The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

May 3, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN: Mountaineers, Pitt will miss each other

MORGANTOWN — Summer, and if you go by the thermometer it has already arrived here, is the time for reflection in these parts, mainly because this is the time when there is a lull in the insanity that is West Virginia University athletics.

The truth is that while there is a great anticipation surrounding the Mountaineers’ move into the Big 12, there is this one aspect of the move that is troubling.

Pitt is gone.

While there is no doubt that West Virginia will flourish in its new era of athletics, it will do so with a huge void.

Think of it this way. Muhammad Ali’s career was certainly great, but it was defined by his battles with Joe Frazier. Martina Navratilova needed Chris Evert. The Yankees need the Boston Red Sox; the Steelers need the Ravens.

West Virginia’s relationship with that team up north was always a strange one in that the Panthers were the Mountaineers’ No. 1 rival, but Pitt always felt that its real rival was Penn State, not West Virginia.

That, of course, made it easier for Pitt to break away and head for the Atlantic Coast Conference, joining Syracuse in abandoning the sinking ship that was the Big East and forcing WVU’s hand, leading to its evacuation from the Big East and into the Big 12.

But was it really the right move for the Panthers?

See, they have a problem filling their house. In truth, the only three teams they could count on to sell out Heinz Field are Penn State, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

This year and next they do have Penn State and Notre Dame on their schedule, but when they move into the ACC they will be looking at a nine-game schedule, which leaves them only three non-conference games, and you normally don’t do more than one of those games against top-line teams like Penn State and Notre Dame.

What’s more, the ACC doesn’t exactly have many teams that will excite a fan base that lives for its Sundays and its beloved Steelers.

See, while Morgantown has only its Mountaineers, Pitt is little more than a Saturday distraction to the city, save for rivalry games.

The truth is that the ACC wasn’t really thinking football when it selected Pitt and Syracuse to join the conference, a conference that seems to be run out of the athletic offices of North Carolina and Duke, two snooty schools that push basketball over football and who look down upon West Virginia, buying into an antiquated image of the school and the state.

But while Pitt probably traveled in the wrong direction, even though it was a necessary move to make, the repercussions will be felt here, too.

West Virginia sports without Pitt just won’t be the same.

Oh, it will be great to face Oklahoma and Texas, two of college football’s most legendary programs, on a yearly basis. It will be great to be a league where basketball isn’t king and football merely an afterthought, as it was in the Big East.

But there truly is nothing like this rivalry on the horizon either in football or basketball.

WVU will draw better than Pitt in football, for certain, with Big 12 teams coming to town, but the emotion will be at a lower level, almost civilized, and that never was the case with the Panthers.

What made the rivalry so great was both the geographical proximity — 80 miles of I-79 between the two campuses — but the great disparity between the two schools.

In truth, the biggest shortcoming for WVU in the Big East was that it really had little in common with the other schools ... they come mostly from the big cities like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, Philadelphia, New York, Syracuse and Tampa.

These institutions often looked down upon West Virginia as a country cousin against whom you could compete athletically but with whom you preferred not to socialize.

But that didn’t matter because Pitt was there and that made it the right conference for West Virginia.

If they could beat Pitt, they were champions ... no matter how the rest of the season went.

And it went the other way, too, as the Mountaineers learned when Pitt knocked them out of a chance to play for the national championship, turning their own losing season into one of the most successful of all time.

No matter what happens against Kansas in the final game of next football season, it won’t be the same ... and that’s a shame.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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