PITTSBURGH – I am about to make the answer to that headline an emphatic yes.
The University of Pittsburgh has a rich football history and lays claim to nine national championships along with countless NCAA All Americans and NFL stars. Unfortunately, the last 25 to 30 years have only inspired a decrease in interest in the football program.
All the while basketball has used the last decade to rise in to the ranks of the elite, mentioned with Duke, North Carolina and Kansas as far as winning and consistency goes.
So as the recent – and widely unpopular – hiring of new head football coach Mike Haywood mixes with No. 6 Pitt’s recent 78-63 win against No. 4 UConn in basketball, I’ve begun to wonder…
Has Pitt officially evolved from a football school to a basketball school?
Athletically, most universities are known for one or the other, and people around the country recognize them for that success. So I’ll say yes to Pitt being a basketball school and I’ll give you the reasons why.
First and foremost, the basketball team wins on a consistent basis. That’s something football can’t seem to do: string together multiple seasons of success. Basketball is now a mainstay in the AP top 25, regularly appearing in the top 10.
Football can’t seem to win big games while basketball continually ups the bar season after season with big wins (see the 8-0 all-time record at the Petersen Events Center against top 5 opponents).
And speaking of the Pete, isn’t it telling that the basketball team’s arena resides where the football team used to play?
Sure is. The football team got pushed out of campus across the city to the North Shore to play in a rental stadium, Heinz Field. In return, the basketball team got a sparkling new arena that is filled on a nightly basis.
Yep, that’s fan interest, which is another key component to determining Pitt’s athletic identity.
In the win against UConn Monday night, fans were decorated in gold and created a hostile environment that surely helped the Panthers’ energy level and passion. It was especially telling to see almost a full student section – the Oakland Zoo – on hand for the game as well.
With the university on winter break, that means students traveled back to campus just to see a basketball game. When the football team played West Virginia on Thanksgiving break, the students couldn’t sell out their allotment of seats in the lower bowl.
The Backyard Brawl had huge implications, as Pitt could have won the Big East and earned a BCS bowl bid with a win. Still, it wasn’t enough to peak student interest or cause enough of the general public to buy up seats and, therefore, WVU fans invaded Heinz Field as they seemingly always do every two years.
And back to that whole coaching situation. Jamie Dixon walks on to the court every game to loud cheers and approval. Listen to any sports-talk radio show or visit your favorite Pitt message board online and you’ll hear/see comments from fans upset with the hire and worried with the direction of the football program.
That worry means people still care about Pitt football. But as it continues, more and more fans divert their interest to a winner: Pitt basketball.
So yes, Pitt is a basketball school. It may not have the championships that Duke, North Carolina, Kansas or even the football program has, but it does have the respect those programs possess.
Especially from its own fans.
Chris Gates | Area 4-1-Zoo Blog