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Longtime Pitt fans reflect on glory days - The Pitt News

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Longtime Pitt fans reflect on glory days

The+Panthers+and+Nittany+Lions+will+face+off+on+Saturday+at+the+Pitt-PSU+game+at+Heinz+Field.+Courtesy+of+University+Library+System.
The Panthers and Nittany Lions will face off on Saturday at the Pitt-PSU game at Heinz Field. Courtesy of University Library System.

The Panthers and Nittany Lions will face off on Saturday at the Pitt-PSU game at Heinz Field. Courtesy of University Library System.

The Panthers and Nittany Lions will face off on Saturday at the Pitt-PSU game at Heinz Field. Courtesy of University Library System.

By Stephen Caruso / Senior Staff Writer

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For the first time in 16 years, Pitt students will rise Saturday morning for a date with the Nittany Lions.

It’s something no current Pitt student has done, but alums throughout the past century –– from the age of Chuck Berry and poodle skirts to Nirvana and chokers –– recall the annual Pitt-Penn State face-off as an integral part of their college careers.

Back in the 1980s, when leg warmers were creeping above knees, video was killing the radio star and Pitt was a football powerhouse on the decline, Becky Brandt came to campus as a communication and political science major. She joined the Pitt Band as a trumpet player and, by her sophomore year, found herself on the sidelines of Pitt Stadium.

Now she runs her own small marketing business, but Brandt vividly remembers the energy on campus before a Penn State game. Over the course of her three-year stint with the band — rising to be one of the fanfare-hurling heralds by her senior year — she saw teams go 3-7-1 and 8-4.

“It was always electric, no matter how good or bad [Pitt was],” Brandt said.

Part of that buzz came from the setting: Pitt Stadium. Located at what is now the Petersen Events Center, the stadium was built in 1925 in the style of old school college bowls — no overhangs, no columns, just gently sloping stands filled with benches.

Clete Anselm, class of ’85, attended Pitt-Penn State games throughout the ’80s during the golden age of the rivalry — and when the stadium was half a century old.

“It was our house,” he said. “You could tell it was old, but you didn’t really care.”

The student section Anselm and his cohorts sat in faced downhill, presenting students with the best seats in the house, overlooking Oakland and the towering Cathedral of Learning.

Anselm, after attending games at Heinz Field with his alumni daughter, lamented the loss of Pitt football’s on-campus home. He said games seem less exciting now.

Amanda Priebe, class of ’05, saw the same in her time as a Pitt fan, though she had less experience at the old stadium than Anselm.

Priebe only attended games at Pitt Stadium during her first year, which was also the last season the Panthers were on campus. Even still, she could recall the “collegiate feel” of the home base. As she got older and classes got tougher, she found it more difficult to make it to Heinz.

“Pretty much every football game is an away game [at Heinz Field],” Priebe said.

Lou Rusiski, class of ’71 and a former bass drum player in the Pitt Band, said he feels “the enthusiasm is still there” despite the move. Although Pitt has consistently battled low attendance at games in the recent past, Rusiski said the size of the stadium is actually just dwarfing the turnout.

Pitt Stadium maxed out at 56,500 fans, compared to 68,400 in Heinz Field. A packed Pitt Stadium crowd would leave Heinz Field feeling roomy.

It wasn’t just the rivalry that brought students in droves to Pitt Stadium, it was also typically the final game of the season, when students were trying to get one last glimpse at their favorite stars and one last taste of the college football experience. The two Pennsylvania schools closed their seasons against each other for the majority of their 96 meetings.

Both teams were independent until the 1990s, allowing extra freedom for the coaches to schedule without conference constraints. Ending the season with a rival meant putting more than pride on the line. Bowl eligibility — or even national championships — were at stake.

Although from 1968 to 1971, while Rusiski was a Panther, Pitt was never above .500. Even so, he stuck around as an equipment adviser — and a loyal Pitt Band member — to assist the band into the ’70s and witnessed Pitt’s greatest triumph. In 1976, Pitt cinched the national championship, including a 24-7 take down of Penn State.

