No one is going to confuse Pitt-Penn State for Ohio State-Michigan or the Iron Bowl anytime soon. Pitt has not been nationally relevant since the early 1980s, while Penn State has been emerging from NCAA sanctions levied in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, so their first meeting since 2000 at the confluence of Pittsburgh’s three rivers Saturday will probably not register much around the country.
Some Penn State fans believe that’s enough reason not to play the series or call it a rivalry at all. They’d prefer to play more prominent teams and think the program has nothing to gain from competing against a lesser in-state foe that can make damaging claims to equality should it beat the Nittany Lions in any given year.
A rivalry doesn’t have to affect the national championship race to matter, though. What it needs most is nastiness, and this one has plenty to go around.
The following is a Twitter exchange from a couple of weeks ago between my Post-Gazette colleague Craig Meyer and a Pitt fan account.
— Craig Meyer (@CraigMeyerPG) August 17, 2016
@CraigMeyerPG can only wonder what he saw/heard on his unofficial that completely changed his mind about Penn State.
— Fan Account (@Hail_Pitt) August 17, 2016
Yes, that individual is not-so-cryptically suggesting that Sandusky’s pedophilia was so much of an open secret within the Penn State program and community that then-prospect Larry Fitzgerald would have heard about it a year before the infamous Lasch Building shower incident in 2001 that was the primary reason Joe Paterno lost his job when it came to light in 2011.
It is a disgusting, baseless implication that runs much more prominently through Pitt circles than most anywhere else. Sure, Penn State is (rightfully) shamed nationally for how its leaders handled the Sandusky scandal, but Pitt fans are among the few who seem gleeful to apply the stain more broadly to a community of people who’ve done nothing wrong.
It’s why many were so eager to buy “Joe Knew” shirts from a Pitt fan blog a couple of weeks ago before an angry backlash forced the sale to shut down, and why the same phrase was trending on Twitter in Pittsburgh this week.
Look at this guy.
When the Penn State fans start that "We Are" garbage Saturday…
Reply with "Joe Knew."
— Head Coach's Wife! (@CoachsWifeASU) September 6, 2016
That kind of behavior suggests many of these people aren’t genuinely concerned about the scourge of child abuse. Rather, they make light because they think they can define all of Penn State by it and create an imaginary moral high ground in the absence of anything to brag about on the football field.
And if that wasn’t enough to get your Nittany blood boiling, consider:
Thank you to Penn State Thon for raising 13 million for Pitt to cure pediatric cancer! #H2P
— David Alderson Jr ® (@H2PDAVID) February 22, 2015
Elements of Pitt Twitter light up with this dis every year after the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, which raises millions of dollars to benefit pediatric cancer research. (At Penn State facilities, mind you.) The implication being that because Pitt has highly ranked cancer research operations, Penn Staters who raise boatloads of cash should somehow feel like dumb grunts in the cancer fight.
Or something. I don’t know. Regardless, it’s braggadocio so horribly misplaced to the point that it’s hard to imagine any Nittany Lions fan would want to miss out on seeing their football team beat the Panthers senseless every year.
Don’t let Penn State partisans off the hook, though. This is far from one-sided childishness.
— the S zone (@the_S_zone) September 6, 2016
Many Nitters can’t help but mock devoted Pitt fans — who admirably show up to watch the Panthers’ chronic mediocrity in one of the ugliest stadiums in the country located miles away from the campus — by incessantly pointing at attendance woes before whining about how Pitt can sell more season-ticket packages than normal in a Penn State year, as if other Big Ten and nonconference opponents don’t similarly benefit from having the Lions’ broad and well-traveled fan base on a home schedule.
Some of it’s in good fun, but often these talking points, along with those outlined at the jump, have been presented by the more humorless as hard evidence of why Penn State “shouldn’t care” about Pitt past the upcoming four-year series scheduled to end in 2019.
In fact, this violent ego stroking belies a crippling sense of insecurity.
Yes, fans of other programs can be quite haughty. But I can’t think of a fan base so arrogant that it would truly believe playing Central Florida, Syracuse and Virginia — all recent centerpieces of PSU’s nonconference slate — is more big-time than a century-old rivalry steeped in tradition with an opponent located about three hours down the road. Imagine Florida State saying it was too good for Floirda after 2014, or USC trying to blow off Notre Dame during the Trojans’ run of titles in the aughts. It makes no sense.
So what’s actually going on here is a thinly veiled dread that Pitt might win a game, or two games, or three games, and succeed to the point that Penn State’s vast resource advantage wouldn’t be able to mask the fact that it’s been a fairly middling program for a while now.
Since the series was broken off in 2000, Penn State has finished the season ranked in the AP top 10 three times, in 2005, 2008 and 2009. It has otherwise been bad (2000-2004) or sanctioned (2012-2015), with a few decent Zack Mills and Anthony Morelli-led seasons thrown in there.
If I was a Pitt fan, I wouldn’t care if my program made $0 off a home game as long as the Panthers regularly got a chance to penetrate that delicate Penn State facade of superiority. And I’d resent the heck out of Nitters for being so consumed by their insecurities to argue that this historic rivalry is beneath them.
So what we ultimately have here are two fan bases that deserve each other not because their teams are titans playing a game with major implications for the national championship race, but because they hate each other’s guts, whether everyone will admit it or not.
It’s a simmering contempt that’s not going to go away if the game goes on hiatus again. It has been omnipresent since that last meeting at Three Rivers Stadium in 2000, playing out these increasingly petty, borderline sociopathic online squabbles.
It needs three hours of in-stadium catharsis followed by 364 days of the winning program being able to point at the scoreboard to implode the other’s carefully constructed heights of ignorance.
That is why Saturday at Heinz Field matters. To hell with whatever else happens in college football.