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Penn State and Pitt: One Last Time…

Pitt and Penn State students pull up a chair, gather one last time on the porch, and I’ll tell you of a rivalry soon to vanish from our midst. This middle-aged man with an old soul wants you to grasp the history you will witness on Saturday.

“Why do we love college football so much?” you ask. 

“Tradition! Tradition anchored in Rivalries!” I say.

October is Alabama-Tennessee and Oklahoma-Texas. In November, the season ends with Ohio State-Michigan, Alabama-Auburn, and even Harvard-Yale. You younger fans may find it hard to imagine a time when the Penn State-Pitt season-ending game ranked among the greatest sports rivalries. 

That is not old man embellishment of the “Good Old Days.” From 1976 through 1986 the game was often a national semi-final. The winner played for the national championship five times and another time Pitt came into the game ranked #1 before losing. Penn State won two National Titles and Pitt one in that stretch. In October 1981 Penn State and Pitt topped the polls at No. 1 and No. 2 before both finished in the top four. 

None of you were alive before Penn State announced it was joining the Big Ten. Most of you probably don’t know the Lambert Trophy has recognized an Eastern Football Champion since 1936. From 1936 through 1992, before both teams started conference play, the winner of this game took home the Lambert Trophy 27 times. 

This rivalry was forged in rural steel, factory, and farm towns where Friday Night Lights was more than just a TV show cliché. It was built by tough inner-city kids who became first-generation college students because of football.

Penn State-Pitt was lunch-pail mentality and blue-collar toughness but also speed and grace. North winds sent temperatures plunging across November’s gridirons of 60-minute trench battles. It was the smell of cigars in the stands. It was a walk up Cardiac Hill into Pitt Stadium or tailgating in muddy fields near Beaver Stadium. The urinals in both stadiums were troughs and we liked it that way. 

It was a Thanksgiving weekend drive through Route 22 towns like Altoona, Ebensburg, Blairsville and Monroeville and flurries as you crossed Cresson Mountain. It was bundling up with tossel caps, gloves, scarves, and a blanket. It was one last outdoor spectacle before the onset of winter, the last weekend before deer season. It was the one “must-win game” for fans of both schools across the Commonwealth. It was a moment for a young man to attain immortality.

There were no “safe spaces” and your emotional support animal was a hard-tackling defense and a swig from the flask of bourbon the guy next to you slipped into the game. The hitting was so intense that fans seated too close to the action suffered concussion symptoms for days after the game.

In those days, Penn State and Pitt competed all year long recruiting the best players in Pennsylvania and across the East. Once players chose a side even high school teammates grew to hate each other in this game. I saw former teammates go after each other in bench-clearing brawls in 1986 and 1989. (I was on the team for those and although on principle I oppose teams fighting—those ones seemed right).  

In the new Gatorade Commercial called “Make Your Rival Your Fuel” Houston Texans player JJ Watt says:

“If I could give an athlete one piece of advice, it’d be to find a rival. Someone committed to taking you down. They should scare you into starting early and staying late…You will hate them, but then you will respect them and love them. Because that rival that wants to take you down is gonna make you raise your game even higher.”

After all these years in different conferences, can anyone at Penn State or Pitt honestly say they have found that? Not like this was.

Pitt fans, is there anyone in the ACC that you dislike as much as smug Penn State fans? Penn State fans, do you think any Big 10 school looks at you like Pitt looks at this game? Until Ohio State or Syracuse put in a year-long countdown clock to their annual games with Penn State or Pitt you haven’t found that rival.

We old folks wants yinz on both sides to understand this rivalry is being played for the 100th time…FOR THE 100th AND LAST TIME! 

This one last time watch every minute of it. Late Saturday afternoon, this rivalry recedes into history and with it the memories of all us old folks. Some of us may not live to see the 101st meeting. 

Fans should get there early, stay late, and be loud. Do honor to the men who played 99 games spanning 126 years. They got up early and stayed late because they knew the team 120 miles away was also focused on that game above all others.

Players and coaches will take the field for a game that was the season’s ultimate game for 46 College Hall of Fame Coaches and players, 46 NFL first-round picks and 14 NFL Hall of Famers. Players, honor that legacy with your fire, passion, and effort. You will be the last to play this game for a long time.

The ghosts of the past are watching. Make them proud.

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About the Author

Jay Paterno

Jay Paterno is an alumni-elected member of the Penn State Board of Trustees and a regular columnist for StateCollege.com.

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