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Revisiting the Pitt Stadium / Heinz Field push 15 years ago

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Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

A few days ago, I admitted in the comments of a recent article that I was sick of the Pitt Stadium / on-campus stadium talk. There are plenty of reasons why an on-campus stadium would be a benefit, but frankly, we all knew it wasn't going to be happening anytime soon. Most, realize that it's not all that feasible, either. Chancellor Patrick Gallagher confirmed that in a recent interview, so I was ready to let the stadium stuff die out for the next few months until someone brought it up again.

I didn't expect to be that person, though.

A recent post on Pitt Blather linked to a Q&A about why Pitt's move to an off-campus stadium would be a good one that I had not seen previously or had seen and simply don't remember. Put out by the University, the Q&A presents a very obvious one-sided view. As a result, the actual answers aren't even all that important since, while providing some useful information, they fail to provide any reasonable sort of counterargument or look at the consequences of such a move. The interesting part to me is looking at some of that stuff 15 (almost 16) years later.

It's also worth pointing out that this proposal didn't make any mention of using the building as a basketball facility. It either wasn't being discussed yet or was being discussed and just not being shared. For the sake of the argument, I'm leaving that fully out of the equation, with the obvious realization that the upgraded basketball facilities have been a significant benefit to the University.

With that said, did the move to Heinz Field benefit the University and, more specifically, the football program as promised? Let's take a closer look at some of the highlight points presented in the article.

How would student life benefit?

In five ways. First, students have consistently identified the need for a recreation and fitness center as one of their top priorities. If the University could locate the Convocation Center on the stadium site, it could include such a state-of-the-art facility. Second, the stadium site could be used to provide additional student housing, possibly similar to the garden apartments now under construction on Bouquet Street. Third, the rest of the site could be used as green space. A more traditional campus setting, with lawn and trees, has been another top student priority. Fourth, locating the Convocation Center closer to the heart of campus would make events more accessible. And fifth, with its central location, a park-like setting, and a recreation and fitness center, the stadium site could become a welcome new hub of campus life – right in the heart of Oakland.

The Pete certainly filled the request for a rec/fitness center and anytime you're down there, you can not only see it being used through the windows accessible by the staircase, but used by generally a good number of students. In addition, it does include the oft-discussed green space with a large lawn area. The area is in fact a quality place for students and has obviously benefited them.

Overlooking the fact that a new center could have been built any number of places, the demolition of Pitt Stadium clearly made this a reality.

What are the advantages to the athletic program?

Here again, the stadium move would produce several benefits. First and most obviously, it would strengthen the football program. The University already has a strong coach and, with UPMC, will soon have a first-class training and practice facility on Pittsburgh's South Side. Those assets, combined with the opportunity to play in a world-class stadium, would increase our ability to recruit top athletes. Great facilities are the key to attracting the country's best recruits, and creating a consistently successful football program that will bring pride to students, alumni and the public. Playing in the best football stadium in the country will lead to higher game attendance at home games, which will bring more revenue to invest back into the entire athletic program.

Well, okay. Heinz Field is certainly appealing in terms of recruits. There's also no doubt that the training and practice facility on the South Side is a bonus, too. Those are the pros.

But look at the other comments. Did that strengthen the program? To a degree, but not having an on-campus facility also lessened it a little, too. And while Pitt has landed its share of good athletes, the recruiting hasn't exactly taken off with the new stadium. Since 2002, where Rivals' team rankings date to, the Panthers have produced one class in the Top 25. Pitt certainly is more competitive than the days of the 1990s - even in the current 6-6 glut, and enjoyed more success last decade since the article was written. That is largely the result of landing some good players. But the Panthers, in general, do not land, or even attract, the country's best recruits as a result of the move. This article gives a rather unrealistic spin along the lines of 'If you build it, they'll probably come' - simply hasn't happened.

Then, of course, there's the comment about the new stadium helping to increase attendance. If you look back at that 1999 season (since that's when this article was penned), you'll see plenty of attendance figures mostly in the 30,000s and 40,000s. 15 years later, things haven't been any different. The key (not the only one, but the most important) ingredient to drawing better attendance over a sustained period has always been winning - not a new or even, better, stadium.

And, yeah, I don't need to address the whole 'best football stadium in the country' thing which is pretty off the wall.

What will be the impact on the region?

