Big Ten could be 'it' for Pitt
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Memo to Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg and athletic director Steve Pederson:
The telephone number for the Big Ten Conference headquarters is 847-696-1010. As busy as you are in the holiday rush and trying to somehow put a happy face on your bowl game in Charlotte, N.C. -- on the day after Christmas, of all dates -- please make time to give Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney a ring to find out just how serious his conference is about adding a 12th member. You owe it to your great university to do due diligence on this very intriguing matter. Certainly, you owe it to those of us who would love to see you sell out Heinz Field for every football game. At the very least, you owe it to those of us who want so badly to see you play Penn State every season.
P.S.: Try to find a way to have a little fun in Charlotte. Seriously.
Earlier in this decade, when the Big East Conference took a major tumble because of the defections of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to the Atlantic Coast Conference, it was easy to say Pitt should beg the Big Ten for membership. It seems just as easy now to suggest Pitt seriously should look into such a move even though the Big East has survived and thrived to a modest degree.
A Pitt move to the Big Ten would be a major boost for the Panthers' football program. That alone is reason for Nordenberg and Pederson to look hard at a conference switch. Football is what pays most of the bills in any successful major-college athletic program.
Pitt still has trouble selling tickets at Heinz Field despite slow, steady improvement during the Dave Wannstedt era. The game against Notre Dame and the de facto league championship game against Cincinnati had full houses this season, but there also were announced crowds of 44,893 for Connecticut and 46,885 for Syracuse. That isn't nearly good enough.
Can you imagine the season tickets Pitt would sell if Penn State and, say, Michigan headlined the home schedule one season and Ohio State the next? That would be too good to be true. Maybe games against Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State don't blow you away at first blush. But do games against Rutgers, Louisville and South Florida?
Beyond football, the Pitt academic people would love life in the Big Ten. That should not be underestimated. Pitt has become a respected research institution under Nordenberg's brilliant leadership. It would be a perfect fit with the big state schools in the Big Ten, not to mention with Northwestern, one of the country's finest private universities.
Sure, there would be drawbacks.
In most years, Pitt would have a better chance of winning the Big East than the Big Ten and going to a Bowl Championship Series game. The Big Ten generally is a stronger league, although not so much this season. There's something to be said for being the biggest fish in a smaller pond.
The Pitt men's basketball program also would take a hit, at least initially. The Big Ten as a basketball league can't compare to the Big East, the finest league in the land. Pitt sells out the Petersen Events Center for every game. Coach Jamie Dixon recruits primarily in the Northeast, where the players dream of playing in the Big East on ESPN and competing in the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York. They don't dream of playing at Iowa's Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Minnesota's Williams Arena or even Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center.
But Dixon has proved that he can adjust to any situation. He has built such a strong brand at Pitt that it would survive a move to the Big Ten. Going to a Pitt game has become an event because the Panthers win almost every time at home. Fans would continue to come to see victories if they were against Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State instead of Connecticut, Syracuse and Georgetown.
In any case, the benefits for football would far outweigh any potential losses for basketball.
Pederson declined comment when reached yesterday.
As for Nordenberg, all of this will be a hard sell for him. He and former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese did more than anyone to keep the conference together when it was on the verge of collapse. Nordenberg's loyalty to the Big East will never be questioned.
But times change. Nordenberg's No. 1 loyalty has to be and is to Pitt. He must explore every angle of this Big Ten possibility. The last thing he should want is for the Big Ten to take in Rutgers or Syracuse and leave Pitt in a conference with just seven football-playing schools. As Tranghese noted before he retired this year, there is no university out there that could come in and "make the Big East better."
If the Big Ten is serious about expansion, Pitt -- not Missouri -- would be the next-best choice after Notre Dame, which doesn't figure to be interested. This is not a one-way street by any means. Pitt would bring as much to the Big Ten as it gets from it.
Here's the most delicious part: Nobody knows Pitt's attractiveness better than Penn State's Joe Paterno, who is pushing hard for a 12th school in the Big Ten.
Wouldn't it be the ultimate irony if Paterno got behind the movement to get Pitt in?
The holidays are the time to make a wish list, right?
That's on the top of mine.
First Published December 17, 2009 12:00 am