Pittsburgh kicks off its 22nd and final season of Big East conference play when it travels to face Cincinnati in Nippert Stadium at 8:00 on ESPN. A year ago next week, Pittsburgh and Syracuse worked out an agreement to leave the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference. The move nearly killed the Big East. It ultimately led to West Virginia (and Louisville, unsuccessfully) seeking membership elsewhere. The moves left Louisville, Cincinnati, Rutgers, Connecticut, and South Florida inches from being orphans in the college football landscape. Looking back, Pittsburgh could've been the model Big East football program. Instead, fans of the schools left behind can't help but cheer its demise.
Pittsburgh has accomplished virtually nothing in two-plus decades of Big East football. The school has been playing football in the Big East since the conference decided to sponsor football beginning in 1991. At that time, the Panthers were just 15 years removed from winning a national championship under Johnny Majors and were just ten years removed from posting their third straight 11-1 season under Jackie Sherrill. Yet, since joining the Big East, Pittsburgh has claimed no outright conference championships Both titles were shared. One, in 2004, a year where three of the better programs were set to leave the league for the ACC. They also won a share of the 2010 title.
Meanwhile, since 2005, when Cincinnati, Louisville, and South Florida joined, those three programs and Connecticut (which only began playing division-I football in 2000 and joined the Big East for football in 2004), have combined to win at least a share of 7 Big East titles. In 1981, South Florida didn't play football. Louisville played in a rickety little stadium on the Kentucky Fairgrounds. It drew 21,000 people to its season opener against Toledo. Connecticut was a Division I-AA program. In 1981, Pittsburgh already had a recent national title, a Heisman Trophy winner just five years ago, and Dan Marino. In the 30 years since Jackie Sherrill left, the Panthers amassed a mediocre 186-169-1 record.
Everything has been in place for Pittsburgh to be the model football program in the Big East. Pittsburgh fit the original model of Big East membership, being a major university in a large metropolitan area. Off the field, Pittsburgh is an enormous university of almost 30,000 students, located in a large, vibrant city. The school is well respected in the academic community. It's a member of the AAU. It's in a state that producers plenty of quality college football players and neighbors Ohio. On the field, Pittsburgh was one of the few original Big East schools that had a long, successful football history. The Panthers had both distant (seven national championships before World War II, recognized by various organizations) and recent success (1976 championship, 50-9 the five seasons following).
When the Big East has been criticized for not performing on the field, especially in the post-ACC raid, BCS era, that criticism has been due more to Pittsburgh than anyone else. Other schools have performed worse in the past seven years (Syracuse, ironically), but little was expected of them as they declined in the post-Pasqualoni era. Pittsburgh was the school that was still recruiting marginally top 25 classes. Pittsburgh was the school that pundits insisted should be considered for the preseason top 25 based on the talent at hand. Pittsburgh was the school delivering players like Darrelle Revis, LeSean McCoy and Larry Fitzgerald to the NFL. It even plays in an NFL stadium which, while not always creating a wonderful environment like some well known college venues, is still a great place to watch a football game. Nevertheless, when a college football fan turns on a Pitt game on ESPN, he's more likely to see the yellow seats of Heinz Field than Pitt fans.
Rather than being a rebuttal to the constant criticisms of the Big East, Pittsburgh was the school South Florida would get its first major Division I win against.. Pittsburgh was the school getting creamed by upstart Utah in the Fiesta Bowl. Pittsburgh was the school losing a weeknight game at Ohio. Pittsburgh was the school losing at home to Bowling Green. Pittsburgh was the school that fired its coach after winning a share of the conference title, hired a replacement who embarrassed the program so much he was fired before he could sign a recruiting class, went to a bowl game with no head coach, and then hired a fast-talking replacement who subsequently left in less than a calendar year. Since powers Miami, Boston College, and Virginia Tech left the Big East, Pittsburgh has still managed to finish the season ranked in the top 25 just once.
Now, Pittsburgh is a lame-duck member that lost at home to open the 2012 season to an FCS team. Pittsburgh's president led the charge to turn down an ESPN television offer that, while less than what would've been offered on the open market, likely would've kept the league intact. Pittsburgh sued the league for lost revenue because TCU didn't come. TCU didn't come because Pitt decided to leave.
Now, Pittsburgh prepares to exit the Big East for safe harbor in one the "power conferences". Like a spoiled teenager whose parents hire wealthy attorneys to repeatedly bail him out, Pittsburgh waits to be bailed out of its underachievement based on the feedback of network executives and college presidents. While Pittsburgh routinely did less with more, upstarts like Cincinnati, Louisville, South Florida, and Connecticut built respectable programs with real accomplishments at considerable disadvantages (I haven't even mentioned West Virginia or the job Rutgers has done over the past decade in any of this). Yet, beginning next year, Pittsburgh will be on the good side of the narrative about "power conferences", despite accomplishing nothing and leaving far better programs far worse off in its wake.
That's why, beginning at 8:00 p.m., Cincinnati, Rutgers, Louisville, South Florida, and Connecticut fans probably can't help but hope the Panthers take it on the chin one last time.