Cook: Pitt-Penn State series is bigger than Paterno
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I think we can agree Walt Harris was way out of line with his inane comments about the Pitt-Penn State football series earlier this summer. To say Penn State was somehow selfish for discontinuing the series -- even as talks between the schools' athletic directors were going on to resume it -- was outrageous.
To suggest Penn State was to blame for Pitt's recruiting problems was blatantly self-serving. Harris wants to know why he couldn't outrecruit Penn State after his team went to its fourth consecutive bowl game last season and the Nittany Lions went 3-9? It's because the Big East Conference turned into a second-rate league after Miami and Virginia Tech left. He wants to know why he'll have a hard time outrecruiting Penn State again after this season? Maybe, just maybe, it's because star players will be hesitant to play for a coach who will call them out publicly if they happen to get hurt.
But here's something else we should be able to agree on:
Harris' habit of speaking before he thinks isn't enough reason for Pitt and Penn State not to play again.
We all know the truth here.
There is absolutely no good reason for the series not to resume.
Joe Paterno will tell you differently, of course. He's the greatest college football coach of all time. He also might be the most petty. That's the only reason this great series between great rivals withered after Penn State's 57-13 win in 1992 and finally died after Pitt's 12-0 victory in 2000.
Paterno doesn't want to play Pitt and will use any excuse not to do it. Not because he's afraid of losing the games and his recruiting edge, as Harris so foolishly observed. The idea of Paterno being afraid to play anyone is almost laughable. No, Paterno doesn't want to play Pitt because of a grudge he still carries from more than 20 years ago when Pitt joined the Big East basketball conference instead of his dream all-sports Eastern league.
That's why the reports of talks between the schools about resuming the series were more unfathomable than encouraging. Paterno has carried his bitterness this long; there's no reason to think he'll change his mind about playing Pitt now. Certainly, that's the case after Harris' reckless ramblings.
It's unfortunate that Paterno -- such a giant of a man in so many ways -- can be so small when it comes to Pitt.
Paterno is back to insisting on the series resuming only under one condition -- two games at Penn State for every one game at Pitt. The arrogance of that proposal is almost incomprehensible. At last check, Pitt was running a major college program, too. You even can argue that Pitt has surpassed Penn State in terms of facilities, on-field results and -- stunning as this might seem -- coaching.
Pitt has made big strides under Harris, at least it did before last season's team lost five games with the school's best talent in years. Of greater consequence, Penn State has fallen hard under Paterno, who has stayed on the job way too long.
Pitt athletic director Jeff Long should be fired on the spot if he agrees to a two-for-one deal with Penn State.
Paterno knows Pitt will never accept. That makes him happy. He won't have to play Pitt again as long as he's the Penn State coach. That shouldn't just anger Pitt fans. It should tick off the thousands and thousands of Penn State fans in Allegheny County and across the state. They, too, are missing out on a fabulous game each season.
The good news is that Paterno won't coach forever, although he surely plans on trying.
The better news is that Long and Penn State athletic director Tim Curley seem to realize the importance of Pitt and Penn State playing every season.
There will be no stopping this wonderful rivalry after Paterno is gone.
It's just a crying shame it won't resume sooner.
Paterno is bigger than just about everything in college football, but he's not bigger than Pitt-Penn State.
First Published August 30, 2004 12:00 am