We believe that merchants in the Oakland area would gain from having a steady stream of potential customers coming into the neighborhood. Unlike the football stadium, which hosts only six football games a year, the Convocation Center would host over 50 University-sponsored events each year. And we think the region would gain in four important ways. First, it would enjoy greater use of a regional asset – namely, its new stadium. Second, it would benefit from the energy that will result from combining two great football traditions in one of America's best football towns. Third, it would benefit from yet another signal that Pittsburgh is on the move again, filled with a spirit of collaboration and excellence. Fourth, it would gain from an opportunity to strengthen its bonds with our students. In the modern economy, young people like our students are the lifeblood of a region's strength. Giving them broader exposure to our region, extending our commitment to "the city as our campus" in this way, will increase their likelihood they will want to stay here after they graduate.

Yeah, outside of the whole thing about a place that hosts events (which it does through concerts, etc.) and additional revenue for merchants (questionable, but I'll buy it), this is all pretty much jibberish.

It's also worth pointing out that, while there are concerts, etc., I don't know how many big events the venue hosts outside of basketball. While you can count on more basketball revenue since the team has been better and it is a larger venue than the Field House was, currently on the website, the only thing listed there is an Ariana Grande concert. I'd be interested to know how many of those '50' University-sponsored events are ones that would actually draw non-students to the venue and purchase items from merchants.

But couldn't Pitt Stadium be renovated?

Of course, but only at a cost running well into the tens of millions of dollars. Furthermore, this debt would have to be financed, which would mean a substantial debt service for the University. Most significantly, the result would still be a less competitive facility hampered by parking, traffic and access problems and less attractive to potential student-athletes, spectators and fans.

This is certainly true and I've always thought that the underlying reason for the move to Heinz Field was because they could essentially upgrade their facilities on someone else's dime. The article also gives some good rationale about the repairs needing to be done.

Pitt Stadium is our home. Why do we want to play football on someone else's field?

The Steelers organization has indicated specifically that when we play in that stadium it will be very identifiable as our "home." Dan Rooney has confirmed this repeatedly in the media. "For example," he said recently, "One end zone would be painted with `Pittsburgh' while the other end zone might change from `Panthers' to "Steelers' for each team's home games. The grass field will easily handle games on the same weekend - Saturday for Pitt, and Sunday for the Steelers." This won't be "someone else's field" - it will be our field, home to two of the greatest football traditions in the country.

This was one of the times in the article where my beverage nearly came out of my nostrils. If you've browsed the concourses, merchandise stores, etc., you don't get much of a feel for it being the Panthers' stadium - at least I usually don't.

Some of that (heck, much of it) can't be helped - and that's part of the problem. The stadium's real purpose is for the Steelers, of course, and in many ways, it just can't logistically be a true joint stadium. And the end zone thing, of course, is a running joke - as is the poor logo at midfield.

Technically, it may not be 'someone else's field' ... but for all intents and purposes, is essentially is.

In closing ...

What happens to the great traditions of Pitt football if the University follows this course?

They continue. And if anything, they get better. Those traditions run deeper than a mere stadium. They have to do with pride in our University and its team. They have to do with the thrill of the game, and of being a contender. They have to do with the fun and the spectacle of watching the game with throngs of other excited fans. We will always have fond memories of the experiences at Pitt Stadium, and we respect their place in our University's history and our culture. We need to recognize the needs and aspirations of our present and future students, whose own experiences will add to our rich traditions and past glories. We believe that the game day experience of watching Pitt football in the best stadium in the country will be unique and exciting, and will bring a new and special enthusiasm to the University. We believe it is also important to consider the new on-campus traditions that will arise from the plan for the stadium site. With its combination of the Convocation Center, recreation and fitness facilities, student housing, and plenty of green space for socializing, the Upper campus will become a focused center of high quality student life, and new tradition-building memories.

Little needs said here. This is flowery, happy-go-lucky stuff that, in a nutshell, says that Pitt needed to knock down Pitt Stadium in order to allow the then-current students to have memories and experiences. What, roaming South Oakland at like 3:00 a.m. doesn't count?

While I can certainly appreciate the perks of playing in an NFL stadium, the overwhelming amount of space on the north side, etc., saying the game day experience has improved is a very big reach. You lose so much by not playing a game on campus. Alumni love to visit old haunts, see the Cathedral, walk around Oakland and all of that is long gone.

I don't doubt the University's efforts to make it feel more like home - and an unbelievable amount of work certainly goes into it from their standpoint. Plus, as I mentioned above, several positives did in fact come of moving off-campus. But looking at this article now more than 15 years old as a whole in its entirety, it's hard to feel that the move didn't fall at least a little short of what was being sold at the time.

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