UNIVERSITY PARK - Penn State and Pitt have played 96 times dating back to 1893.
The next closest Nittany Lion opponent in games played is Syracuse at 73.
Neither has been a regular foe for 20 years.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Bill O’Brien said he would be all for a Penn State-Pitt football rivalry again.
I'll keep the history short: In the early 1980s, Joe Paterno, visionary that he was, worked hard to start an Eastern all-sports conference - a league that would include Pitt.
The Big East was already up and running, and the league had voted down a motion to accept Penn State (Paterno said PSU wasn't interested in just a basketball conference). Shortly thereafter, in 1982, Pitt was voted in.
Big East assistant commissioner Mike Tranghese said, "We will rue the day," Penn State wasn't accepted, and, history shows us, he was so, so right.
Paterno never forgave Pitt, and he had the power to end the annual series in 1992. Other than a four-game resumption (1997-2000), the teams have not met in 12 years and won't until 2016, when a home-and-home is back on the schedule.
Regardless of whom is to blame for ending the greatest rivalry either school has ever known - the feeling here remains that both sides were blinded by a lack of leadership in this emotional issue - there is no doubt neither has fully replaced the other.
There are big games on Penn State's schedule, certainly. Ohio State is at the top of the list followed by Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan when it's on the schedule and Iowa.
But Pitt was more than a big game. It was not only a rivalry but an event in Pennsylvania - especially western Pennsylvania, from Altoona well past the Ohio border.
Bill O'Brien knows.
While growing up in New England as a Penn State fan, he remembers watching the game and getting caught up as it was growing into one of the nation's top rivalries.
From 1976 through 1986, and especially from 1978 through '82, it had a say in deciding the national championship.
O'Brien would like to see it return, maybe even every year.
"I was part of the Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry for eight years [as a Tech assistant] so I know how important those inter-state rivalries are to college football," he said Friday. "And growing up as a Penn State fan, I remember those November Penn State-Pitt games where it was snowing - either at Pitt Stadium or here at Beaver Stadium - and those were great games. I'm all for that rivalry.
"I think it helps college football and football in Pennsylvania. I think people in Pennsylvania would like to see it."
It was my hope that Paterno's successor would embrace this exact position on the Pitt series.
I know times have changed, and the teams are in different leagues with Penn State in the Big Ten and Pitt now in the ACC, and it's highly uncertain it can happen, let alone annually.
But for the first time since the 1980s, at least Penn State has a desire.
The Big Ten is considering beginning a nine-game conference schedule in 2017, and the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences have agreed to start a regular-season series between their teams the same year.
That could leave as few as two non-conference games.
O'Brien is also interested a high-profile intersectional game early and has mentioned Alabama, Southern Cal and Stanford as potential possibilities, "Whether it's a neutral site or here - maybe it's at Met-Life Stadium or Fed-Ex Field or Gillette Stadium," he said, "playing a traditional power, I think, would be great for college football."
He was asked about Notre Dame and was equally enthused.
"Notre Dame? Of course," he said. "I think it would be a great series. I think it would be great to play Notre Dame every year."
Such an aggressive non-conference approach would stoke alumni who are too used to seeing a steady diet of Temple and Mid-American fare before the Big Ten starts.
"I think it [marquee games] helps with our alumni, with our fans, with recruiting," O'Brien said. "Obviously you've got to go out and win those games. I don't want to play Alabama and Notre Dame every single week, but I think those are good rivalries we should talk about in the future."
O'Brien is quick to point out he hasn't discussed scheduling much with his superiors and isn't sure how they might feel about it. Penn State football has always carried the financial burden for the entire athletic department, but what we've experienced since Nov. 5 shows there was a cost for that overreliance.
The Lions' schedule is set through 2015.
O'Brien also knows PSU vs. Pitt would no longer be a regular-season finale, but added, "It would have to be early, but that's OK."
Down the hall from O'Brien in the Lasch Building, Fran Ganter was getting in a noonish workout on the treadmill. Ganter is the Lions' associate athletic director for football and does the legwork on the scheduling.
He knows the luster from the Pitt series has dimmed, but not to the oldtimers who have filled Beaver Stadium since it moved from Beaver Field.
"I think a lot of people are excited about it," Ganter said of the series resumption. "I'm from Pittsburgh [Bethel Park], and I grew up watching and rooting for Penn State in the Pitt-Penn State game, and I remember all the great games we've had here.
"Things have changed in that once we got in the Big Ten, rivalries and traditions changed. [But] for an older guy like myself, there is more to this game than perhaps a 28-year-old Penn State alum who may not appreciate the great games and the great rivalries and all the great coaches Pitt had and great players. I'm excited for the two games we're going to play. Where we go from there, Coach O'Brien is still trying to develop scheduling philosophy for the future."
Ganter was a running back on Paterno's first great stretch (1968-70) and then spent his entire career, from 1973 through today, in coaching and football administration.
He was asked if Pitt was his favorite opponent along the way.
"Yes," he said, puffing and sweating. "No question."
Among the Nittany Nation, that is a majority vote.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.