Rudel: Emptiness fills final chapter of Pitt-Penn State


I will miss this game.

I’m not fighting city hall anymore about which camp is more to blame for going their separate ways 30-plus years ago, or how rivalries all over the country have been lost due to dollar-driven conference realignments, or whether it should now be a 2-for-1 arrangement, or about how one side brags about being “unrivaled” but helped draw the biggest crowd in the history of Pittsburgh sports for the 2016 return, or whether there should be an automatic place on the non-conference schedule for each other.

If we can’t agree on the present or the future, let’s at least appreciate the past.

As the Beatles said, “Let it be.”

But while fully aware it all changed in the 1980s when an attempt to organize an Eastern conference failed, Pitt went to the Big East and later the ACC and Penn State joined the Big Ten, and though there’s a sense of finality today, you don’t walk away from more than 100 years of history without feeling a sense of emptiness.

It’s quite likely we won’t see another token resumption – like the four-year bone thrown from 1997-2000, after Penn State stopped the annual game in 1992, or the about-to-be-completed four more orchestrated by Bill O’Brien and Paul Chryst – until many of us are 75 or older or, well, ya know.

Regardless of whether it’s non-conference or not, annual or not, I will miss the game.

To families in this region – certainly from Altoona west to Pittsburgh – this game was special because many had parents, siblings, uncles, aunts and friends with ties to both schools.

And that’s something even a (PSU) non-conference game with Auburn (2021, 2022) can’t replace.

But what especially can’t be replaced — no matter the schools and their affiliations today, no matter the changing administrations and coaches — are the memories.

If you ask any Penn State or Pitt player up to 1990, they will tell you this was their favorite game, bar none.

It was almost always the regular-season finale, and even if one team didn’t reach its goals, or its potential, this game marked a chance for an exclamation point or a chance to salvage a season.

Penn State can brag about 48-14 in 1981, and knocking Pitt from No. 1 – still the best regular-season victory in PSU history – and Pitt can brag about winning the national championship in 1976, before the Nittany Lions had climbed the mountain in 1982 and then ’86.

During that 10-year-stretch (1976-86), Eastern football – with ex-PSU quarterback Jeff Hostetler at West Virginia, Syracuse thriving and Doug Flutie at Boston College – was never better, and it was Penn State and Pitt driving the bus and driving each other to be at their best.

As great of a home as the Big Ten has been for Penn State, I miss those days and so do many who experienced them.

Penn State can brag about Joe Paterno. Pitt can brag about Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill. On opposite sides, the coaches were enemies who later became great friends.

Each featured players who are among the greatest of all time. Pitt can brag about Ditka and Dorsett and Marino. Penn State can brag about Ham, Franco and Lenny Moore.

In the early years, the game was usually played at Pitt Stadium because it seated 60,000 – home to the Steelers as well – and was something Penn State agreed to because Beaver Field seated only 30,000 and the Nittany Lion brass saw valuable exposure in western Pennsylvania that helped recruiting.

Media coverage and relationships were, of course, different then, and, while in Pittsburgh, coaches and school officials would find their way to hangouts like Frankie Gustine’s, where Paterno and the great Beano Cook, the colorful Pitt publicist, once had to be separated over a disagreement, supposedly over a recruit.

“He made some derragatory remark about Pitt, and I gave it right back about Penn State,” Cook said. “I’m lucky (PSU aide Sever) Toretti stepped in.” (They ultimately maintained a longstanding love-hate friendship, and Beano interviewed Sue Paterno in an ESPN feature at the family’s home in 2001.)

In the 548 games he coached, Paterno had only three ties. The Lions blew a 17-0 lead in the 1967 Gator Bowl and were tied by Florida State, and 13-13 against Maryland in 1989 when neither team could get out of its own way at old Memorial Stadium.

But the 1983 game at Pitt ended 24-24 when Penn State kicked a 32-yard field goal as time expired, and Paterno was all but chased off the field by angry Pitt fans.

Pitt thoroughly outplayed the Lions that day (rolling up 32 first downs to PSU’s 14), and Paterno knew it so rather than try a trick play that he considered on fourth-and-6 from the Pitt 15, he summoned Nick Gancitano, whose field goal felt like a loss for Pitt.

It was really the only time Paterno settled for a tie, but in this case, it was worth it.

The first Penn State-Pitt game I covered was in 1977 at Pitt Stadium. Penn State led 15-7 late in the fourth quarter, and as the snow fell and the yard markers became invisible, Matt Cavanaugh hit Gordon Jones for a touchdown with less than 20 seconds remaining.

We were hustling down the steps, through the crowd, and I can still hear my pal and Daily Collegian colleague Jerry Lucci reminding, “two-point conversion,” just as Matt Millen and Joe Diange combined to stop Elliott Walker to preserve a 15-13 win.

But as much as the games were spirited, the rivalry was rooted by familiarity, geography and ultimately friendship.

Those traits were on full display years later as dozens of ex-Nittany Lions and Panthers would gather annually for a benefit golf tournament.

Former Altoona great and Pitt captain Troy Benson has told me when he was drafted by the New York Jets, the first guys he looked for were from Penn State and Notre Dame.

Today, when the Jets hold their annual alumni golf outing, Benson drives up with Lance Mehl (Penn State) and Bob Crable (Notre Dame).

True rivalries extend beyond the field.

That’s what I’ll miss about this series, while it was annual, and, though we’ve only gotten eight in the last 27 years, this game.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.