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Cook: Paterno's pettiness ruins great rivalry

Tuesday, September 12, 2000

The questions are sure to come today at Joe Paterno's weekly news conference. How can he stand back and watch the great Pitt-Penn State rivalry end even temporarily? After Saturday, the two schools won't play each other until at least 2008. How can he allow that to happen? Doesn't he realize this series is bigger than a petty grudge he carried for darn near two decades now?

Paterno's answers are predictable.

Don't blame me, he'll say.

"I wanted to play Pitt forever in all our sports," he has said.

Paterno will mention how Pitt betrayed him when it joined the Big East basketball conference in 1982 rather than join Penn State in an all-sports Eastern conference. He can't help himself. He has to mention it every Pitt-Penn State week. No matter how big he has become, no matter how many championships he has won, no matter how close he is to breaking Bear Bryant's Division I record for victories, he is a small man when it comes to Pitt. It doesn't matter that Pitt didn't join the Big East until after Penn State had applied and been rejected. He blames Pitt for ruining his dream. That's his story and he's sticking to it.

"One of the most disappointing things in my life that happened at Penn State was that. ... It was a bitter pill to swallow. I was disappointed. There's a little frustration on my part."

That's the only reason the Pitt-Penn State series is going on a long hiatus.

It's not because of economics, as Paterno wants you to believe. He will say again today how Penn State needs to play two of its three non-conference games at home every year to support its athletic program, that it can't afford to play at Pitt every other season. That's his way of covering up the truth. If you're Penn State, you play your little scheduling games with those other two non-conference dates, not with Pitt-Penn State. The series means too much to the state. Too many people have grown up with it. Too many kids dream of playing in it.

Shame on Paterno.

"I just think that, regardless of the coach, athletic director or president, we should be playing Penn State every year," Pitt Athletic Director Steve Pederson said. "I've gone on record as saying I'd sign a 30-year deal right now."

Penn State offered Pitt the chance to continue the series but only if Penn State got two home games for every one at Pitt. Pederson wisely declined. He's far from a sucker. He did the only thing he could do. He stopped waiting for Paterno to be reasonable and looked elsewhere for games. He filled Pitt's schedule through the 2007 season, adding Nebraska, Michigan State and Texas A&M among others.

"We're trying to play big-time football here, too," Pederson said. "If those other great schools will play me home-and-home, why should I do a two-for-one with Penn State?"

That attitude is a reflection of how much the Pitt program has grown under Pederson and Walt Harris. They're able to look beyond Penn State even if many of their team's fans can't.

That doesn't mean Pederson won't feel the pain from the end of the Pitt-Penn State series for reasons that go beyond his love of great college rivalries. Pitt still needs Penn State a lot more than Penn State needs Pitt. The game Saturday at Three Rivers Stadium will be a sellout, Pitt's only sellout this season. Pitt announced a crowd of 31,089 for its home opener against Kent State two weeks ago, but there probably were closer to 20,000 fans at the game. Contrast that to Penn State, which draws 94,000 to Beaver Stadium no matter the opponent. Its attendance for Louisiana Tech Saturday after a dismal 0-2 start was 94,955.

Like Pitt, Penn State has scheduled some attractive non-conference games. Next season, it will play Miami and Southern Mississippi at home and Virginia on the road. Later, there will be games against Nebraska and Alabama.

But as nice as Pitt-Nebraska and Penn State-Alabama are, they're not Pitt-Penn State.

The good news is the two will play again. Paterno won't coach forever. It's not like the two schools don't have a decent relationship. They will resume their series in men's basketball this season for the first time since Pitt joined the Big East.

"We play Penn State for the most part in every sport," Pederson said. "I'm hoping we'll be able to do something with them in football [after 2007]."

This isn't a Pitt-Penn State problem. It's a Pitt-Paterno problem.

There are no winners because of it, only losers.

Everyone who loves this great college rivalry.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.

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