Four Pitt football players sat on the team bench, tears rolling down their cheeks, staring blankly into space and trying their best to ignore Pitt running backs coach David Walker, who was charged with getting them into the locker room.
The cheerleaders were hugging and some were crying as a stunned silence came across the west side of Heinz Field. More than 63,000 fans sat quietly in disbelief as the Cincinnati Bearcats celebrated a Big East championship with their fans on the opposite side of the stadium.
As heartbreakers go, this one -- a 45-44 loss to Cincinnati in a game the Panthers led by 21 late in the second quarter -- will not be forgotten any time soon by Pitt players, coaches and fans who thought this might be the year that the Panthers broke through and won the conference title.
Played in a light snow on a typical Pittsburgh gray December day, this game won't only be remembered by the people, players and coaches here, but by the hundreds of thousands more who watched it on the ABC broadcast.
It truly was a classic and one of the most exciting college football games of the season.
"That was just a great football game," Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said after the game. "When you imagine a championship game, the snow falling and the stands packed and two outstanding football teams just going after it, this game was it.
"It was special to be a part of it and I told the guys I was honored to be their coach."
That was the winning coach and considering his team battled back from being way down on the road to win and finish the regular season undefeated -- 12-0 -- he expressed pride in his team.
But the losing coach, Dave Wannstedt, had plenty to be proud of, too. Because even though his team lost, the Panthers gave their fans an unbelievable effort and were 1:36 away from heading for a spot on the national stage and a Bowl Championship Series game. But being that close and not getting it done makes this loss even more difficult to deal with than losing just any championship game.
"This was a tough, heartbreaking loss to say the least," Wannstedt said. "I thought our kids played as hard as they could from start to finish."
Wannstedt was then asked how the Panthers could recover from such a devastating loss and get ready to play a second-tier bowl game when they were so close to getting to the BCS.
He quietly shook his head and paused to think about his answer and said simply, "To be honest, I hadn't thought about it. I was convinced we were going to win this game. I was and our whole football team was."
After the game, Pitt defensive lineman Gus Mustakas, a senior who embraced tight end and fellow senior Nate Byham for a few seconds before both sat down to address the media, fought back tears as he summed up the disappointment he and his teammates were feeling.
"It is tough," Mustakas said. "It almost feels like throwing a season away. You go so far and your goal is to win the Big East championship and you come so close -- it really hurts, bad. You hope the younger guys will learn from this and next year they won't let this happen to them."
Although Pitt lost the game, lost the championship and lost the opportunity to play in a BCS bowl with all of the national exposure that comes with it, the one thing the university did not lose is money.
Not a dime, even though they will be heading to a second-tier bowl game -- likely the PapaJohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., to play against South Carolina (7-5) or the Meineke Bowl in Charlotte, N.C., against an Atlantic Coast Conference team.
That's because one misconception about the BCS is that the winner of the Big East's automatic berth, in this case Cincinnati, gets $18 million and everyone else gets peanuts.
But the difference between winning and losing the game yesterday in terms of dollars and cents is almost non-existent.
Taking it one step further, there is little financial difference between going to a bowl game and not even making one in the Big East because of the way the conference shares revenue.
The BCS -- along with the Big East's other bowl partners (Gator Bowl, Meineke Car Care Bowl, PapaJohns.com Bowl, International Bowl and St. Petersburg Bowl) -- all pay the Big East their designated payout amount.
That total this year is nearly $25 million. That money is in a common pool and out of that each team is paid its expenses for its bowl destination. The amount of money paid out to each team is based on a number of factors, like how far a team has to travel and how many days a team has to be at the site.
After that money is paid -- the remaining money is split evenly between the conference's eight teams, including the two -- Syracuse and Louisville -- which did not qualify for a bowl game.
"That is one of the perks that comes with being in a conference," said the Big East's Senior Associate Commissioner Nick Carparelli. "The difference between winning and losing this game [for Pitt] financially is virtually nothing. The way our distribution system works is this -- we allocate an amount of money for each bowl game based on the expected expenses for a team to go to that bowl game.
"After that money is paid out, the rest of it is divided evenly and that is a decision that our athletic directors and presidents have made. Our system is similar to the other six BCS conferences, that is the way they do it.
"The bowl payout you hear about or read about -- that is money paid to the conference but we put it all together. It is completely false that the school which goes to the BCS gets $18 million and the team that finishes second gets $1 million or whatever."
Carparelli said the reason that the conferences do things that way now as opposed to the old way of handing out more money based on bowls or place of finish is simple -- budgeting.
"It is a lot easier to budget for the year for every school if you know how much you are going to get from the television contracts as well as the bowls," Carparelli said. "It is much easier than not knowing and having to rely on winning or losing games at the end of the season. Again, that is one of the perks for being in a conference."
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1720.