope the current crop of players get to enjoy the passion and thrill of the rivalry while it does last.
“I think basically you’ve got to tell [current players] that even though they’ve never played in this rivalry, it’s still Western PA against Central PA,” Benson said. “It’d be nice if we can get it going, though, because there’s no way that the kids today can feel what we felt. There’s no way. It’s going to have to gradually come back.”