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Home stand: Pitt Stadium's fate is an emotional issue

Sunday, March 14, 1999

By Shelly Anderson, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

In his family, Mark Nordenberg is known as the one with good spatial sense.

The Panthers storm onto the Pitt Stadium Field to take on Penn State last season. Pitt most likely will move its home games to the Steelers' new stadium in 2001. (John Beale, Post-Gazette) 

"I can get everything into a trunk, and I can tell you whether the leftover tomato sauce is going to fit into this container or not," the University of Pittsburgh chancellor said.

One thing stumped him, though.

"I look at [Pitt] Stadium, and I say, well, what the heck does it mean?" Nordenberg said. "For me, just standing outside the stadium looking at it, I have absolutely no sense of what it is you could do on that space."

That's why he and Athletic Director Steve Pederson - spurred by the possibility of a new off-campus home for the Panthers football team - found experts to interpret how the 10-acre natural bowl on Cardiac Hill might otherwise be used.

Both men became intrigued, then enamored by what they learned. That's why it is almost certain that Pitt will move its home football games into the $233 million North Side stadium that will be built for the Steelers and Pitt Stadium will be razed to make way for the school's long-planned convocation center/basketball arena, much-needed student housing, perhaps some green space that is not artificial turf.

Only some detail work remains before a decision is announced.

The proposed changes have prompted criticism, some harsh, from student government, former football players, Oakland businesses and fans. Pederson and Nordenberg nevertheless are convinced they could do something that will be looked upon years from now as a great thing in Pitt history.

"We have to do the right thing for the university in the long term," Pederson said. "I've come in here and second-guessed a lot of decisions that were made in the athletic department over a length of time. Whoever follows me will do the same thing.

"I hope they look at it and say, 'Boy, did these people ever have a vision of doing what's right long term, and overall, for the university.' "

The last season

  Pitt Chancellor mark Nordenberg, left, and Athletic Director Steve Pederson are proponents of moving the Panthers' games in 2000. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

This is how things would work:

The Panthers would play their last season in Pitt Stadium this fall, then the 74-year-old structure would be demolished.

Once the land is cleared, construction could begin on the new buildings. It will take 18 months to two years to complete the arena, Pederson said.

The arena originally was to be squeezed onto land adjacent to Pitt Stadium, but under the new plan it could be expanded to include student recreational and fitness facilities and adequate parking.

For the 2000 season, Pitt would play football in Three Rivers Stadium, sharing the facility with the Steelers and Pirates. Three Rivers will be razed after that season and in 2001 the Panthers and Steelers would begin playing in the new football-only stadium to be erected near Three Rivers.

If that happens, the new stadium will be the second facility shared by the Panthers and Steelers. In 2000, the Panthers football team will permanently move all of its non-game day activities to a new sports medicine and practice complex being built on the South Side by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The Steelers also will lease space there.

Pederson and Nordenberg said that because the idea of playing in the new Steelers stadium was floated months before financing was in place, the university was able to take its time and explore its options. The idea of the Panthers moving to the North Side stadium was a byproduct of discussions about the UPMC facility.

"Not only was that a productive time, but it was an exciting time, a time that gave us a chance to dream a little," Nordenberg said of the months before Feb. 3, the day the state Legislature approved funding for the city's new football and baseball stadiums.

Then things heated up.

"We're now past the point of preliminary discussions that we had prior to the funding approval," Pederson said. "We're into the details of it."

Once everything is worked out, the internal process at the university for finalizing the moves is a bit sketchy.

"I think that it is a decision to be made by the leadership of the university in appropriate consultation with the board [of trustee]," Nordenberg said, declining to elaborate.

The Rooneys

There is a strong mutual admiration between the Rooney family, owners of the Steelers, and the Pitt administration. That has facilitated negotiations - it's business, but it's friendly.

"If they do come here," Steelers president Dan Rooney said, "we're going to do everything we can to make them feel at home. All [the details] are going to be done."

The Steelers, Rooney said, would be happy to have the extra dates filled by Panthers football games.

Rooney said Pitt would design its own locker room, that preparing the field on weekends when both teams play at home won't be a problem and that the Panthers would have scheduling priority for Saturdays in the fall.

