PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — Is it heretical for me to say I’m more excited about the future of Pitt football than I am about that of men’s basketball?
That is not to say the decade spent by Jamie Dixon maintaining his program will have been in vain. I’ll take the chances of the ’13-’14 Panthers–come who may–against those of the Tar Heels, Tigers, and Terps of the college basketball world.
But the imminent shift to the Atlantic Coast Conference from the Big East, in all its macroeconomic splendor, is more of the same for Pitt basketball. Same stakes, same lofty expectations (perhaps, occasionally, to a fault), same general strength of competition, same bottom line.
For Paul Chryst, however, this could be the beginning of a very different direction for his football program. With the formal realization of an imaginative matchup with Orange Bowl champion Florida State this Labor Day, which coincided with the release of the full 2013 schedule, Pitt football took a significant step toward reacquiring what it has lost. Something that Pitt basketball had all along: relevance.
There’s no guarantee that night will end well for a team fresh off another year of mediocrity. But let’s give Chryst and AD Steve Pederson credit for eschewing the embarrassment factor.
The former was already thoroughly outplayed and out-coached by a second-tier NCAA program in his Heinz Field debut. Even before that, even before the Carrier Dome Collapse, even before Kevin Harper’s Bad Luck O’ The Irish, even before the New England Nightmare that ensued, the program had brought agony, unpredictability, and a stomach-churning mix of the two to toxic levels. Even if the ‘Noles do, for example, what the conference rival ‘Canes did here three seasons ago, this program can’t embarrass itself any more than it already has.
So it’s time for its boosters to bask in an embarrassment of both tangible and intangible riches. The Panthers’ much-anticipated ACC debut Sept. 2 will be the first cash calf in a lucrative new television deal that will ultimately make Pitt football considerably richer than it was in the Big East. Chryst and his staff have ambitious plans for the program and its recruiting base, and unless Gary Andersen says “to hell with it” and Barry Alvarez comes calling again, he will now have even fewer excuses not to follow through with those plans.
Furthermore, Pitt receives the gift of gab. Our own Chris Peak of Panther-Lair.com made an apt comparison, hailing the 2013 slate the most hype-worthy schedule the football team has played since 2003. Sure enough, excluding the tumultuous tail-end of the Dave Wannstedt era, it’s probably been about a decade since talk of anything gaudier than a plus-.500 finish was remotely serious.
When was the last time talk of Big East football, as a whole, was remotely serious?
Yep, my thoughts exactly.
Some of the ridicule of the “b-ACC-stabbed” Big East has been melodramatic, when you consider recent postseason success compared to that of other power conferences, and had they ever benefited from the kind of leadership for which Pederson and other Big East AD’s clamored for years, I might not be writing any of this.
However, perception being nine-tenths of reality, a home schedule highlighted by Louisville, Temple, and Rutgers is no cure for BFS (Battered Fan Syndrome). A home schedule highlighted by two BCS participants and an old, polarizing rival in Miami, on the other hand, should bring those fans out of their collective closet. If early sales figures quoted by Pederson, to say nothing of social media, are any indication, it already has.
The failure of Pitt to win the outright championship of a league frequently believed to be up for grabs is among the most glaring ones of the Pederson era. There are legitimate reasons to be upset with his supervision of this football program. The events leading up to and including this schedule reveal do not qualify.
Wouldn’t it be nice for Pitt to play a game in Charlotte in December that, you know…meant something?
Thank Steve Pederson for that opportunity.
You might say being a Pitt fan under his watch has been akin to being a fan of that team that plays just a couple blocks to the left, minus the Saturday sellouts. You might also say the two share a common solution to a common problem: give those fans something worth watching, and both stadiums will fill. By orchestrating the move to the ACC and helping clear bureaucratic hurdles to set the stage for a grand entrance, Pederson has drawn the sort of attention not enjoyed by the program in some time.
If at first the Panthers exit stage left with their tails between their legs, it will be, chiefly, a matter of immaturity, not incompetence. In the long run, Pederson, as symbolized by this schedule, has given the program a sporting chance to achieve its idealistic goals. The worst that can happen on Labor Day and in the aftermath is that Chryst will know where they stand in relation to those goals.
Chryst, unlike Wannstedt, does not project himself as one allergic to that attention. He, unlike his more recent predecessor, does not project himself as one to oversell it, either. If anything, Pitt has on its sideline a level-headed ambassador to lead it toward what could be a watershed moment. He has rising stars in Rushel Shell, J.P. Holtz, Aaron Donald and others to lead, and he has what former beat reporter Paul Zeise privately called Pitt’s best recruiting class since Wanny’s 2006 crop to follow.
For Pitt football, the buzz is back. Now all that’s missing is the glory.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)
Check out the Panther Hollow blog at 937thefan.com for more Pitt content.