Dust in Pitt, PSU recruiting battle settles on National Signing Day

By Alex Wise / Staff Writer

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Another year, another National Signing Day in which Pennsylvania received little national attention. Maybe it’s the media’s way of punishing us non-Ohio State-loving northerners for our crazy notion that life exists outside of football.

Locally, however, the brewing recruiting rivalry between Pitt and Penn State looks to bubble over. Second-year Penn State head coach James Franklin made it a point of pride on Twitter and in press conferences to “dominate the state” in recruiting. Franklin sought to make State College the only destination in Pennsylvania for top local players, and his recruiting class this year gives a backbone to that pledge. Recruiting often comes down to what angles and weaknesses a rival coach can exploit. One advantage that Penn State has over Pitt is stadium attendance rates, and Franklin could have played that card to get 10 more recruits than Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi did.

Franklin’s first full class features 25 players, 11 of whom are four-star recruits and 14 recruits who are three-stars. Compare that to Pitt’s class of 15 players, which includes three four-star recruits, 11 three-stars and a quarterback transfer from Tennessee.

Of Pennsylvania’s top seven recruits, six stayed in-state, and five of those chose Penn State. Baldwin High School’s Sterling Jenkins and Whitehall High School’s Saquon Barkley, a massive offensive tackle and a talented running back respectively, are bound for State College. Both are from Pittsburgh’s South Hills. The only notable western Pennsylvania recruit that Pitt scored is Jordan Whitehead, a highly sought-after cornerback from Monaca, northwest of the city.

Why does Penn State hold such a dominant edge in local recruiting, even in western Pennsylvania? 

Analysts and media members will point to Pitt’s coaching instability. In my four years at Pitt, I’ve seen a coach hired and fired in two weeks, a coach bolt before a bowl game without addressing his players and a coach return to the school from which he came after two years. Brand new head coach Pat Narduzzi entered the game late when he joined the program in December, and probably focused on convincing current Pitt commits to stay with the school.

But coaching changes aren’t an acceptable excuse for losing recruiting battles to Penn State, which, as most will remember, is fresh off of the most crippling NCAA sanctions since penalties cut Southern Methodist University’s program in 1987. Over the past three years, players still chose Penn State over Pitt when the sanctions made it so the school couldn’t even promise them a bowl game opportunity. Hell, the school couldn’t promise scholarships to them.

So why can’t Pitt do better?

While I could write a manifesto on why we need a stadium on campus in Oakland, I’d prefer not to start my day angry and bitter, so I’ll avoid that topic. But stadium atmosphere must have something to do with it.

By my calculations (by adding every game’s attendance and dividing the total by the number of home games — easy), Pitt’s average game attendance this year was 41,315 at Heinz Field, which seats roughly 65,000. Penn State’s average attendance at Beaver Stadium, which holds around 107,000, exceeded 101,000.

I don’t think it’s necessary to have a massive stadium in order to have a great game day atmosphere. Heinz Field can be an insane venue when full — just ask the rest of the NFL’s AFC North division. But, as a big time recruit, why would I want to play in a stadium that leaves close to 40 percent of its seats unfilled and where the majority of students leave immediately following their drunken rendition of a Neil Diamond classic?

This must all add up for some recruits, as evidenced by Altoona High School linebacker Kevin Givens flipping his commitment from the Panthers to the Nittany Lions earlier this week.

James Franklin has set the tone for the future of Pennsylvania college football. It’s up to Pitt to respond.

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