Pederson said Pitt will not contribute money toward construction of the stadium. Other issues must be worked out - including rent, how certain revenues, such as concessions, will be shared, ticket pricing and policy. Aside from lease matters,Pitt needs to figure out how to transport students to and from games and find new sites for the Panthers' displaced soccer and track teams.

"We probably would not have considered this seriously if we did not have such respect for the owners of the Steelers," Nordenberg said. "The Rooneys have always conducted their activities in a way that reflects the values that you would like to be associated with.

"In other settings, we might well have said that, well, it's a great facility, but we really cannot afford to be linked publicly or in our day-to-day operations with certain people who would have been our partners. But you think of a person like Dan Rooney ... who could be a more appealing partner either in professional or personal dealings?"

Sharing the sports medicine/practice facility won't mark the first time the two teams have worked together. The Steelers played their home games at Pitt Stadium in 1958 and the last five years of the 1960s before moving to Three Rivers in 1970. The Panthers have occasionally played in Three Rivers.

"I really think we have the best relationship I know of of any pro-college teams in the country," Rooney said. "We feel very, very comfortable between us."

He doesn't understand the opposition to Pitt's possible move.

"A lot of people who are calling the talk shows really don't have it right," Rooney said. "I think it's really a plus for the university."

Resistance to change

Mike Unangst, one of eight members of the Pitt student government board, is among those who don't think the university should stop playing in Pitt Stadium.

"What are we going to do when we beat Miami again? Tear down the goal posts, put them on a PAT bus and take them back to campus?" he said, referring to the 1997 upset of Miami that sparked a huge celebration in Pitt Stadium.

Pederson and Nordenberg believe opposition to their proposal is driven by emotion, nostalgia and plain old resistance to change.

Even Nordenberg's initial reaction was tepid.

"The first time I broached this idea with him, I was glad that I was under contract," Pederson said. "He wasn't real enthusiastically embracing it."

The idea grew on Nordenberg, particularly when he realized the proposal involved a lot more than just the football program. The chancellor hopes others will come around, as he has, but he said the university can't wait for that to happen.

"We can't afford to stand still simply because we know that some people will not be with us," Nordenberg said. "And I say that in the kindest sort of way.

"I am a 20-year-plus Pitt person. I am middle-aged and nostalgic now myself, and I do understand the feelings and the sentiments that grow out of memories. So we don't take those things lightly.

"At the same time, we really do have ambitious goals. We want to be good at everything we do. We know that takes hard work, but sometimes it isn't enough to just say we're going to do the same things , but we're going to try harder. Or we're going to make this change or that change around the fringe.

"Sometimes you've got to do something."

And sometimes it's not wildly popular.

Unangst, a sophomore from Lititz, Lancaster County, has helped organize petition drives, informational student meetings and other events in the name of protest. He believes a large portion of the student body is against leaving Pitt Stadium, and he said the student government office has heard from a lot of alumni who are upset with the idea.

"We're all for the university and we're all for fixing the football program," Unangst said. "We just don't think this is the way."

He said he fears shuttling the football players to off-campus sites all the time will hinder their academics, and that taking games off campus will kill the college atmosphere of football games and undermine recruiting.

Mike Hanley agreed.

He owns the Fuel and Fuddle restaurant on Oakland Avenue and last summer spearheaded a petition among Oakland businesses to protest Pitt's announcement that it was moving the 1998 West Virginia game to Three Rivers Stadium.

"I get the sense that people around here have pretty much conceded that the stadium is gone," Hanley said. "We will be sad to see them go. One day a week for part of the year is not going to make or break the businesses here, but it will tear away from the fabric of this community."

Unangst said the student government was frustrated by what he perceived as the administration's disregard for what the students want.

"First and foremost, the problem is we've hit a brick wall, a total lack of communication," he said. "For months we tried to do some fact-finding. We weren't told anything by anybody. It was like they just wanted us to get over it.

"Then it went from them looking at it do it pretty much being a done deal. Now any communication would be too late."

Pederson counters that the proposal addresses needs that students have expressed for years - specifically additional housing and fitness and recreational facilities.

Stadium history

Nine national championship teams, 20 NFL first-round draft picks and 46 consensus All-Americans played their home games in Pit Stadium.

Former players, though, apparently aren't on the forefront of the movement to halt the move to the new stadium.

