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Pitt, Penn State Expose Pittsburgh Media's Rivalry Ruse

Before it was announced Tuesday that Pitt and Penn State will meet for a home-and-home series beginning in September 2016 at Heinz Field, many in the Pittsburgh media stood solidly behind one reason for the suspension of the series as explained by Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a column published September 12, 2000, before the final game at Three Rivers Stadium.

Paterno will mention how Pitt betrayed him when it joined the Big East basketball conference in 1982 rather than join Penn State in an all-sports Eastern conference. He can't help himself. He has to mention it every Pitt-Penn State week. No matter how big he has become, no matter how many championships he has won, no matter how close he is to breaking Bear Bryant's Division I record for victories, he is a small man when it comes to Pitt. It doesn't matter that Pitt didn't join the Big East until after Penn State had applied and been rejected. He blames Pitt for ruining his dream. That's his story and he's sticking to it.

"One of the most disappointing things in my life that happened at Penn State was that. ... It was a bitter pill to swallow. I was disappointed. There's a little frustration on my part."

That's the only reason the Pitt-Penn State series is going on a long hiatus.

That's the narrative Pittsburgh audiences were sold for 11 years until the schools agreed to renew the series. Writers and broadcast personalities set Paterno up as a stubborn and bitter old man, holding a public treasure hostage over a decades old snub by a Pitt administration long out of power.

They glossed over the stark differences between the programs and predicted the return of the Pitt-Penn State series would hinge solely on Paterno leaving the Penn State football program.


Not only did the schools announce the series would resume with Paterno still occupying his office in the Lasch Building, they made it clear the renewal would go no further than the home-and-home series in the foreseeable future, a future Paterno likely isn't going to be a part of as he'll be 90 by the time the series concludes. 

The Pittsburgh media quickly scrambled to plug the gaping holes in its fairy tale. The strategy? Frame Paterno as a shriveled, powerless being. Kevin Gorman in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

One clear thing is PSU has a timeline for the retirement of Joe Paterno, who has held a decades-old grudge against Pitt because he believes it sabotaged his plan for an Eastern power conference. It's no coincidence that the streak of 58 consecutive Pitt-Penn State games, which started in 1935, stopped when the Lions began Big Ten play in '93.

"I think Joe Paterno is getting soft," said Jackie Sherrill, the former Pitt coach and Paterno nemesis. "The Joe Paterno I used to know, he was not that soft. He must be getting soft in his old age, or is trying to do the right thing."

The guess here is Paterno won't be coaching the Lions in 2016, when he will be 89 years old. And that his declining to comment on the resumption of this series speaks volumes about his involvement in the resumption of it.

Only one problem for Gorman, Cook and their colleagues: By all accounts, Paterno has been as active in the last few months as he's been in a long time. He's been walking up to miles per day, and he's been Skyping with high school recruits. There's little reason to believe he holds any more or less power than he has at any point in the last decade while the series has been on hold.

That leaves the Pittsburgh media in a no-win situation. They can't argue, at least logically, that Tim Curley and Penn State the athletic department overpowered Paterno to make the series happen, nor can they argue Paterno has been standing in the way now that the series has been announced under his watch. Of course, that won't stop them from trying, but their credibility is gone.

Ultimately, there are a lot of factors that influenced the suspension, chief among them the fact that the schools are in different conferences. The only possible way for the teams to meet is in the non-conference schedule, where few dates are available after the necessary guarantee games against FCS and MAC level opponents are scheduled.

For an annual home-and-home, Penn State would have to give up it's ability to schedule blue bloods like Alabama and Notre Dame or Pitt would have to agree to a lopsided deal. Neither of those options are in both schools' best interests, so we're left with what we got between 1997-2000 and now 2016-2017, intermittent renewals of the rivalry.

If Pittsburgh media types care at all about the history and tradition of this rivalry, they'll take off their tinfoil hats, stop vilifying Paterno, allow both fan bases to celebrate the news of the series' brief return, and recognize that what they might think is in the fans' best interest may not be in the schools' best interests. If they don't, they'll expose themselves, not Paterno, as the ones who are unwilling to move on and accept life in the conference age.