Monday, June 20, 2011
Heart of the City: Pittsburgh
By Brian Bennett
We're taking a closer look at city schools in college football. Our definition of a city school is one that competes in the same city/market as an NFL franchise. The Big East has a few of them. Let's examine the Pittsburgh Panthers
Location: Pittsburgh, Pa.
Enrollment: 18,000 full-time undergraduate students
Bowl appearances: 23
NFL first-round picks: 22
Losing seasons: 33
10-win seasons: 5
Source: ESPN Stats & Info (Note: College numbers date back to 1936, the first year of the AP poll. NFL numbers date back to 1970.)
The good: For many years, Pitt was one of the premier football programs on the East Coast. The Panthers claim nine national championships, the last coming in 1976. They have also produced scores of legendary players, including Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, Hugh Green and Mike Ditka.
Pitt is located in a football-mad area, and thanks to a solid partnership with the Rooney family, it shares top-flight facilities with the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers, including Heinz Field. The Panthers' and Steelers' training facilities are connected, so Pitt players can interact with NFL stars on a daily basis. Western Pennsylvania has long been a fertile ground for recruiting, and Pittsburgh boasts top-flight academics as well as the comforts of an underrated city.
The program went through a dry spell after Jackie Sherrill left in 1982, and it has struggled to reach the same heights since. Things looked to be turning around when alumnus Dave Wannstedt led the team to a 10-win season in 2009, but Wannstedt was forced to resign after 2010's 7-5 regular season record. New coach Todd Graham is looking to restore the glory.
The bad: Pittsburgh is a Steelers town first. The Panthers got an upgrade when they moved downtown to Heinz Field, but there is little college feel to the place, and the stadium is very rarely full except for when marquee opponents like West Virginia and Notre Dame come to town.
Pitt's greatest accomplishments came as a football independent, and those have not been matched since the school joined the Big East in 1991. The Panthers have not won a single outright conference title and have made only one BCS appearance, getting blown out of the 2004 Fiesta Bowl by Utah. The program's recent history is filled with disappointments, big-game losses and stunning upsets.
Shifting population patterns mean that Pittsburgh can no longer rely simply on Western Pennsylvania talent to fill the roster, and competition for the best players in-state is fierce with Penn State and Ohio State as main competitors. The school has changed coaches frequently and hasn't found a signature leader since the days of Sherrill and Johnny Majors (even Majors' second go-round as Pitt coach ended up a failure). Perhaps Graham can help the program establish an identity and return to the elite status it once enjoyed.