PITTSBURGH – The No. 5 Pitt men’s basketball team wasn’t the only beneficiary of Monday night’s 74-66 win against No. 3 Syracuse.
So was the Pitt football team.
Pitt head football coach Todd Graham (pictured above) brought a slew of recruits to the Petersen Events Center to sit next to the Oakland Zoo and watch the bout of two Big East powers. What resulted could not have been scripted any better.
Pitt started the game on a 19-0 run in the opening 7:48, sending all in attendance into an all-out frenzy.
“It was crazy,” Pitt small forward Gilbert Brown said after the game. “When we got up big – that first run – that’s probably the loudest the Pete has ever been since I’ve been here.”
Pitt set an attendance record, squeezing in 12,925 bodies into the Pete. The noise record that Brown spoke of was almost necessary, considering the circumstances surrounding the football program.
Pitt fired former head coach Dave Wannstedt after a disappointing 7-5 regular season mark. His successor, Mike Haywood, lasted just 16 days as head coach before being arrested on a domestic violence charge in Indiana.
The athletic department hired Graham a week and a half later, but left him with little to work with as far as recruiting goes. Many that committed to the program under Wannstedt had lost faith in the direction of the program and decided to go elsewhere.
The class dwindled from as many as 20 commits to barely a handful.
Thus, Graham had just one chance to sell the Pitt atmosphere to players considering commitment to the football program. After last night, the fan support and excitement surrounding Pitt sports can no longer be considered an issue.
“We always have great crowds,” Pitt head basketball coach Jamie Dixon said. “We’ve always had unbelievable support. I can’t thank (the fans) enough.”
The support gained a few members in the second half of the Pitt-Syracuse game. With Pitt’s lead in jeopardy — leading by just two with 12:09 to play — Graham and four members of his newly formed coaching staff left their seats behind the basket, walked to the student section, donned “Oakland Zoo” T-shirts and proceeded to jump, yell and chant to cheer on the basketball team.
In turn, the Panthers went on a 7-0 run, squashing any chance of a Syracuse comeback. The Orange wouldn’t get closer than four points the rest of the way.
“We’re a place where we tell people not to come to the game if there’s a blizzard or snow out – we still get 9,000 (fans),” Dixon said. “We have a game (during last week’s divisional playoff game between the Steelers and Ravens) and we still have 10,000.
“We can’t sell any more tickets because they’re all sold out. You put all those things together and nothing surprises me. It’s a great sports town.”
That type of fan support seems to be seeping back in to the football program. After Haywood was fired, many fans, alumni and boosters were up in arms. An online petition was started, calling for Athletic Director Steve Pederson’s job.
Since Graham’s introductory press conference, many have found new life and enthusiasm for the football program. He’s said all of the right things so far and, if channeling his inner Bruce Pearl says anything, he’s doing all of the right things as well.
“Every time we made a run or made a big stop the crowd was right there behind us,” Brown said. “They truly are our sixth man. It was big for us. Having a crowd like the Zoo really helps us out a lot and is the reason why we’re so tough to play at home.”
Hopefully it’s a reason to believe in the football program, too.
Big Thanks to @petephoto for the picture of Todd Graham. If you have a Twitter account, I highly suggest you give him a follow.
Chris Gates | Area 4-1-Zoo Blog