I was stunned to hear the news. I think many people were. But when they made the announcement that Pitt & Penn State would play in football again, a flood of memories came back reminding me of why this college football rivalry is one of the best.
I grew up in the 70’s & 80’s. And like many men of my age (41) who love sports can tell you that this game was as big as Ohio State vs. Michigan, Auburn vs. Alabama or USC vs. UCLA. It had all the hostility, pageantry, drama, and excitement games of this nature are supposed to have.
I so looked forward to this game each year, that a good friend of my parents bought me a book written by Tim Panaccio called Beast of the East: Penn State vs. Pitt. It chronicles the series from game one to the time of its publishing, the last being the game held at Pitt Stadium in 1981. If you know anything about me, that particular game left me scarred, along with many fans of the Panthers.
48-14. And it still stings today.
So with that being said, I wanted to take this time to review five games in this series that make is so special to me. Even if they haven’t played in 11 seasons. Pitt vs. Penn State is on like Donkey Kong in 2016.
5. November 14th, 1987. Pitt 10 – Penn State 0. This was the first game in the series that I attended in person. I was a senior in high school at the time and it was played at night down at old Pitt Stadium. It was also the University’s 200th anniversary that year. Craig ‘Ironhead’ Heyward was the offensive star in a game that was void of excitement until Billy Owens late INT return for six. There have been more dramatic contests played between the two, but you always remember your 1st.
4. September 19th, 1998. Penn State 20 – Pitt 13. And you Nits thought I was going to run the table with nothing but Pitt victories didn’t you? Guess again. This makes my top 5 because it marked the return of LaVar Arrington to his hometown. Penn State never really was threatened by Pitt that afternoon, as the series returned to town for the 1st time in nearly six years. I sat in the press box at Pitt Stadium that afternoon wondering if the Panthers would win any of the two remaining games in the series to come.
3. November 26th, 1977. Penn State 15- Pitt 13. I put this game on my list because it’s the 1st game in the series that I really remember watching on TV. It was held at Pitt Stadium and it snowed all afternoon long. The Panthers were down 15-7 when a late TD put them within two. The Panthers attempt for two was stopped just shy of the end zone and the Lions walked away winners. I remember seeing Joe Pa jumping with glee as the clock struck zero and I got this feeling in the pit of my stomach that it wouldn’t be the last time I would be upset over seeing him smile.
2. November 28th, 1981. Penn State 48 – Pitt 14. I liken this moment to when you go through your 1st breakup with a woman you really love. It was bitter. It was painful. It hurt all over. Again, Pitt Stadium played as the backdrop for this one and it had major national title implications. Pitt was undefeated and ranked #1 in the AP & UPI polls at the time. The Lions were 8-2, having just beat Notre Dame by 3 at Happy Valley. Dan Marino threw a pair of TD strikes in the 1st quarter to put Pitt up 14-0. His interception at the end of the 1st quarter in the back of the Lions end zone marked a turning point. Penn State would tie it up by the half and then dumped 34 more on the Panthers in a one-sided 2nd half. Ouch!
1. September 16th, 2000. Pitt 12 – Penn State 0. The series last game was held at the old concrete bowl in dahantahn. Three Rivers Stadium had not played host to the game since Tony Dorsett and the Panthers beat the Lions 24-7 back in 1976. John Turnman threw a 62 yard TD pass to Rod Rutherford, while the defense frustrated Lions QB Rashard Casey, holding PSU to just 225 yards of total offense. It would mark the final game in the series between these two great Eastern college football rivals and still remains a sore spot in conversation for Lions fans who have to live with the fact that the last game to be played in this series was won by its most bitter rival.
Ya got that Nittany Lions fans? Your rival in football is Pitt.
I just hope I can live to see Saturday, September 10th, 2016 and watch it be played again.
John Phillips is the author of this article and has been very public about the renewal of this great rivalry in college football. When he’s not calling for Joe Pa’s retirement, JP can be heard hosting talk-shows and anchoring sports updates on 93.7 The Fan.