I'll say this for the new regime at Pitt - they're keeping busy. Plenty busy. Ever since athletic director Steve Pederson and football coach Paul Chryst left the school, the big news has just kept on coming this year.
There were, of course, the hires of Scott Barnes and coach Pat Narduzzi to take their place. There's been the return of the script logo. The annual blue-gold spring game returned. There was the formation of the fan experience committee to actively involve fans. Two programs that made the NCAA Tournaments and are on the rise, women's basketball and softball, had their coaches extended/re-signed.
Next up? The Backyard Brawl with West Virginia has officially returned for a four-year series beginning in 2022. While there has understandably been a lot of excitement around the announcement, there are both positives and negatives with this little trip down memory lane.
As we studied a while back, Pitt's biggest attendance spikes have come either when the team has been winning and for the big opponents. We won't know what type of team has in 2016 let alone 2022, but West Virginia will be a big draw. The Mountaineers may not be a top program at that time, but they are Pitt's oldest rival and even if the two teams were 0-11, the game would still fill Heinz Field. In terms of giving fans something to look forward to on the field, West Virginia really can't be beaten by that many programs. We can argue that Penn State is a bigger game or that a top ten Notre Dame team is a huge draw, but the Mountaineers are surely near the top of the list in terms of realistic opponents that would generate a good turnout.
It goes without saying but drawing a big crowd is good for the school financially and in terms of perception. Having a Backyard Brawl on TV with a packed house just looks better and the school also benefits from the added ticket sales. Not only that, but the athletics department can use the home games as part of an incentive to get fans to purchase season tickets early or even as part of a package. Add in the extra merchandise sales, etc. that result from having more people in the stadium and it's a win for the program. Playing the game, too, thrusts both Pitt and West Virginia more into the national spotlight as a true rivalry game.
The game also helps stir up excitement for the program. Forget the actual game day attendance for a second. Merely having West Virginia on the schedule is a reason for fans to get excited. It's the type of game that can hold fan interest in the offseason and get people talking more about the team.
It also can help with recruiting. Having a sellout is the kind of atmosphere Pitt needs to entice recruits that they are big time. Having the top WPIAL recruits take in a crazy atmosphere for a game against West Virginia just beats the heck out of playing Akron ... or even a P5 program like Iowa for that matter. Recruits want to know they'll have the opportunity to play in big games - games that matter. This is one of those.
All of that said ...
The Not So Good
Outside of the sheer enjoyment of seeing Pat Narduzzi go all Dana Brooke on West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen when the West Virginia coach was 'begging' to play the game, there are actually legit reasons why bringing back the Brawl doesn't help Pitt.
Playing West Virginia again gives the Mountaineers more of a presence in western Pennsylvania, and that just isn't all that great for Pitt. The Panthers are already fighting for attention as it is since they are in the shadow of three professional teams. By playing West Virginia, the Mountaineers benefit from the added exposure they'll receive here.
Don't get me wrong - I'm not one of those that believes by not playing West Virginia, recruits won't consider the Mountaineers. They've been getting western Pennsylvania kids for some time and there's no way to keep them from getting more. But being on Pitt's schedule gives local media more of a reason to cover them and when they're doing well, less of a reason to cover Pitt.
Then there are the fan safety issues we've heard before. I have a hard time talking too much about this because outside of the occasional (or some years, not so occasional) drunken Mountaineer fan shouting their favorite vulgarity at home games, I've never had a bad experience with their fans at Heinz Field. I've also never traveled to West Virginia for a game so to speak negatively about it would be unfair. But in the many years of running this site, several bad incidents have been cited by readers. And of course, there was the infamous coin incident, involving Pitt assistant coach Tom Herrion during a basketball game. Whether the atmosphere in Morgantown is legitimately out of control or not, I do think at the very least that it's a concern that some fans have whether they travel to the game or happen to be among a section of Mountaineer fans at Heinz Field. And that just shouldn't be an issue when going to a game.
Finally, after adding the Mountaineers, one has to wonder what happens to hopes of renewing a series with Penn State after the four-year contract that's already in place beginning next season.
Barnes had this to say in the press release:
"We also continue to have productive conversations with Penn State," Barnes added. "Although Penn State's scheduling opportunities are limited in the early part of the 2020s, we are hopeful we will be able to expand upon our current four-year agreement that begins next year.
Without reading too much into that, it sounds as if West Virginia was an alternative at least partially because Penn State happens to be busy for the early part of that decade. Barnes has pretty much said before that the Nittany Lions are a priority over West Virginia. If securing the Mountaineers was done because a series with Penn State wasn't feasible, Barnes clearly made a great move. But if there was any hope of playing the Nittany Lions before, it may have been reduced with this series.
That is particularly apparent when you look at the upcoming schedules in those years. Below are Pitt opponents that are scheduled in each of the four years:
2022: Tennessee and West Virginia
2023: Notre Dame, Cincinnati, and West Virginia
2024: Cincinnati and West Virginia
2025: Notre Dame and West Virginia
Would you really want to add Penn State to any of those years? Keep in mind that just about every program has at least two cupcakes on their schedules in the non-conference portion. I find it difficult to see room for Penn State there.
So what's my take? Personally, as I've said before, I think you have to play the game. It makes too much sense and while the reasons are justified for not playing it, it's very difficult to avoid playing your school's longest rival.
Can you play Penn State, West Virginia, and Notre Dame every year? Of course not. But rotating the three to some fashion does work and that's really where we're headed here. Outside of 2021, Pitt will face at least one of those schools in every season from now through 2025. That's incredible.
At the end of the day, the West Virginia game is one that will get fans excited and, isn't that what sports are all about?