Over the decades, Rusiski made sure to back his team with more than bluster by making bets with Penn State fans at work. He remembers the day after lost games as a day of reckoning.

“I wore a Penn State hat [to work] once or twice,” he said. He then switched to buying donuts for his boss, so he could “eat his mistakes instead of wearing [them].”

The biggest mistake a Pitt fan could make this Saturday might be forgetting sunscreen for the hot, late-summer sun. Rivalry games of yesteryear were a tad different — late November is more likely to give you frostbite than sunburn.

Brandt described the weather as “brutally cold.” Robert Swaim, class of ’59, said the temperature could touch 20 degrees while in the stands. Sometimes fans would bring blankets to stay cozy — sometimes, they’d bring flasks.

“[We brought] a little hair of the dog to keep warm,” Swaim said.

Now, though, the booze is more readily available. Pitt’s decision to sell beer at Heinz Field this season has since dashed the need for sneaking it in. In exchange, students are now getting up much earlier to catch their games, due to the shifting demands of TV schedules since the 1980s. In the past, kickoffs were scheduled in the afternoon and night games were impossible, as Pitt Stadium lacked lights.

After a pleasant snooze, students would wake to find Oakland alive with activity.

“The students would all corral on campus,” Priebe said. “It was a lot of fun, there was a lot of energy.”

Priebe could look out her window in Holland Hall and watch cheerleaders doing flips in the Quad, while Anselm remembers — after waking up at 10 a.m. and grabbing McDonald’s — returning to his home in Litchfield Towers to find face painting stands and to listen to the prideful reverberations of the Pitt Band playing.

Before the Digital Plaza blasted Top 40 hits into the skulls of passing students, traditional tailgating — out of the back of a car — could be found all over Oakland. Brandt said fans would “tailgate wherever you could find a spot.”  

“As a student, most of the tailgating was at people’s houses,” Anselm said. Students could be found hanging out on porches from Atwood to Meyran, with the party even spilling out onto the sidewalk.

Students were grilling and chilling in the parking lot outside the Syria Mosque — a since demolished concert venue on Bigelow Boulevard, now the site of a UPMC parking lot — and at the Giant Eagle on Fifth Avenue, which is now a CVS. Schenley Plaza was even a parking lot at the time, and it was filled with fans. Things are a lot different now.

Today, while Oakland porches are still full of Pitt students, tailgating for games at Heinz Field has become a limited experience that’s contained to a few, mostly expensive, lots.

In the 1980s and ’90s, the Pitt Band would serve as the Pied Pipers of Oakland, beginning at their old home in Bellefield Hall and marching through the neighborhood to rally the fans. Priebe said she would wave pom-poms out of her window as the parade passed by before heading out herself.

Then, with fans in tow, the band would turn to face Cardiac Hill. Brandt remembered it as a grueling experience.

“Marching and playing uphill was hard,” Brandt said. “[But we’d] try to take some of the pain out of Cardiac Hill.”

The mass of Pitt students arriving at once would be so dense, sometimes the student section wouldn’t fill out until the middle of the first quarter. Brandt said the crowd was usually about two-thirds Pitt, one-third Penn State. Putting aside feelings towards PSU fans, most alum said the atmosphere of the house divided was civil.

One hundred miles away in Happy Valley, Brandt didn’t see as affable crowds. Nittany Lion fans heaved rock laden snowballs at Panthers in Beaver Stadium.

“My trumpet used to have dents in it,” Brandt said. “I’ve earned my animosity.”

Today, fans on each side trade digital blows over Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat. But even as the nasty rhetoric ratchets up in online brawls, Rusiski stands by his love for the rivalry.

“It’s collegial,” he said. “It wasn’t that [we] hate you, it was that [we] wanted to beat you.”

So when Rusiski picked up a thick parcel holding eight tickets three weeks ago, he realized what the game Saturday meant — a chance to rekindle an old rivalry in a new house.

“When I opened up my season tickets and saw Pitt script with a kickoff against Penn State, I knew all was right with the world,” Rusiski said.

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Longtime Pitt fans reflect on glory days