Grounded in the East
Jump to Big Ten very unlikely for Pitt footballPosted: Saturday August 09, 2003 6:36 PM
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Pittsburgh will start this college football season in the Top 15 nationally but only No. 3 in the Big East, an on-the-rise program but one still chasing Miami and Virginia Tech.
Next year, it could be an entirely different ballgame -- one that might find the Panthers emerging as the pre-eminent program in the country's most heavily populated region.
The departure of Miami and Virginia Tech from Big East after this season will create hardships for the remaining conference schools, but it will also create opportunities. Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris is already using them in sales pitches to prospective recruits.
Not long ago, his pitch was the chance to play against some of the nation's top programs before a very large audience. Now, he can sell more than that, much more.
"Quite a few years ago, in 1976, we had the best product in college football, and in 1979-80-81, we lost only one game in those seasons. If we have the opportunity to challenge to be like that again ... it's exciting," Harris said.
Harris attaches an asterisk to that statement by pointing out, "It's also what Boston College and Syracuse and West Virginia are saying, too."
But when Miami and Virginia Tech relocate to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004, the window of opportunity for Pitt to move into college football's elite won't have been more wide open since the aforementioned days when Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill coached the Panthers.
"I like playing Miami and Virginia Tech, our players like playing them and the challenge of playing them," Harris said. "Miami's the best. ... But if we have the opportunity [to play for a national championship], that's exciting, too."
Even after Miami and Virginia Tech leave, the Big East is guaranteed of sending at least one team to a major bowl in 2004 and 2005 via the BCS process. After several years of strong recruiting, Pitt has positioned itself to be that team.
Pitt has shown perceptible growth in football since moving into its new practice facility three years ago and into Heinz Field two years ago, winning 16 games the last two seasons. Now, the idea is to grow the attendance, too, just as the Panthers seem ready to emerge as the top power in a reshaped Big East.
After playing some games before two-thirds empty houses at Heinz Field the last two seasons, Pitt has launched an ambitious campaign in which season tickets can be purchased for less than $100. The combination of lower ticket prices and a much-anticipated season could result in the Panthers' best attendance since they nearly sold out Pitt Stadium for the 1982 season. They began that season ranked No. 1 nationally.
Harris has long talked of the day when Pitt would enjoy the kind of home field advantage that Penn State and Ohio State have, a big leap in attendance could help provide that. Pitt's new athletic director, Jeff Long, likes to think of what such an increase might mean to his bottom line. With Pitt bound to lose revenue once Miami and Virginia Tech leave, he needs to find every way to make up for the missing dollars.
Pitt will lose about $225,000 in revenue this year because ESPN is paying nearly $3 million less for the Big East's basketball rights than it did a year ago. Also, with star guard Brandin Knight leaving and the untested Jamie Dixon replacing Ben Howland as coach, there is no guarantee Pitt will again sell out every home basketball game.
Pitt faces even steeper revenue cuts next year, when ABC and ESPN plan to renegotiate their Big East football rights fees once Miami and Virginia Tech leave.
Long has seen how a decline in revenue has affected other Big East schools -- West Virginia cut a handful of minor sports earlier this year to save money -- and he realizes adjustments may be necessary at Pittsburgh, too.
"It's unclear how much of an impact it [the renegotations] will have," Long said. "The Olympic [minor] sports are important to us but, as we navigate this conference landscape, we'll need to look at cuts, revenue generation, increasing ticket sales and donations ... we'll need to look harder to find ways to offset [any drop in revenue].
"But we're confident we can do that."
Despite the loss of the conference's two biggest marquee names, there doesn't appear to be any strong movement at Pitt to abandon the Big East and seek alternative membership, such as in the Big Ten.
Long has been on the job only a couple of months, but he hasn't detected any interest in dropping Boston College and Syracuse and replacing them with Purdue or Wisconsin.
Even if the Big East's football-only schools split from the basketball-only schools to form a slimmed-down conference, expect Pittsburgh to go along.
"As you look at the University of Pittsburgh, and where's our future -- to the East or to the Midwest -- I think you would say it is grounded in the East," Long said. "Is the Big Ten an outstanding conference? Yes. Are the universities AAU [Association of American Universities] like Pittsburgh? Yes. But our focus is truly on strengthening our relationship with the existing schools we're associated with.
"We're not looking at all at leaving the conference."