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9/09/2016 6:15 pm  #1

Penn State - Pitt Reborn?

With The Rivalry Reborn, Pitt And Penn State Players Remember The Game That Defined It

Chet Parlavecchio was 10 minutes into our phone interview when he really got going. He was repeating a story he’s been telling on and off for 35 years, the one about that time he appeared on a Pittsburgh radio show and dropped a burn on Pitt in the run-up to Penn State’s 1981 game against the No. 1-ranked Panthers.

Parlavecchio, a Penn State linebacker, had dissed Pitt’s schedule in that radio interview by suggesting that Thiel College—a Division III school located some 70 miles north of Pittsburgh—might as well have been among the Panthers’ opponents, so weak was Pitt’s slate.

“Pitt’s No. 1,” Parlavecchio said, according to newspaper accounts. “They played that tough schedule: Rutgers, Temple—and Thiel.

“Now they’re going to be in a real football game.”

Bringing it up now, all these years later, still gets Parlavecchio fired up. “We didn’t respect [Pitt’s] schedule; we didn’t respect what they had done,” Parlavecchio, now a high school football coach in New Jersey, told me. “We knew we were good. We knew we were battle-tested.”

College football is often less about pride in one’s own team than it is about the chance to bathe in a hated rival’s misfortune. Parlavecchio, both in that original radio appearance and in my recent phone call with him, was tapping into that sentiment, and giving voice to it. Because in 1981, Pitt-Penn State had all the components of a perfect college football rivalry.

”It was Oklahoma-Nebraska, it was Alabama-Auburn, it was USC-UCLA, it was Ohio State and Michigan, and it was Pitt and Penn State,” said John Congemi, the Panthers’ quarterback from 1983-86. “It was the game.”

“It was hate,” said Kenny Jackson, a Nittany Lions receiver from 1980-83. “It wasn’t just a game.”

There have been 96 Pitt-Penn State games. Game No. 97 takes place Saturday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, the first of four home-and-home matchups slated to run through 2019. But because Pitt and Penn State haven’t played since 2000, an entire generation of college football fans has no concept of what the rivalry was, or what it meant for the two schools, which are separated by 140 miles of Pennsyltucky wilderness. This is true even though plenty of Penn State fans live in the Pittsburgh area; their presence used to divide the city during Pitt-Penn State week, and even in the era before Twitter eggs served as a free recruit-shaming service, their influence on local recruits could be felt year-round.

Pitt fans have always had an inferiority complex when it came to PSU, the state’s traditional football power; deep down, after the series was discontinued, their instincts told them that Pitt still needed Penn State as a rival, that Penn State provided them with someone to punch up against. Until recently, Penn State fans had enjoyed more consistent success, and they often barely concealed their condescension toward Pitt. However, as the proprietor of a Pitt fan blog recently told Pittsburgh Magazine, “for [supposedly] not caring about Pitt, I sure hear a lot from Penn State fans anytime something unfortunate happens at Pitt.” Old hatreds never graduate.

But nothing quite tells the story—or so accurately summarized the future trajectories of Pitt and Penn State, their players, and the fate of several other eastern schools—quite like 1981, a game forever known for its astonishingly lopsided final score: 48-14.

That would be Penn State 48, Pitt 14.

Even today, just the score is enough to stir the echoes. “I wouldn’t say I have memory-loss issues or anything, but I sometimes can’t remember what I had for breakfast,” said Todd Blackledge, Penn State’s quarterback from 1979-82 and a current ESPN analyst. “I have vivid memories of that game.”

Pitt-Penn State as a marquee matchup to end the regular season was once a routine occurrence. Both had their runs in which one side dominated the other, but from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, both programs were consistently ranked in the Top 10. They battled for recruits. And they were portraits in contrast, and not just because Pitt is a city school and Penn State is located somewhere east of Mount Nowhere.

Pitt had—and just recently brought back—that script logo, which conveyed a flair and a swagger, a notable bit of branding that became synonymous with the program’s return to respectability after head coach Johnny Majors’s and running back Tony Dorsett’s arrival in 1973. Penn State had—and still has—those plain blue and white uniforms, with no player names on the back, an austere look that reflected the no-frills image preferred by its late, longtime head coach, Joe Paterno.

Majors left Pitt after winning a national title in 1976. Jackie Sherrill, his smooth-talking salesman of a successor, would similarly leave for a more lucrative gig after the ‘81 season. And Penn State had Paterno, whose projection of rectitude, piety, and erudition masked his massive ego. Paterno was so sure of himself as the game’s moral exemplar that—thinking he was speaking off the record—he once took a crack at Sherrill and Barry Switzer in a room full of reporters by saying he couldn’t bear the thought of retiring and leaving the noble calling of coaching college football to such scoundrels. It remains no small irony that Paterno’s life and career would end in disgrace with him at the center of one of the sport’s ugliest scandals.

Sherrill, in a recent phone interview, took his battles with Paterno in stride. In at least one interview in recent years, Sherrill has pointed out that he and Paterno eventually patched things up. But back then, they were rivals, and the only way they knew how to operate was to behave accordingly.

“You’re not supposed to be your opponent’s friend,” Sherrill told me. “I don’t see [Jim] Harbaugh going to dinner with [Urban] Meyer, either.”

Kenny Jackson, whom Sherrill tried to recruit by telling him Paterno wouldn’t throw him the ball, remembered Paterno being extra hard on him in the week leading up to 48-14.

