Pitt fans get no bang for the buck

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East of the city, where Penn State put 106,577 fannies in the Beaver Stadium seats for a game Saturday against Coastal Carolina, out west, where Ohio State had a crowd of 105,011 for Youngstown State, and to the south, where West Virginia attracted a sellout crowd of 60,566 to see it play Villanova, they are laughing at Pitt. They have it all going with their football programs. Pitt clearly does not. The crowd at Heinz Field for Pitt's opening game against Bowling Green was 45,063. As depressing as that number was in a stadium that holds 65,050, this is much worse: Pitt doesn't deserve 45,000 in the stands. Or 35,000. Or ... .

You get the idea.

Next up

Game: Pitt (0-1) vs. Buffalo (1-0), 6 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Heinz Field.

Radio: WBGG-AM (970).

Sooner or later, you have to give people something for their hard-earned entertainment dollars.

Pitt keeps failing miserably in that regard.

It doesn't just play bad football, it plays boring football.

Don't blame Heinz Field for Pitt's problems, as many still do. Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and athletic director Steve Pederson made the right call taking Pitt off campus and out of the dump that was Pitt Stadium. And don't blame Pitt officials for not doing everything they can -- short of giving away tickets -- to bring people to the stadium. They've worked hard to try to make game day a wonderful experience.

Blame the team.

More specifically, blame coach Dave Wannstedt, who, after three seasons and one horrible opening game, has yet to come close to delivering on his promise to bring Pitt back to big-time national prominence.

Prominence, heck.

It's to the point where we'd settle for the Walt Harris days again.

At least Pitt was interesting to watch then.

It's such a shame. They say Pittsburgh is a bad college football town, but I don't believe that. They also said this was a bad college basketball town before Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon came to Pitt, started winning big, and made tickets to the Petersen Events Center nearly impossible to get. Pittsburgh is ready to support its college football team with the same enthusiasm, but it needs a reason. Every time the fans try to embrace the Panthers, they get slapped away. The fans reached out with both hands Saturday -- expectations were incredibly high because this is Year 4 of Wannstedt and because of what happened in Morgantown Dec. 1 -- only to have the Panthers shove them aside.

Would you believe the 27-17 loss to Bowling Green left Pitt with a 9-11 record -- 1-5 under Wannstedt -- when the crowds are more than 45,000 at Heinz Field?

Pittsburgh deserves better than hearing Wannstedt brag about his recruits and then not seeing the results on the field. Certainly, it deserves better than Wannstedt's 16-20 overall record, 10 of those losses coming when Pitt was favored to win.

No one would complain that Pitt football is boring if the Panthers won a little more. There's no such thing as a boring victory. But Pitt is not winning. That makes Wannstedt a fair target for all those who say his conservative, NFL-like approach is doomed for failure in the spread-it-out, high-scoring college game.

Blame offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh all you like. He, too, is fair game. But Wannstedt has to take most of the heat for a number of reasons. One, he's the boss. Two, he hired Cavanaugh and has stuck with him. Three, he approves Cavanaugh's game plans. Four, he has veto power over any call Cavanaugh makes during a game. Five, he made the decisions Saturday to punt twice inside the Bowling Green 35 and to play for a field goal at the end of the first half.

Make no mistake: The mess that was that game and the mess that is the Pitt program are on Wannstedt.

The man lost me Saturday. I really hate to say that because I've spent a lot of time and energy defending him. I eagerly endorsed his hiring -- and Harris' exit. I urged people to give him a fair chance through those first three tough seasons. I was convinced he was going to bring Pitt back and take it to heights Harris never could.

Not anymore.

What will be interesting to see is how many Pitt fans Wannstedt has lost. The Panthers have another home game Saturday night against Buffalo. It's hard to imagine that many people who gave Pitt a try with the Bowling Green game will come back and risk more punishment.

Regardless if the Panthers get another crowd in the 40s or -- worse -- if the attendance sinks back to the low-30s like the abysmal numbers they routinely attracted last season, Pitt will be ridiculed at West Virginia, at Ohio State, where they will have another 100,000-plus crowd Saturday for a game against Ohio, and at Penn State, where the head count will approach 110,000 for Oregon State.

That's probably as it should be, but pardon me if I don't share in the laughter.

Pitt might be a joke, but I don't see anything funny about it.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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