In the four years since Pitt moved to the Atlantic Coast Conference, the decision to leave the Big East has both haunted and helped the school’s biggest sports — football and men’s basketball.
For the majority of the 2000s, the University of Pittsburgh was a basketball school. Coaches Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon turned the school’s program completely around — taking it from one of the worst in the Big East to one of the best in the country.
In Howland’s four years at the helm, the team went from 13-15 in the 1999-2000 season to 28-5 in 2002-03, taking home a Big East Tournament championship in 2003. Dixon sustained Pitt’s success, and the two combined to make 12 NCAA tournaments in 13 years.
Football, on the other hand, was a much different tale. The program that once housed Dan Marino, Tony Dorsett and many other of the sport’s best players was mired in a slump. After an awful 1990s — which saw only one season above .500 — the 2000s were better, but not comparable to the program’s storied past.
This trend gave the teams opposite reputations, with basketball being one of the highlights of student life — while football struggled to convince students to make the trip to Heinz Field.
It seemed as if this might always be the hierarchy of Pitt athletics, but in September 2011, the school announced its departure from the Big East to join the ACC in 2013 — a decision which hugely impacted the status of both sports.
The move not only gave the athletic department more money, but was also supposed to allow it to expand its recruiting base from the Northeast to the entire Atlantic coast. This was poised make the football team much more competitive while also helping the basketball program take its next step.
Although the athletic department stood to benefit from the move, it — and the fans — lost a lot from conference realignment. One of the most significant was the loss of the school’s storied rivalries.
The Backyard Brawl against West Virginia — in which over 100 games had been played — and the annual football series against Notre Dame both came to a halt. Basketball suffered as well, leaving behind Georgetown, Villanova and Connecticut in addition to the Mountaineers — who left for the Big 12 in 2012.
The move was mainly for football purposes — the sport offered more money in the ACC — and the brunt of the hardship fell on basketball. The program got a wake-up call shortly after making the transition, and Dixon had trouble in his time in the ACC.
His inability to adapt to the new conference’s style of play was one of his biggest faults. The ACC was much less team-oriented than the Big East, instead relying on 3-point shooters and speedy players who could drive to the rim. This didn’t mold with Pitt’s slower style, and Dixon’s strategies failed to produce wins in the faster-paced ACC.
The coach was also never able to compete against the league in terms of recruiting. While he never got the best recruits in the Big East, he was able to land talented players from cities like New York and Philadelphia.
The players he recruited in the ACC, while not terrible, just weren’t good enough to win consistently against more talented teams. It’s unsure why Dixon changed his recruitment of players, but one possible reason is that his conservative style of play wasn’t liked by newer recruits.
After the 2015-16 season, Dixon returned to his alma mater to coach at Texas Christian University. His replacement — Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings — came to Pitt with a résumé that didn’t include a whole lot of success — having won just one SEC title in his 17 years with the Commodores.
In Stallings’ first season as coach, the Panthers had a losing record for the first time in 17 years. Now, Stallings is left with the difficult task of rebuilding the squad with little support from fans.
But while basketball has largely suffered in the transition, football has skyrocketed, improving from four consecutive 6-6 seasons to two straight 8-4 campaigns with bowl appearances.
Sure, the program caught a break in getting placed in the ACC Coastal Division — by far the weaker of the two divisions — but the accomplishments are still meaningful.
The football team has found success in the ACC by attacking other teams’ weak pass defenses. Quarterback Nathan Peterman threw for over 5,000 yards and 47 touchdowns during the past two seasons, leading the offense to a school record for points scored.
And while the move to the ACC hurt basketball recruiting, it has helped on the football front. The Big East was largely looked down upon as a conference, but the ACC provided tough competition from top to bottom. Narduzzi has capitalized on this, taking back the talent-heavy Western Pennsylvania area and making the state of Florida part of the program’s recruiting pipeline.
The football team’s prospects for this season are optimistic, and they have a chance to get better if Narduzzi can keep recruiting well. As we’ve seen the previous two years, the Panthers are rising and it looks like they’ll be a good team for years to come.
Every decision comes with pros and cons, and this one is no exception. The effect of the move will linger for years to come, and one can only wonder what would’ve been if the program stayed in the Big East.
But this is the decision the school made. Now they have to live with it.