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Smizik: Panthers throw farewell party

Sunday, March 03, 2002

The sweet aroma of success -- a season-long companion of the Pitt basketball team -- mixed well with the swell of nostalgia that permeated Fitzgerald Field House last night. It all combined to produce the perfect ending for 50 years of sometimes good, sometimes bad and occasionally great basketball in a building that maybe never looked good but invariably felt good.

In the final Pitt basketball game played at Fitzgerald, and in front of a crowd that would have had the fire marshals furious, the Panthers celebrated the occasion by easily dismissing West Virginia, 92-65, to finish their regular season 25-4.

The victory ended a regular season of stunning success for a team picked by league coaches to finish sixth in the West Division of the Big East Conference. Instead, the Panthers finished a comfortable first and as a top-10 team nationally. It was a season that went beyond anyoneís dreams and a season that still looks rich with promise, what with the Big East and NCAA tournaments ahead.

The Panthers move to the Petersen Events Center, a 12,500-seat facility filled with amenities Fitzgerald never had, next season.

To honor the closing of Fitzgerald -- renamed about a decade after it opened for Rufus Fitzgerald, a Pitt chancellor of the 1940s and í50s and a one-time athletic director at Tennessee -- all basketball lettermen were invited to the final game.

Alphabetically, the lettermen who returned ran from Curtis Aiken to Dr. Mickey Zernich. Athletically, they ran from the great to the near-great to the not-so-great. Pitt did it right, bringing all the lettermen on the court at halftime.

No one looked better than Billy Knight and Charles Smith. Along with Dr. Don Hennon, they represent the three greatest players in Pitt history. Knight and Smith looked handsome and successful. But even better than that, they looked like they could still fit into their retired uniforms.

Some of the great Pitt teams returned almost in tact. From the 1963-64 teams, which went to consecutive postseason tournaments when such a feat was more of an accomplishment than it is today, were Brian Generalovich, Cal Sheffield, Dave Sauer and Dave Roman.

Joining Knight from the great 1973 team were Mickey Martin, Keith Starr, Kirk Bruce, Ken Wagoner and Willie Kelly.

From the tournament teams of the late 1980s and early í90s were Smith, Aiken, Demetreus Gore, Jason Matthews, Darelle Porter and Darren Morningstar

It was a night of celebration and jubilation, but also a night to remember those who were not around to say goodbye.

Have a thought for Buzz Ridl, that grand gentleman and coaching genius who brought Pitt out of the basketball dark ages. Ridl, who died in April 1995, coached the great 1973 team that was 25-4. He did it almost entirely with local players and he did it with class and dignity. They donít make them like Ridl any more.

Have a thought for Roy Chipman, who enjoyed a good time almost as much a victory, and whose stamp on the Pitt basketball program can never be removed. If Ridl taught Pitt to care about winning, Chipman, who died in August 1997, showed it how to maneuver into the big time and how to succeed there. He was the first coach able to get a true commitment to basketball from the administration, and he responded by taking the Panthers to two NCAA tournaments, into the Big East and recruiting the likes of Smith, Lane, Aiken, Gore and Brian Shorter.

Have a thought, if you will, for the late Paul Auslander -- better known as Tiger Paul. He wasnít mad, like some thought, just more than a bit eccentric. Whether he was in a tuxedo or pajamas sprinting the sideline and leading the Pitt student section in cheers, he was a sight to behold and a treasured memory of this building.

Letís not forget some who just couldnít make it.

There was nobody -- absolutely nobody -- who loved Pitt basketball more or who worked harder to make it better than Tim Grgurich, Ridlís assistant and successor. He pushed hard to bring Pittís commitment into the 20th century. When it never came, he reluctantly left his alma mater. Heís the highest-paid assistant in the NBA today, where his love and knowledge of the game and loyalty are treasured.

All Paul Evans did at Pitt was establish the best winning percentage of the past 80 years, win two Big East championships, have three 20-win seasons and go to five NCAA tournaments. He was fired after the 1994 season, when Pitt was 13-14, and the program is just now recovering from that mistake.

They and thousands more were all part of Fitzgerald, a building that was old when it was new but one that closes down as a Pitt treasure.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.

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