“The week before the game, Joe was such an asshole,” Jackson, a native of New Jersey, told me. “He was all on my ass. And I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand this rivalry. I didn’t understand how personal it was to Joe.”

Paterno owned Pitt. He went 23-7-1 against the Panthers all-time, and he beat Pitt the first 10 times he faced it after taking over in Happy Valley in 1966. “Penn State had the advantage for many years of getting any player from Pennsylvania that they wanted,” Sherrill said. “You were the king of the hill and then you had a young guy who came in and knocked you off.”

From ‘76 to ‘84, Pitt went 4-4-1 against Penn State. It was always a sticking point for Paterno that his unbeaten teams in 1968, 1969, and 1973 weren’t recognized as national champions. Then along came Majors and Dorsett, and in short order Pitt—Pitt!—won a title.

But Paterno had even grander reasons to dislike Pitt. College football in the early ‘80s was a regional sport—and still, as always, a sport that exploited the labor of its players. Conference affiliations weren’t crucial to a program’s success. At that time, Pitt, Penn State, Syracuse, Boston College, West Virginia, and several other northeastern schools were independents, a designation that allowed them to keep their bowl and television revenues—a pretty good deal, as long as there were television and bowl revenues to be had. Which obviously only worked for the programs that were successful.

Paterno saw the financial advantages that could be had from being part of a conference, a reality that came to bear when a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision gave conferences the right to bargain for their own television deals. The case continues to affect college sports to this day, as evidenced by the power conferences’ gargantuan TV contracts and the dizzying game of conference musical chairs that have taken place. Paterno’s idea, circa 1980-81, was for the eastern schools to form their own all-sports league. Pitt seemed to be on board with the concept. But less than two weeks before 48-14, Pitt decided instead to join the Big East for basketball and to retain its football independence.

The move would prove to be shortsighted, especially in light of the Big East’s decision a year later to reject Penn State as a member. The Big East later added football, but Pitt’s program has been mostly mediocre since the early ‘80s, and attendance at Heinz Field has been terrible. When the TV money leviathan began to swallow the Big East, Pitt helicoptered off the roof for the ACC, while the other eastern independents have since scattered far and wide to a variety of leagues. But Pitt’s about-face in ‘81 was also a giant middle finger aimed at Paterno, who hitched his wagon to the Big Ten a decade later, at which point he stopped playing Pitt except for a four-year stretch from 1997-2000. Little wonder, then, that when the usually reserved Paterno took the field at Pitt Stadium for the start of 48-14, he waved his arms toward the stands with genuine excitement.

Continued at

Last edited by Goose (9/09/2016 6:15 pm)

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 

9/10/2016 11:49 am  #2

Re: Penn State - Pitt Reborn?

This thing is ugly so far. The Nits defense is getting blown up.

Tony Dorsett could run through this D line.

Last edited by TheLagerLad (9/10/2016 11:50 am)

I think you're going to see a lot of different United States of America over the next three, four, or eight years. - President Donald J. Trump

9/10/2016 11:55 am  #3

Re: Penn State - Pitt Reborn?

Yea, that defense is getting shredded.
Pitt may score 50.

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 
     Thread Starter

9/10/2016 12:41 pm  #4

Re: Penn State - Pitt Reborn?

Nice 2 minute offense at the end of the half. Let's see if they can carry that momentum forward.

I think you're going to see a lot of different United States of America over the next three, four, or eight years. - President Donald J. Trump

9/10/2016 1:28 pm  #5

Re: Penn State - Pitt Reborn?

The offense has come to life, but the D still has no answers for the Pitt running game.
Going to take a couple of turnovers to get this one,,,,,

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 
     Thread Starter

9/10/2016 2:16 pm  #6

Re: Penn State - Pitt Reborn?

42-31 with 10 minutes left.
69,000 + in the stands.
Why did they interrupt this rivalry?

Last edited by Goose (9/10/2016 2:18 pm)

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 
     Thread Starter

9/10/2016 2:45 pm  #7

Re: Penn State - Pitt Reborn?


That was heart-breaking. AND fun.
Gotta hand it to the lads, this thing started off like an epic disaster.
But, they rallied and made a game of it. They showed grit.

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 
     Thread Starter

9/11/2016 10:25 am  #8

Re: Penn State - Pitt Reborn?

A real thriller.

Too bad McSorley went for it all on that last pass. He still had plenty of time left. Certainly BOTH teams had no reason to feel too down. Both played well and gave their all. The whole game revolved around a few plays. Kudoos to both Pitt and Penn State. 

Last edited by tennyson (9/11/2016 10:25 am)

"Do not confuse motion and progress, A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress"

9/11/2016 10:35 am  #9

Re: Penn State - Pitt Reborn?

Hail to Pitt, Hail to Pitt, every loyal son
Hail to Pitt, Hail to Pitt, till the victory's won
The Gold and Blue shall wave forever
On high thro' fair and stormy weather
We'll sing her praises far and wide until the end of time
Hoop hurray, Hoop hurray for dear old uni..
We'll wave and cheer for many a year
And sing her songs out loud and clear
For our University.


9/11/2016 11:28 am  #10

Re: Penn State - Pitt Reborn?

With the rivalry suspended I really hadn't been following Pitt football. I didn't know the story of James Conner and his Hodgkins lymphoma.
Watching him run yesterday, in addition to the pain of seeing him tear up the Penn State D, I also felt joy.
Joy at seeing a young person restored to health from a terrible disease and living his life to the fullest.
Godspeed to you, young man! 

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 
     Thread Starter

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