Morelli OnLion: Pitt is It

For many Penn State football fans, Christmas came a bit early last week when it was announced that the Pitt Panthers will be returning to the schedule in 2016.

Sure, we will have to wait five years for the rivalry to re-surface, but this is definitely a rivalry worth waiting for.

In today’s edition of Morelli OnLion, we’ll take a closer look at the Pitt-Penn State rivalry. We’ll also have a new feature – Morelli OnLion’s Final Thought.

Pitt is It

Let’s talk rivalries for a moment, shall we?

Think about the 2011 Penn State football schedule. Now try to think of a natural rival. Sure, one could say that the game with Alabama at Beaver Stadium qualifies as a rivalry game. However, those teams meet so infrequently that it hardly qualifies as a rival. As far as the Big Ten schedule is concerned, one could make the argument that Ohio State is a rival. The Buckeyes and Lions have staged some classic games since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993. Since Ohio borders Pennsylvania, this is probably the most natural fit when it comes to a rivalry.

Still, it always felt a bit manufactured, didn’t it?

Michigan also works as a rival, to an extent. There have been some good contests between the Lions and Wolverines through the years, that’s certain. Along with the Bucks, this is the closest thing we have to a rivalry game.

But let’s face it – Ohio State and Michigan are rivals themselves. When it comes down to the final weekend of Big Ten play, that’s THE game. By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, the Buckeyes and the Wolverines have forgotten all about the Nittany Lions.

And for years, who did the Lions finish with? Michigan State. The Battle for the Land Grant Trophy. Talk about a manufactured rival.

By now, you know where I’m going with this.

For years, Penn State has needed a “natural” rival – and Pitt is it.

I have a unique perspective on this because I grew up in the Steel City and spent many Saturday afternoons at the long-gone Pitt Stadium. As a youngster, I cheered for both teams. I was a fan of Dan Marino and Hugh Green. Todd Blackledge and D.J.Dozier.

Cheering for both Pitt and Penn State? Most people said it wasn’t possible. I said it was. When it came time to choose a university, it came down to Pitt and Penn State . I can still hear my mother saying, “If it’s Pitt, you’re living at home.”

So off to Happy Valley I went.

Pitt and Penn State was once a great rivalry and can be great once again.

Think back to many of the classic games in the series. There was Penn State’s 15-13 contest in the snow at Pittsburgh in 1977. The 24-24 tie in 1983. And of course, the 48-14 Nittany Lions’ win against the then-No. 1 Panthers. That win is considered by many the greatest win in PSU history.

In case you forgot the last game in the series came in 2000, a 12-0 Nittany Lion loss at Three Rivers Stadium.

The problem – prior to last week – was that we had forgotten how good that rivalry once was. And how good it could be again.

Most Penn State fans will tell you that Penn State doesn’t need Pitt on the schedule. I disagree. They do need them – now more than ever before.

With the STEP program apparently not taking off like many thought it would, the Panthers are the shot in the arm the Nittany Lions need. Although it will be weird to see the Nittany Lions and Panthers playing in September, it will be a good thing. It will certainly help recruiting. Imagine bringing recruits to University Park for a game with the longtime rivals. It will happen in 2017.

Several years ago when he met with the Pittsburgh media at the Duquesne Club, coach Joe Paterno said that the rivalry wasn’t important anymore.

“I don’t think it’s important for Penn State,” Paterno said.

But times are now changing.

With openings on the schedule for 2016 and 2017, Penn State AD Tim Curley reached out to Pitt.

Just like that, the series will resume. That’s a good thing. This series means too much to Pittsburgh. Too much to State College. Too much to the state of Pennsylvania. Fans loved the game and will learn to love it again.

When it does happen, the non-conference slate won’t look so bleak. In 2016, Pitt will be guaranteed a sellout at Heinz Field. In 2017, Beaver Stadium will rock like we haven’t seen in years because the old rival will be back.

The time, quite simply, has come.

Morelli OnLion’s Final Thought:

Protective netting was recently installed at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park to protect fans down both baselines. So the next time you go to a Penn State or State College Spikes baseball game, prepare to have your view obstructed – at least a little bit.

Personally, I think it’s ridiculous.

I understand the need for netting directly behind home plate. However, down the lines? Seriously?

The problem is that in today’s society, no one pays attention to the game anymore. The paying fans are too busy looking at their smartphones, texting or taking photos with their digital cameras. It’s a shame, but it is what the game has become.

There’s no need for netting down the lines, but this is where we are as a society.

And that’s a shame.

Chris Morelli is an award-winning writer/editor who lives in Centre County and covers Penn State athletics for gantdaily.com. He’s also a regular on “Sports Central,” which airs on ESPN Radio in Altoona and State College. E-mail him at morellionlion@gmail.com. Also, be sure to check out Morelli OnLion on Facebook!

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