Pitt collects compound interest

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Some wins are big, some wins are bigger and some wins are Pitt over West Virginia, a football game that could long be remembered for much more than just its astonishing result.

Anyone who said Pitt would beat West Virginia Dec. 1 -- make that anyone who thought Pitt could keep the game close -- didn't know what they were talking about. There wasn't a scintilla of evidence to indicate Pitt would be anything but embarrassed when the teams met in Morgantown in the final game of the regular season.

Pitt, 4-7, had virtually nothing to play for and was coming into the game having lost three of its previous four games. West Virginia, 10-1, was ranked second in the country and was playing for a shot at the national championship.

Yet, in a game that still defies belief, Pitt not only won, 13-9, it throttled the West Virginia offense that was expected to romp at will. Sometimes, in upsets of such magnitude, it seems that if the defeated team had just a bit more time it might have pulled out the victory. In this game, if there had been more time, Pitt, by all indications, would have won by a larger margin.

The meaning of the game and its consequences are still to play out, but there's no denying the impact at Pitt and West Virginia is considerable.

For Pitt, the victory has done much more than make an ugly season, where there was talk of firing the coach, look prettier. There's so much more to this win, which is turning out to be the gift that keeps on giving.

Pitt's recruiting is on an upswing. The Panthers have snared a handful of high-profile recruits since Dec. 1. It's possible those players might have chosen Pitt without the win, but the added prestige of the victory has helped.

"We think we have a lot to sell at Pitt," said Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt. "But, ultimately, when you're recruiting against Penn State and Michigan and West Virginia, those kids want to go where they can win and win a national championship. Sooner or later, you have to demonstrate that you can do it. Coming close, hanging in there like we did, is nice, but, by winning that game, it was a real convincing point."

Shayne Hale of Gateway High and Jarred Holley of Easton High, two highly regarded and then undecided recruits, have since committed verbally to Pitt.

The victory did more than just help recruiting. It has given the entire program a surge. Pitt was expected to be a middle-of-the-pack program in the Big East next season. It elevated itself to a contender by beating West Virginia.

ESPN.com had Pitt ranked 22nd in the nation in a preseason poll, ahead of all other Big East Conference teams except West Virginia.

It was a memorable return to Pitt for athletic director Steve Pederson, whose appointment was announced the day before and who had no reason to expect anything but a decisive defeat. Instead, it was a win filled with the kind of hope that a superlative marketer like Pederson will use to Pitt's advantage.

"It's not very often you have that much attention from the entire nation on one game," said Pederson. "For us to play like we did and hold them to 104 yards rushing -- and this is the team that had been able to run up and down the field -- was pretty amazing. What it did was send a message we're in this thing to win, that we didn't have the season we wanted, but we're on the right track."

Paul Rhoads, the architect of the defense that shut down the Mountaineers, is another example of the impact of the game. Rhoads accepted the defensive coordinator's job at Auburn, at a significant pay increase, last week. Before the West Virginia game, there were questions as to whether Rhoads would have a job at Pitt or anywhere next season.

The collateral damage done to West Virginia cannot be minimized. Had the Mountaineers won, and thus been off to the national title game, in all likelihood coach Rich Rodriguez would not have left for Michigan and the bitterness and chaos that surrounds the Mountaineer program would not exist.

As large a step as Pitt took forward with the win, that's the size of the step West Virginia, which was the best program in the Big East, took backward.

In the aftermath of this acclaimed win came two more by Pitt, these by the basketball team, which beat No. 7 Duke at Madison Square Garden in December and last week No. 5 Georgetown at the Petersen Events Center. Both games were televised nationally.

One of the things used against Pitt football in recruiting is the size of the crowds at Heinz Field. Wannstedt maintains the capacity crowds and tremendous enthusiasm for Pitt basketball helps to alter that perception.

"We can show recruits we have that type of atmosphere. It carries a lot of weight. We use the basketball situation as a recruiting tool," he said.

If the momentum of Dec. 1 continues, it's possible -- with Pederson spearheading a drive to sell out Heinz Field -- attendance is a problem Wannstedt won't have in the future.

The gift that keeps on giving hasn't stopped.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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