Sometimes, the best argument that can be made in support of anything is the gut reaction.
The gut reaction here as far as whether to continue the Penn State-Pittsburgh rivalry every fall is that, absolutely, it needs to live on.
Why? Go to these games and nobody would have to ask that question. It’s the closest thing a college football fan in Pennsylvania will find to a Yankees-Red Sox game in October. Unadulterated dislike on both sides. Intensity. History.
Penn State may want that with Ohio State or Michigan. But you better be hated back, and the Buckeyes and Wolverines reserve that distaste for each other. Pitt may want that with somebody, but it’s a Big East school that plays in the Atlantic Coast Conference, a school knocking on the Midwest’s door with a Midwestern heart that isn’t moving the needle as much as it needs to in the Southeast.
They may not always want each other. But if they want true rivalry games, Penn State and Pittsburgh need each other.
Which is why it’s always a story when one of the schools’ athletic directors sits down in front of a group of reporters, gets a question about keeping the rivalry going and responds with a shrug and a “Gee, we’d love to continue this. But…”
Lyke makes her case: Last week, Pittsburgh athletic director Heather Lyke took her turn, telling reporters Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour still hasn’t signed a proposal she sent last year that would keep the rivalry alive after the schools’ four-year agreement expires after the 2019 season.
“We’re going to wait a tad more patiently, but not much.” Lyke said, “We can’t. … We have people who want to play us and good opportunities to play what would be a very attractive game.
“But I think out of the respect for Penn State and the opportunity within the commonwealth, we want to play Penn State. If they don’t (want to play Pitt), we will obviously shift gears.”
Read between the lines, though, and the truth is evident.
Business, strategy or spite? The Nittany Lions and Panthers will play in September at Heinz Field, and next September at Beaver Stadium, and it will be a long time after that until they’ll meet again.
Call that business or strategy or spite or whatever.\
Unless both sides make concessions, the rivalry can’t possibly go on. Not with the Big Ten’s nine-game schedule, or the College Football Playoff committee’s focus on nonconference scheduling.
Here’s what would have to happen, at this point, for an agreement to be reached:
PSU wants 2-for-1 deal: Penn State would have to get its 2-for-1. Bottom line is, it’s difficult to see any longer-term deal being struck between these programs if Penn State doesn’t get this concession from Pitt.
Basically, the Nittany Lions would get two home games for every road game in the series.
It would be a bitter pill for the Panthers to swallow —and here’s guessing the proposal Lyke sent to Barbour last year calls for an even rotation of home and away games — because it has always been a straight up home-and-home series.
Penn State has designs on competing for national championships and they’re legitimate goals. Pitt doesn’t.
The Nittany Lions only have three nonconference games to schedule per year moving forward, and they need to make sure one of those is against a Top-20-caliber program. Getting that quality of program on the schedule always involves a home-and-home agreement. The Lions can’t pigeonhole themselves into a nonconference schedule that might include two nonconference road games, and preferably, they’d only play on every other year anyway.
Any Pitt deal would make it more difficult to do that. Maybe a two-for-one would make it more palatable for the Lions.
Pitt wants to creatively sell tickets: Pitt would have to be allowed to sell tickets the way it wants to sell them.
It’s no secret the Panthers irritated Penn State when it mandated that anyone who wanted tickets to see the Nittany Lions play at Heinz Field in 2016 needed to purchase their seats as part of a Pitt season-ticket plan.
On its face, that’s obviously not fan-friendly. It was also good business for a program that needs to take advantage of prime opportunities when it gets them.
The Panthers play in a nearly 70,000-seat stadium, off campus, in a major league town where the professional football team dominates fan interest year-round. Expecting them to pack that stadium with paying customers every weekend to see Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Duke and Syracuse is unrealistic.
They’d be irresponsible not to creatively sell their most in-demand games, and judging by how many empty seats there were at Pitt games last year, Penn State might be their only real in-demand game.
Certainly, Penn State might want its fans to be able to buy tickets for the Heinz Field games in the series without having to include it in a season-ticket package for games they have no intention to attend. But when you’re asking for a 2-for-1, you have to make a big concession in return.
Hard to see rivalry continuing: As great as it would be to have that one true rivalry game on the schedule every year, that one game that means a little bit more than just another win or loss in the standings, it’s honestly getting more and more difficult to see this continuing.
Penn State wants to pursue big dreams, and while upcoming series against Virginia Tech, Auburn and West Virginia probably help more in pursuit of better nonconference resumes, they don’t move the needle like a Pitt game does.
As Lyke suggested, the ball is in Penn State’s court now for sure.
It just doesn’t seem like it feels the need to do anything about it, which is both the benefit and the frustration of holding all the cards.