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Pitt Stadium goes out with a bang

Sunday, November 14, 1999

By Gene Collier, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The last swells of inescapable emotion for Pitt Stadium started long before yesterday's Pitt-Notre Dame game began in soft November sunlight.

Pitt fans tear down a goalpost following the sold-out final game at Pitt Stadium yesterday. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette) 

On Thursday night, Jack Anderson walked out of the offices of the Pitt band, which have long been tucked inside the banked catacombs of the crusty old jewel on Cardiac Hill.

"I started coming here when I was 2 years old, in 1950," said Pitt's director of bands before the final practice. "My dad was assistant director of bands, and this place means a feeling of basically growing up here on the sidelines with my dad. I spent a lot of Thanksgiving Days here watching Penn State with my family and my grandparents. It was a second home to all of us."

The limousine carrying Mike Gallagher left Erie yesterday morning around 10:30. He brought some flowers, some friends, and such an enduring respect for his own memories of Pitt Stadium that he couldn't even trust them to a regular sedan on the final day of the old bowl's life.

"I grew up on Chesterfield Road, right next to Pitt Stadium," he said. "In 1973, at age 10, Jackie Sherrill caught me breaking into the locker room. He brought me in to see [equipment manager] Boo Connors. He said, 'Boo, we can do one of two things, either this kid comes to work for us, or we call the cops.' I worked there after that until I left to go to college at Edinboro. It seemed like I spent every day of my life after third grade at Pitt Stadium until then.

"When Foge [Fazio] was recruiting Dan Marino, he'd pick me up in his car and we'd ride over to Central Catholic. I went from blue collar crime to white collar crime then. I sold jerseys to Marino."

More than 60,000 people -- the biggest crowd in 16 years and the eighth-biggest ever -- piled into Pitt Stadium for the event that would push it into history, most of them to bless their own stories and memories with the validation of I-was-there finality.

Pitt Stadium
September 26, 1925 - November 13, 1999

Exuberant fans keep their cool after triumph

Pitt comes up with a truly grand finale, stuning Notre Dame, 37-27


For this last act, a celebratory atmosphere replaced the dark urgency that has saddled Pitt football in the '90s. Fans shared cookies with traffic cops behind the old VA hospital, and the unusually thick congestion seemed to bring with it a heightened patience early in the day.

The heartiest cheers before sunset came at the public address announcement of the Penn State score, delivered purposefully backward for dramatic impact as "Penn State 27, Michigan 31", and that triggered the day's first communal understanding of what was in transition here. Never again would some of America's great rivalries -- Pitt-Penn State, Pitt-West Virginia, Pitt-Notre Dame -- be contested via controlled violence on this spot.

The university's football future lies elsewhere, first down the river to another doomed relic called Three Rivers Stadium, then to the gleaming new Steelers facility. But it'll be years before they pull Pitt's football soul out of this concrete Oakland ravine.

Pitt's 1999 team honored the structure's legend with an inspired 37-27 slapping of the Irish. Kevan Barlow, a Pittsburgher out of Peabody High School, scored the last touchdown in Pitt Stadium at 7:06 p.m. Exactly six minutes later, students stormed the field, tore down the goal posts and tore up great chunks of the artificial turf with nine seconds still remaining on the clock.

Officials signaled an end to the competition at 7:12, and mounted police came through the tunnel to force the students off the playing surface.

To that point, the 74-year-old structure looked serviceable and reasonably spiffy on its last day, its final signature midnight blue paint job obscuring the memory of Leo "Horse" Czarnecki spending 72 straight hours inside of it flushing the toilets so the pipes wouldn't burst before a Penn State game in the '70s. That act of Ditka-like toughness got him promoted to head of the ground crew.

Steve Pederson, the athletic director who signed Pitt Stadium's death warrant (not that there was much choice), got himself booed during halftime ceremonies that honored the university's great players from every decade in its history. Eighty-two All Americans played here, 19 bowl trips were won and six of the nine national championships Pitt has claimed were forged here.

Tony Dorsett, the brilliant tailback and keystone of the Pitt's last national championship (1976) was present, along with Bill Fralic and notable Panthers from Marshall Goldberg to Ironhead Heyward.

"My mother used to sew Dorsett's [number 33] tear-away jerseys," Gallagher remembered. "She sewed some of those 3's on there so many times the fabric wouldn't hold them any more. We had to use one of Elliott Walker's jerseys one time and when Dorsett was running down the field that Saturday, someone ripped the second '3' off his shirt and there was a '4' underneath it. [Walker was No. 34.]

"My parents were Irish immigrants who knew nothing about football, but eventually they developed a great appreciation for it. When Walt Harris' first team beat Miami there on a Thursday night ESPN game, I was at my mother's bedside with my two brothers. She was dying. She could see the glow from Pitt Stadium from her hospital window."

Gallagher stepped out of the limo and put flowers on her grave yesterday morning.

Anderson had a red rose for his lapel as he prepared to conduct the final Pitt Stadium half time show. White gloves, black suit, red rose, black heart.

"My father just passed away at Christmas," he said.

"I guess the way I look at this is that we need to buckle up and move on. Look positively to where we're going. Put this one to bed. We're still Pitt."

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