Pitt-Penn State football rivalry set to rekindle in 2016-2017

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Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson has held plenty of news conferences over the years, but few brought him as much joy as Tuesday, when, standing in the Hall of Fame room from Pitt's UPMC South Side complex, he announced that Pitt and Penn State have signed an agreement to play a two-game series in 2016 and 2017.

Penn State will play at Heinz Field on Sept. 10, 2016, and the Panthers will play at Beaver Stadium on Sept. 16, 2017.

It will mark the first time the two teams have played each other since 2000, when the Panthers, led by heralded freshman Rod Rutherford's long touchdown reception, beat the Nittany Lions, 12-0.

Pederson said that the renewal of the series is an exciting development not just for fans at both Pitt and Penn State, but for college football fans across the state.

"If you grew up in Pennsylvania, no matter where you grew up, you grew up with the Pitt-Penn State rivalry," Pederson said. "I think this is a great thing for a lot of reasons, and I think it is good for Eastern football. There are so many good things that are going to come out of this. It is a win-win for everyone involved.

"And I know this -- come Sept. 10, 2016, it is going to be at a fever pitch at Heinz Field."

Pederson said that while the two schools have kept an open line of communication about renewing the series, there hadn't been many opportunities to work out a deal that worked for both sides.

But this two-game series came about quickly because Penn State had an opening in its nonconference schedule in 2016 and 2017 and needed to get it filled, so Penn State athletic director Tim Curley approached Pederson about it Friday and the deal was quickly done.

"Tim and I have a great relationship. We've been friends almost since we both started out in this business, and so it was very easy to work out the details once we figured out a deal was possible," Pederson said. "And I appreciated him thinking of us and also working with us -- the way this is scheduled now, we wanted to have Penn State opposite of Notre Dame [in terms of home and away games] on our nonconference schedule.

"Basically, when two sides are motivated to get a deal done, it doesn't take long, and that's why we were able to pin this down so quickly."

Pitt will play host to Penn State and travel to Notre Dame in 2016 and then will play at Penn State and play host to Notre Dame in 2017, which Pederson said makes for "a very attractive nonconference schedule." Curley said he is happy to have Pitt back on the schedule because he, like Pederson, understands the significance of the rivalry to fans of both schools.

"We are excited about renewing our rivalry with Pitt," Curley said. "We have worked our schedules to play some of our neighboring rivalries like Syracuse, Rutgers and Temple and are glad to have identified dates that worked for our schedules to play Pitt. The Penn State-Pitt game was one that football fans across the commonwealth have been passionate about."

Penn State and Pitt first played each other in football in 1893 and have played 96 times since that first game. The two teams then met every season from 1900 to 1931 and again from 1935-1992, when Penn State joined the Big Ten.

The series, which Penn State leads 50-42-4, then was renewed for four games from 1997 to 2000.

Pederson said that the future of the series beyond 2017 is unknown, but he is hopeful that the two games will be the first step toward getting the rivalry back to an annual event.

"What we decided to do was get this deal done first, finish it and announce it to at least get these two games on the schedule," Pederson said, "and then we agreed to continue the dialogue to see if we can agree to get the series revived. I know Penn State has some scheduling obligations beyond 2017, as do we, so it is not a simple process but as we've shown in this case, we can get something done if it is something that makes sense for both sides."

Curley, however, was a guest on the afternoon show on 93.7 FM and he said that there aren't any plans to continue the series beyond 2017 for a number of logistical reasons.

He said it works for a two-year series because there were openings in the schedule, but the school is looking to play nonconference games throughout the country to enable the large Nittany Lion fan base to see the team play. And the school's need to play road games across the country combined with its need to play at least seven home games every year means there is very little flexibility in scheduling.

"Right now, we wouldn't be interested in [playing Pitt] on an annual basis," Curley said.

Although Pitt has been more able -- and at times, seemingly more eager -- to make a deal to renew the series in recent years, the university will lose some of its flexibility in nonconference scheduling because it is going to lose at least one -- if not more -- nonconference slot per season because of potential conference expansion.

The Panthers, like all Big East teams, have had five nonconference games every year since 2005, when the conference was realigned to its current eight-team format.

But Texas Christian University is joining the Big East in 2012 as the ninth team, meaning there will only be four nonconference games available to Pitt in the future and that number could shrink even more if the conference's rumored expansion to 12 teams comes to fruition.

Pederson, however, said that regardless of what happens in terms of the nonconference schedule based on the size of the conference, renewing the Pitt-Penn State rivalry will remain a priority in scheduling.

"It is obviously one of our oldest rivals and the game has produced some of the biggest games in college football history," Pederson said. "We look forward to continuing to try and find opportunities to play football games against Penn State."

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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