[UPDATE: The Pitt to the Big Ten rumors are, predictably, completely false, as reported by the Chicago Tribune from a Big Ten source. I still think Pitt is a very viable candidate to join the Big Ten, but the conference will stick to their 12-18 month review period before moving forward with any expansion plans. Since this article looks into Pitt’s viability as a candidate to be a 12th team, I still think it’s worth reading, but please be aware that nothing official will happen until December, at the earliest.]
Sorry, couldn’t help myself with that title. I know, it’s awful.
Internet scuttlebutt — and I stress that at this point the rumors are no more than that — has Pitt joining the Big Ten as a 12th team, likely in the fall of 2012 (probably the earliest a move from one major conference to another could be feasibly made). Obviously, this is far from a done deal, since there is no official confirmation (or denial) coming from any of the major parties, but I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at what Pitt would bring to the Big Ten, and the ramifications of adding a 12th team.
Football: Pitt’s recent rise back to national prominence (or, at the very least, relevance) would make them a more-than-acceptable addition to the Big Ten as a football school. The Panthers finished last season with a 10-3 record and were ranked #15 in the final AP poll, and after a rocky start to the Dave Wannstedt era (16-19 in his first three seasons) it appears Pitt has built up enough talent to compete on a national level (19-7 last two seasons).
A move to the Big Ten would allow Pitt to renew their storied series with in-state rival Penn State — the two teams have met 96 times on the football field, but haven’t played each other since the 2000 season. Since joining the Big Ten in 1993, Penn State has been without a natural rival, and while their contests against Michigan and Ohio State have become hotly-contested because of their impact on the conference title, having a natural rival with some history would be good for PSU and the conference as a whole.
Of the realistic candidates for a 12th Big Ten team (that excludes Notre Dame, Texas, and Nebraska, for the record), Pitt probably has the best football tradition: the Panthers have played the sport since 1890, claim nine national titles (1915, 1916, 1918, 1929, 1931, 1934, 1936, 1937, and 1976), and boast a Heisman Trophy winner (Tony Dorsett, 1976), 24 College Football Hall of Fame inductees, and 49 consensus All-Americans, including such names as Hugh Green, Dan Marino, and Larry Fitzgerald.
The biggest knock against Pitt’s football resume would be their stadium: the school tore down the ancient Pitt Stadium after their final season there in 1999, and have shared a stadium with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the seasons since. The Panthers take second-class status behind the Steelers in their own stadium, and have a difficult time selling out Heinz Field — in 2008, Pitt averaged 49,352 fans in a stadium that holds just over 65,000.
Pitt hasn’t been a national power for a generation or so, but their recent success, rivalry with Penn State, and rich tradition make them a welcome addition to the Big Ten as a football school. With back-to-back bowl appearances, at least two more years with electric running back Dion Lewis, and solid recruiting classes from Wannstedt (Rivals rank last four years, in order: 21, 26, 28, 47), I think the Panthers could be a Wisconsin-type presence in the Big Ten — a little up-and-down in terms of success, but a team that usually finishes in the upper half of the conference standings and occasionally threatens to make a BCS bowl.