How 'Sweet Caroline' became the Pitt fans' singalong

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It's a common sight on YouTube videos for University of Pittsburgh football fans: Four shirtless students wrap their arms around each other's shoulders, sway back and forth, and join the crowd in serenading the Panthers players with the timeless words of "Sweet Caroline."

The song's lyrics have nothing to do with the school, but it has become an unlikely tradition. Fans are expected to belt out the tune at the end of the third quarter today at Heinz Field when Pitt takes on Interstate-79 rival West Virginia in their annual Backyard Brawl.

Credit or blame Justin Acierno, 28, for the "Sweet Caroline" interlude each home game. Mr. Acierno is a former Pitt football player who became director of ticket marketing in 2007.

During the summer of 2008, his task was to improve the fan experience, especially amping up the students' excitement and involvement.

He brought together groups of students to brainstorm different ideas, such as a song to play between the third and fourth quarters. They chose Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."

The singer has said that an 11-year-old Caroline Kennedy inspired him to write "Sweet Caroline" in the late 1960s. It was released in 1969 and became a Billboard Top 10 hit.

The song has grown into a staple in many stadiums, arenas and ballparks, probably most notably at Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, since it became an official tradition in 2002. It had been played at games randomly before that year, but according to Red Sox lore new ownership in 2002 requested that it be played between the seventh and eighth innings every game.

Why a song that has nothing to do with sports is played so often at various college and professional games might be a mystery, but something about the light-hearted tune by the rhinestone-wearing pop star seems to bring people together in the Steel City.

"It bridges the generation gap," Mr. Acierno said. "College kids are still singing it at parties, and the older crowd knows it from growing up."

One of the students involved in the brainstorming was Dave Jedlicka, 27, of Bloomfield. He was president of the Oakland Zoo, the student-fan group at Pitt basketball games that helps organize the similar "Panther Pitt" at football games.

He says that even though "Sweet Caroline" has been played at other sporting events for years, students here made it "Pitt-centric" by replacing the repeating phrase "So good" of the original song with "Go Pitt" and the "ba ba ba" of the original with, "let's go Pitt."

Mr. Acierno brought the idea to athletic director Steve Pederson, who was hesitant initially but then decided to go with the students' decision.

"When I first heard that I thought, 'Gosh, I don't know, this sounds like a real leap, but if the students said they want to do it, then we'll do it,' " Mr. Pederson said.

They planned to play it during the first 2008 home game, against Bowling Green State University. But Pitt was losing, so it didn't seem like the right time to introduce it to the fans. So Mr. Jedlicka and a couple of his Oakland Zoo buddies held on to the 10,000 copies of the lyrics, with the added Pitt touch, that they were planning to distribute.

A week later, Pitt played another home game, this time against Buffalo. The Panthers fell behind in the first half, and Mr. Jedlicka started to worry that they would have to postpone it again. Then Pitt mounted a comeback early in the second half.

Mr. Pederson made the final call to play it when the third quarter ended, regardless of which way the game was going.

"Justin [Acierno] called me right before the third quarter ended and said, 'We still want to do this?' and I said, 'We told them we're going to do this, so we're going to do it,' " he said.

Although the crowd seemed confused at first when students started passing out the lyrics, Mr. Jedlicka said, they caught on quickly once the song started. The lyrics also were shown on the big screen in the south end zone.

Mr. Jedlicka audio-taped the crowd, and he says you can hear as the verses progress the transformation of the crowd. The first time around, people sang the original lyrics, but with each chorus, more and more people were singing the new Pitt lyrics.

"A three-minute song just completely changed in the way students reacted to it," he said.

Pitt pulled ahead in the fourth quarter and held on to win the game, 27-16.

"That's what really helped it out," Mr. Jedlicka said, "having that really positive association."

The Pitt marching band even learned the tune to help with road-game morale.

When the band plays it at the end of the third quarter in opponents' stadiums, traveling Pitt fans belt out the lyrics. It's exciting for them, but not so much so for the home team.

"It's always funny to see the look on people's faces," he said.

If things aren't going well for the Panthers, the song re-engages the fans, said Robert Hogan, 21, the Oakland Zoo president and a Pitt senior.

"Students will stay to listen to 'Sweet Caroline,' " he said. "It really pulls the crowd back into the game. I think the entire stadium really gets into it."

Three years ago, when Mr. Hogan was a freshman, he said it was pretty easy to get good seats in Heinz Field. Now, students arrive early to avoid having to sit in the nosebleed seats, and student tickets actually sold out this year.

Pitt is not the first school to adopt a popular song as its fourth-quarter crowd-pleaser. "Hang on Sloopy" by The McCoys is as recognizable at Ohio State University as its mascot, Brutus Buckeye. The band first played the song in 1965 and 45 years later, it's as popular as ever.

More recently, University of Wisconsin football players, fans and foes spring up and down at the end of the third quarter of each home game to the tune "Jump Around" by House of Pain. Even opposing teams seem to get into it.

Back at Pitt, the fans aren't the only ones who enjoy the new tradition.

"The players definitely take notice of it," Mr. Acierno said.

"They talk about how it seems to invigorate the stadium during the fourth quarter," Mr. Pederson said.

When the song comes on at campus bars, students seem just as excited to sing it as they do during the games, Mr. Hogan said.

"I think my favorite part isn't that it happens at the football games, but it's something that transitioned outside of football games."

Emily Gibb: or 412-263-1985. First Published November 26, 2010 5:00 AM


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