Panthers not 'lame ducks'

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Pitt will join the Atlantic Coast Conference on July 1, but athletic director Steve Pederson wants the Panthers to focus on finishing the right way in football and every other sport during the school's final year in the Big East.

Some observers have labeled Pitt and Syracuse -- also going to the ACC next year -- as teams headed for lame duck seasons, but that phrase has never been used by Pitt officials or athletes.

"We certainly have enjoyed our time in the Big East Conference, it has been an excellent home for us for a lot of years," Pederson said. "And I think it is important for us to make sure we put all of our energy and all of our focus into this last year and make sure that we do everything we can to make it our absolute best year ever."

The Big East starts the 2012-13 athletic year today with football media day in Newport, R.I. Pederson has attended the event annually but this year, because Pitt is no longer a voting member of the Big East and therefore not privy to conference meetings, he decided to stay in Pittsburgh.

Pederson described the years in the Big East as "wonderful" and that the conference had been the right fit for Pitt when the school joined in 1982, but the changing times dictated a move forward.

He said the Big East's expansion into football in 1991 was an especially good development for Pitt, which began football play in the league in '93 against the likes of Miami, Virginia Tech and Syracuse. The move helped rebuild Pitt's football program.

But that conference is no longer around as Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College and West Virginia have already left.

"I do think that Syracuse, who is one of our oldest rivals in a lot of sports, coming along with us is significant and will help ease some of the transition, but this is a different league we are leaving than the one we joined and that is just sort of the sign of the way college athletics has changed."

Pederson said he isn't sure what Panthers fans will miss most about the Big East, but he knows that he will miss the relationships he has developed over the years within the conference and at the member schools and he hopes those relationships will continue when Pitt is in the ACC.

He said Pitt will look to schedule non-conference games against Big East teams and he hopes to be able to continue to play some of the teams -- such as West Virginia -- with which the Panthers have developed rivalries.

But Pederson said it won't take long for the Panthers to develop new rivalries and relationships in the ACC, particularly if they have success right away.

"I think the thing about our fans and their love of Madison Square Garden is our [men's basketball] team had a lot of success there," he said. "We won a lot of games there, so it has been exciting for our fans, and if we win in the ACC tournament, our fans will enjoy those venues as well.

"We will be making new inroads and we will make new rivalries. And I think we will also have a lot of great teams coming through the Petersen [Events] Center and Heinz Field and our fans will enjoy getting to know these new teams as well, and these new relationships will begin to take hold."

Pederson said Pitt coaches have gotten an advantage in recruiting because of the change to the ACC. He said that is a big reason the school pushed so hard to get a definite date of departure from the Big East because it is now easy to tell recruits that they will play their entire careers in the ACC.

"The ACC is very strong in every sport, there are some of the best teams in the country in some of the non-revenue sports as well as in football and men's basketball," he said. "So that's a big challenge ahead for our teams, to step up, but we've already felt the positive effect of recruiting off the prestige of the ACC.

"The opportunities for our coaches to recruit in other areas and maybe some other student-athletes who may not have considered us have already opened up. I think it is a pretty significant step for us in this regard."

Pitt has had some Big East success in the two main revenue sports -- men's basketball and football -- and the school has been very successful in some of the non-revenue Olympic sports.

Pitt has won only two Big East championships in football, though neither was an outright title. Only one, in 2004, resulted in a Bowl Championship Series game. The school has won the Big East men's basketball tournament twice and both of those have come within the past 10 years.

Pitt has also won only one Big East baseball championship (1995) and has never won a Big East title in softball, men's or women's soccer, or women's basketball.

The Panthers have won 11 Big East championships in men's (2 outdoor, 1 indoor) and women's track (5 outdoor, 3 indoor), 11 in women's volleyball and 9 in women's swimming.

But the most successful sport, at least based on the number of team championships won, is the men's swimming and diving team, which won 19 Big East championships and dominated the sport from 1983- 2004.

"Our teams have been very successful in the Big East but we're not satisfied, because we think we can even be better," Pederson said. "That's always our goal, to get better, and I think this move to the ACC will help us in that regard.

"Our time in the Big East was important and something that will always be a part of us, and while it isn't quite over yet, the best is all out there ahead of us."

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Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or Twitter: @paulzeise.


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