New Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien made his first visit to Pittsburgh Monday night, as the Penn State Coaches Caravan bus rolled into town. I had an opportunity to attend the event, at downtown's Omni William Penn, and listen to O'Brien speak on a variety of college football matters, including everyone's favorite topic - the revival of Pitt/Penn State. When asked about resuming the Pennsylvania Classic, O'Brien, who has previously voiced support for the game, affirmed his desire to play Pitt annually, while recognizing the possible limitations posed by conference obligations:
I just believe that would be a great rivalry to play every year. If we can’t do it we can’t do it because of conference obligations, but if we could work it out, I think it would be a great rivalry. I just think it’s great for college football.
I don't want to beat a dead horse with even more Pitt/Penn State talk, so I'll just say I agree with O'Brien's sentiment. It's a great geographic rivalry with a textbook history - no doubt I'd like to see it revived. However, as O'Brien hinted, the reality is conference affiliations affect the series' possible return more than anything else. Once Pitt makes the jump to the ACC, both schools will have "set" nine game schedules, leaving only three open games on each's schedule. Marquee out-of-conference match-ups, with contracts already signed, like Notre Dame for Pitt, and Alabama for PSU then come into play, as well as lucrative cake games against mid-major or FCS opponents. Before you know it, the 12 game schedule is filled up.
While many of us would love to see the rivalry continue beyond our two year rendezvous in 2016-17, the economics of college football make it very difficult. For what it's worth, when asked during the media session about Penn State fan support for the game, O'Brien said "no one" has brought it up to him. Later in the evening, when playing Pitt was mentioned again, this time by a Penn State alum, the banquet hall of 400 white-haired PSU alumni (mostly from the Pittsburgh area) broke out into applause.
On a more relevant note to Pitt fans, O'Brien discussed the game where Pitt and Penn State do compete every year - western PA recruiting.O'Brien praised western Pennsylvania and emphasized the importance of increasing focus in the area.
I think this is a really strong high school football state. The high school football here is really good and the coaching is great. Western PA is just a fantastic place for high school football.
He also said that assistants Ron Vanderlinden and Mac McWhorter are assigned specifically to recruiting around the Pittsburgh area, and that every person on his staff has recruited in Pennsylvania at some point in the past.
This is really where Penn State enters Pitt's radar. If the Panthers are going to beat the Nittany Lions on the field, they first must beat them on the recruiting trail - especially in western Pennsylvania. It's way too early into Paul Chryst's tenure to see how well he'll do in keeping top talent close to home, but he got off to a good start by landing WPIAL stars Rushel Shell, Adam Bisnowaty, and J.P. Holtz this year. Jesse James, a tight end from South Allegheny, was Penn State's only WPIAL commitment. As the 2013 class is just beginning to form, Pitt has two WPIAL commitments, while Penn State has none. With Bill O'Brien showing no signs of easing off the gas in western PA, some fun years lie ahead between Pennsylvania's newly-rejuvenated powers.