Joe Walton and his family have had close ties to the Panthers football program for more than 60 years. His father, Frank, starred there in the 1930s. Joe Walton starred there in the 1950s before beginning a successful coaching career at the college and professional levels . Walton, who is head coach at Robert Morris College, also had a brother and an uncle who played at Pitt.

Still, Walton can understand and even support the proposal to play in the Steelers' new stadium.

"It's kind of mixed, is the best way I can say it," said Walton, an All-American end at Pitt.

"I personally think it will probably help their recruiting to go into a facility like that. I think it would be hard for the athletic department to turn that down. People can still go back to the campus for other events.

"And yet I'd hate to see the old stadium go down. It was a part of all of us. There's a lot of tradition and a lot of me in it."

Another former Pitt star who got into coaching has similar feelings.

"Because of all the blood, sweat and tears I've shed on that field and the great players I played with, I'm saddened that it's going to be torn down," said Tim Lewis, who played at Pitt in the early 1980s, coached there in the early 1990s and now is the Steelers' defensive backs coach.

"But if they feel like that's what is necessary at this point, then I'm happy."

Two more recent lettermen - John Jenkins and Pete Gonzalez, both seniors on the 1997 team - also have conflicting feelings and also are willing to have some faith in the Pitt administration.

"There's mixed emotions about it," said Gonzaelz, the Steelers' third-string quarterback. "I know I feel blessed to have played in the same stadium as Dan Marino and Tony Dorsett. My heart is in Pitt Stadium.

"But maybe it will help recruiting."

Jenkins figures there will be a tradeoff if the Panthers relocate.

"I think it can be good, but it will tear away the college atmosphere," he said.

"Anything you do is going to be a risk, especially something that drastic, but it seems like the plans they have are going to be good for all the students, not just athletes."

Ralph Cindrich, a Panther in the early 1970s, is still heavily involved in sports as a local attorney who represents pro athletes around the country. He

"I'm reluctant to see change for change's sake, but it's apparent the program needs a booster shot, and Steve [Pederson] has made a lot of the right moves," Cindrich said.

Jim Sweeney, who played at Pitt in the early 1980s and now is an offensive lineman with the Steelers, is one former player who is not on the fence.

"I think it would be a big mistake," he said. "I think it would hurt recruiting. When you go to a college, you want to play on campus.

"I guess I'm an old sentimental guy, but I busted my tail in that stadium. I spent a lot of time in that building. That holds a place in my heart. Pitt Stadium has been there a lot longer than I have, and I think it deserves to stay."

Sweeney's feelings are strong enough that he would get involved in trying to stop the move if he thought it would help.

"Yeah, I would sign a petition and, yeah, I would talk to Steve Pederson and voice my opinion," Sweeney said. "But if their minds are made up, I don't think it would matter."

And, the way it looks, their minds appear to be made up.

Slow negotiations

It's no wonder it's taking a while to research the move and negotiate the details. There are so many ramifications.

A survey of several schools whose football teams play off-campus and/or share a stadium with at least one professional team reveals a wide range of arrangements - and some problems.

Some teams have a pretty good deal.

Miami has been the major tenant of the Orange Bowl since the NFL's Dolphins moved to Pro Player Stadium in 1987. The Hurricanes lease the Orange Bowl and get parking revenue, with the city getting money from concessions. There is a $1 surcharge per ticket that goes to maintain and upgrade the stadium.

Other teams' deals aren't so good.

Temple, which shares Veterans Stadium with Philadelphia's big-league teams, pays just $5,750 rent per home game, plus a percentage of any revenues above that. But the Owls get no cut of parking revenues, nothing extra from luxury box use and just 10 percent from concessions revenue. On top of that, baseball's Phillies own the large video replay screen and they charge Temple a bundle to use it.

The combination of several years of poor performance on the field, off-campus games and a ban on tailgating outside of the Vet have led to small crowds at Temple games.

Temple's problems could be alleviated when it moves, along with the Eagles, into a new football stadium in several years . The Owls are involved in the planning and are lobbying for an improved deal.

At Hawaii, the arrangement with state-owned Aloha Stadium isn't exactly paradise. The Rainbows pay rent, get no parking, concessions or skybox money and struggle to transport students across Honolulu for games.

"It really puts a hardship on the university when you don't have control," said Teri Chang, assistant AD for facilities.

