Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, one cannot help but be exposed to Pitt and Penn State football fans and hearing about the rivalry that Pitt and Penn State had.
If one would look at Pitt football’s online message boards, one would never know that the two schools haven’t faced one another since the year 2000. More likely, one might think the two schools play fiercely contested games annually and again would face each other perhaps as soon as the 2015 season opener for both schools. In fact, however, Pitt and Penn State will not meet on the gridiron until the 2016 season and a 16-year hiatus.
How good a rivalry was it and how did the Pitt-Penn State rivalry stack up against other college football rivalries across the country? Going back 50 years certainly gives a representative data set of information when considering any rivalry, but frankly, in terms of competitive balance Pitt-Penn State paled in comparison to other rivalries.
For those who claim Pitt-Penn State was a great rivalry, when looking at some of the better known college football rivalries during that same time period from 1965-2000, Army and Navy had a series record of 17-17-2, Texas and Oklahoma was 18-15-3, Notre Dame versus USC was 18-15-3 and Michigan versus Ohio State was 19-15-2.
Why even Michigan’s proclaimed “little brother” Michigan State fared better against Michigan than Pitt did against Penn State during that same time period. Michigan State had a record of 11-25 against the Wolverines in the same time frame that Pitt went 8-23-1 against Penn State.
In terms of rivalries Pitt-West Virginia and Pitt-Syracuse were far more competitive and evenly matched than Pitt-Penn State. In fact, Pitt’s series with West Virginia was much closer going 16-18-2 and against Syracuse going 14-21-1 over that same time span.
Penn State’s record against Syracuse wasn’t that much different from their record against Pitt during that same time period. Penn State went 21-5 versus Syracuse compared to 23-8-1 versus Pitt.
In 1965, head coaches John Michelosen at Pitt and Rip Engle at Penn State were in their final year as head coach of their respective schools. From 1966-2000, Pitt had eight head coaches face Penn State and not one had a winning record against Penn State head coach Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions. Those head coaches were: David Hart, Carl DePasqua, Johnny Majors, Jackie Sherrill, Foge Fazio, Mike Gottfried, Paul Hackett and Walt Harris.
Have you heard about the fierce Ohio State-Illinois rivalry? You haven’t? Me either, because no one considers it a rivalry. To put the Pitt-Penn State rivalry in perspective, in the last 32 games between Pitt and Penn State, Pitt defeated Penn State just eight times. In the last 30 games between Ohio State and Illinois, the Illini have beaten the Buckeyes 11 times.
Pitt fans, however, are quick to point out that Pitt won the last meeting between the two schools by a score of 12-0 in 2000. There was even a billboard in Southwest Pennsylvania proclaiming the score of the game. I doubt however that Pitt fans point out that the Panthers lost the previous seven meetings against the Nittany Lions prior to that contest.
One would think winning only one out of eight contests qualifies more as an aberration than a true rivalry.
If Pitt fans believe that Pitt would have been successful against Penn State since 2000, the records do not bear that out either.
Since 1936, the Lambert Trophy has been awarded annually to recognize the best team in northeastern college football and it has evolved to now recognize the best Division I college football team in primarily the Northeast United States or teams playing at least half of their games against Eastern opponents.
Pitt was awarded the first two Lambert Trophies in 1936 and 1937. Since 1965, Penn State has won 25 Lambert Trophies to Pitt’s three. Since their last meeting in 2000, Penn State has won the Lambert Trophy four times: 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2013. Pitt, on the other hand, has not won the Lambert Trophy since 1980.
In looking at the final college football rankings in the years that neither school won the Lambert Trophy since 2000, Penn State finished higher ranked than Pitt in the 2002 and 2006 seasons.
When comparing season records when neither school was ranked in the top 25, Penn State had a better season record than Pitt in 2007, 2011, and 2012 despite playing in a superior football conference. If anyone believes the Big East Conference was a tougher football conference than the Big Ten well that is sheer folly. Penn State also had a better record than Pitt in 2014.
In only four of the past 14 seasons did Pitt have a better record than Penn State, those being in 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2010.
For as much vitriol that Pitt fans have toward Paterno and blaming him for the end of the Pitt-Penn State football series, in regard to wins and losses, he may have actually done Pitt a service in taking Penn State off their schedule.
Perhaps it is true that as time goes on, the bigger the fish story becomes, and the faster we ran when we were young, and the line between what we remember and the actual truth becomes blurred and myths are created. For that is the case with the Pitt-Penn State football rivalry for as the records show, it is vastly overrated.
John Baranowski is a Sports Historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites.