I started going to spring games since Todd Graham held his one and only back in 2011. I've seen one at Heinz Field, and two at area high schools in the Pittsburgh area. They were always somewhat fun for me, but there always seemed to just be a feeling kind of hanging over each of them: this feels like what a small school would do. Yeah there was pop up things for kids to do and that sort of thing, but there wasn't any tangible buzz, it just felt like an event going through the motions to have it. It was something only die hard fans got super into; the ones who followed recruiting and position battles and all that good stuff. They would then of course make sweeping generalizations about the team based on plays in the game that really don't mean much at all.
The spring game Pitt held on Saturday, however, felt different. I'm very used to waiting in lines. I've waited 36 hours for a basketball game before, but that's not a super regular occurrence. Football was much less demanding line wise, and I figured if I got to the spring game an hour and a half before the kick off, I'd be one of the very few sitting and waiting to get in.
Boy, was I wrong.
There was a decent amount of tailgating going on in some of the lots, including the famous Pitt RV that's at every home and away game. The line on the other side was shorter, so I headed that way. The gates opened a little late, but the wait wasn't bad at all, as Roc walked around saying hi to fans and taking pictures. Every once in a while, you could see one of Pitt's 2015 commits walking around, talking with fans on their own. When the gates opened, right there was an area to get season tickets,someone handing out posters and game rosters, and a merch table.
Speaking of merch, Pitt is really starting to get some Pitt Script gear out. It might not be all encompassing, and it's a little expensive, but fans can't really complain as much anymore. As it gets closer to the start of season I expect we'll get even more gear.
After about a half hour the stands were about 90% full, and as it got closer to the kick off it pretty much became standing room only. The backdrop itself for the game was simply unreal. Just a great view of the city on a beautiful day...
There wasn't alcohol, but there was a ton of concessions at cheaper prices than at Heinz, and the waits weren't bad at all. They also had curly fries and walking tacos which, let's be honest, make this a fantastic event themselves. As for the game itself, having two of Pitt's best players ever in Aaron Donald and Larry Fitzgerald as guest coaches was pretty sweet. You could tell the players were pumped to play, and really enjoyed being around stars like that. I thought that would be the extent of the famous Pitt alumni on site for the game on Saturday, but I was wrong on that front too. Former first round pick and Super Bowl champ offensive lineman Jimbo Covert was present for the coin toss, and it didn't stop there. Former Pitt coach Walt Harris stopped by, and surprised Larry Fitzgerald to say hi.
Rod Rutherford stopped by too...
Fitz chatting with Rod Rutherford. Feel like it's 2002 all over again. pic.twitter.com/bDXUIuRkZB— Chris (@ThunderPittRoad) April 18, 2015
And then LeSean McCoy stopped by with LeSean Jr...
It was at this point I really started to get the feeling this was a little bit different event than Pitt has had for a spring game. And then Curtis Martin showed up. From what he said when interviewed, he literally got off the plane and came right to the game.
Eventually, over fifty Pitt football alumni attended from a wide range of eras of the history of the program. Many different coaches throw the word "family" and it's supposed to evoke that nice feeling of togetherness. Normally it's hollow, and just used as a buzz word, but on Saturday when Martin appeared I started actually feeling like I was with a true Pitt family. When you see sights like this you can't help but feel that exact feeling...
It was when you get to see students chat it up with Curtis Martin and get to take a picture with him, and they literally fist pump as they run back to their seats to show their friends. It was when McCoy is taking pictures with Conner, and Fitzgerald taking some with Tyler Boyd, and they all have huge grins on their faces. It's seeing Narduzzi going around and talking to fans and recruits at different areas of the field. It's seeing 2015 Pitt commit Quadree Henderson spend some time talk with some senior Pitt fans, and saying hi and thank you to any fan that addressed him. It's seeing EJ Borghetti with the biggest grin on his face walking around. It's seeing new faces on the team making some plays to replace the players that have left. Heck, it's even seeing Chancellor Gallagher, head to foot in Pitt gear, chatting it up with Shady.
Call me crazy, but as I watched the game with my friends and saw all this happening, I felt like this is what spring games are supposed to be like. It's a time when the disappointment of last season is in the past, and a new season with a new coach is a few months away and there's nothing but positive potential. Friends get together after a long off season, and get a small preview of the team that will come out on the field against Youngstown State
Fans of other teams will give Pitt crap for only having 5,325 fans at their spring game (even when the stadium only seats 3500), but I don't really care. Pitt won't ever have 50,000 fans at its spring game, and you know what? That's OK. Pitt lies in an absolute gorgeous city with so much to do and see on the first beautiful Saturday all year that I don't mind people found other things to do. Pitt thought outside the box having at Highmark Stadium, and they were rewarded with a small, but sell out crowd. You can't expect tens of thousands for a program that's had four straight regular seasons of six wins.
Narduzzi's plan is to move the spring game back to Heinz. On the surface, that may seem like a bold move after having one go so well this weekend at a smaller venue. I think Narduzzi truly believes Pitt can be successful this year. If he can win seven games in the regular season, he'll already have out done his predecessor. If he got eight wins, or even nine? I certainly think Pitt would draw more than 5,000 fans to the spring game next year.
Frankly, nobody knows how Narduzzi will do on the field in terms of wins and losses. For now, though, I'll take note of the fact that Narduzzi took an event the previous coaches didn't even think was worth to have last year, and turn into something that a lot of people really enjoyed. He brought back Pitt football alums and people that hadn't been around in years and got them to come to a glorified scrimmage. He has people excited about Pitt football again, and he's only been here just shy of four months. He has his work cut out for him this season, but I feel like he's won over his players, and is more than starting to win over fans.
Narduzzi wasn't the only cog in the system so to speak to make this happen. The marketing folks at Pitt did everything they could to promote the game properly, and it was well executed as I mentioned earlier. They caught a lot of flack from me and others for the lack of execution bringing the Script back in October, but with just an interim athletic director they've been banging on all cylinders lately.
On a final note, there's one thing Pitt has an advantage over other schools with huge spring games. Did the staff of those schools share a couple beers with fans in the parking lot after? Some of the Pitt coaches did, and spent half the time thanking the fans for coming and showing support. Having 99,000 fans for your spring game is pretty cool, but having a beer with your school's coaches is pretty cool too.