Pitt's situation should be enhanced by the fact the Panthers would be involved before ground is even broken.

Pitt, Temple and one other school are in the same situation. Beginning in 2002, Connecticut will move up to Division I-A football - perhaps as a member of the Big East - and will share a stadium being built in Hartford for the New England Patriots.

The $375 million facility will be 30 miles from Connecticut's campus, where efforts to build a new on-site stadium failed.

Like Temple, Connecticut and some others, Pitt should benefit from playing in a football-only stadium. The Panthers would not have considered moving to the North Side if it meant sharing a stadium with both a pro football and pro baseball team.

"It's not physically possible," Pederson said.

Some college teams deal with that kind of arrangement, though.

Since 1967, San Diego State has been the No. 3 tenant in Qualcomm (formerly Jack Murphy) Stadium, along with the NFL's Chargers and Major League Baseball's Padres. There have been plenty of scheduling problems, particularly in years when the Padres have made it to the postseason.

The Aztecs have had to shift games to Fridays, once having to play Navy at 10:30 a.m. They have had to give up a couple of television games, along with the revenue they produce. And there were a few years in the 1980s when they played with a huge Chargers helmet painted on the middle of the field.

At Houston, the Cougars are abandoning the Astrodome - along with everyone else - and this fall will play in renovated and expanded Robertson Stadium on campus.

For years, Houston had scheduling problems when the Oilers and Astros played in the Astrodome. Even though the NFL team has moved to Nashville and the baseball team is getting a new stadium, the Cougars didn't want to stay in the Astrodome, where they received no parking or concessions revenue.

"When we moved to the municipal stadium, it was the eighth wonder of the world," Houston assistant athletic director for operations Chris Pezman said. "But interest has waned. It became a cavern. We were losing money on parking and concessions."

At Robertson, Houston will get all forms of revenue - including $35,000-$50,000 each for hosting up to a dozen Mexican pro soccer games.

Pezman, who played football for the Cougars, said Pitt fans should be wary.

"My personal opinion is there's so much that you lose when you move off campus, and you have to really work to maintain it," he said.

Unangst, of the Pitt student government, is among those who fear the Panthers won't draw well off-campus, but statistics seem to support the notion that the state of the football program, and whether it wins, is a likely to affect attendance.

Temple doesn't win and doesn't draw. UCLA, which plays off-campus in the Rose Bowl, went 10-2 last year and finished as a top 10 team. The Bruins set a school record by averaging 73,709 fans per home game.

Pitt Stadium had its largest crowds in the early 1980s, reaching a peak average of 54,818 in 1982. Those were the years when the Panthers were perennially a national power.

Pitt has averaged below 40,000 per game throughout this decade and the team has had just one winning season in those years.

"If you have a successful football program, they're going to come see you play, wherever you play," Pederson said. "But the truth is, with the state of [Pitt] stadium, we might have seen some upper limits of that."

Beyond hope

So why not fix up Pitt Stadium, build the arena next door as first planned and keep a lot of people happy?

"I don't understand why it has to be an either/or with the stadium and the basketball arena," Hanley, the Oakland businessman, said. "I think a major university should have both."

"If you can have both, why get rid of the stadium?" added student Unangst.

Pederson said it's about the quality of the venues. Pitt Stadium, he said, is pretty much beyond hope if the Panthers want to remain competitive in terms of facilities.

"The proposition to do the kinds of upgrades that would be needed here would be vastly expensive and probably not very realistic in our fundraising, at least from the athletic side," Pederson said.

"We would get to a point of saying, well, we fixed up our stadium and now we don't have any money to run the program."

With the new Steelers stadium, he said, Pitt fans could enjoy comfortable restrooms, variety in concessions, seatbacks, luxury seating and convenient parking.

Pederson also has promised to continue the various pregame fan activities regardless of where the Panthers play.

And, on a bigger scale, he promises the changes the university is proposing would provide huge improvements.

"If you look realistically, if people were asked what is our weakest link in our athletic program, it would be facilities," Pederson said. "In three years' time, people could say we've got the best football facility in the country, we've got the best stadium in the country and we've got the best basketball arena in the country. Certainly in the East.

"All of a sudden, people would say, 'Wow, what happened to the place? What was their greatest weakness now is one of their greatest strengths.' "

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