Pitt: How Do They Fit?

[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.

Heisman winner Tony Dorsett is a part of Pitt's rich football tradition.

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.

Coach Jamie Dixon has turned Pitt into a national basketball power.

Basketball: More than football, this is where Pitt will make a big splash in the Big Ten — the Panthers have made the NCAA Tournament in each of the last eight seasons, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen in five of those years and the Elite Eight last season. Head coach Jamie Dixon — the 2008-09 Naismith coach of the year — has overseen the last seven of those appearances after taking over from now-UCLA coach Ben Howland, who brought the team back to national prominence and their first tournament bid in a decade in 2002 before bolting for LA. Interestingly, Dixon is a vocal opponent of a potential move to the Big Ten — a notion that isn’t exactly surprising from a basketball perspective, where the Big East reigns as the nation’s toughest conference.

Unlike football, Pitt’s basketball tradition isn’t exceptionally strong: before 2002, Pitt’s most recent appearance in the Sweet Sixteen was in 1974, and their only Final Four bid came in 1941. They do claim two national championships, in 1928 and 1930, but both came in the pre-tournament era. Individual success is mostly from the recent stretch of success as well: Pitt had just two first-team All-Americans, Billy Knight and Charles Smith, between 1959 and 2003.The recent success of the basketball team has led to the athletic department putting a lot of financial backing into the program. In 2002, the team moved into the Petersen Events Center, a 12,000+ seat arena that features one of the nation’s toughest student sections, the Oakland Zoo, which was featured in the Wall Street Journal in 2009. The school is financially committed to Dixon, having extended his contract through the 2015-16 season last year and making him the university’s highest-paid employee at over $1.3 million per season.

Pitt would immediately join Michigan State and Wisconsin as the cream of the crop in the Big Ten if they were to join the conference — no other Big Ten school has had the consistent success that the Panthers have enjoyed in the last decade. Getting a basketball powerhouse with a rabid following, a new arena, and a young, charismatic coach like Dixon would be a coup for the Big Ten.

The Pitt women’s team has also found recent success, making the last three NCAA Tournaments (the first in program history), reaching the Sweet Sixteen the last two seasons, and sending three players on to the WNBA under coach Agnus Berenato.

Olympic Sports: Cue Wikipedia:

Pitt has had a long history of success in other intercollegiate athletic events. In Track and Field, Pitt has produced several Olympic and NCAA champions such as 800 m Olympic gold medalist John Woodruff, two-time 110 m hurdle Olympic gold medalist Roger Kingdom, and seven-time NCAA champion and 2005 World Champion triple jumper Trecia-Kaye Smith. The wrestling program has a rich history and is among the leaders in producing individual national champions with 16. Pitt’s women’s volleyball team is the 12th winningest program in the nation, has won 11 Big East championships, and appeared in 11 NCAA tournaments since the program began in 1974. Pitt’s swimming and diving teams have produced several Olympians and won 19 men’s and nine women’s Big East Championships since joining the conference in 1983. Pitt women’s gymnastics has qualified for the NCAA Northeast Regional Championship in all but two years in the past ten seasons. Baseball, Pitt’s oldest sport, has produced many major league players and has become a regular participant in the Big East post-season championship. Other sports have also found success to varying degrees.

That last bit doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the quality of Pitt’s other programs, but there’s still something to work with here. Although Pitt’s wrestling heyday came in the 1950s and early 1960s, they did produce an individual national champion in 2008. A track and field program that can produce NCAA champions would be welcome in any northern conference. The volleyball, swimming, and gymnastics programs are all respectable on a national level. Pitt is also building a state-of-the-art Olympic Sports Complex, which will house the baseball, softball, and men’s and women’s soccer teams after the building is completing in the spring of 2011.

Pitt’s ranking in the 2008-09 Director’s Cup (essentially, the national championship for athletic departments) shows they are lagging behind the Big Ten in terms of an overall athletic department: they placed 93rd in the final standings — for comparison, Michigan placed fifth, the Big Ten had five teams in the top 20, and the worst finish in the conference (Indiana) was 55th. If you’re looking for a knock against Pitt, it’s here: they’re not going to be competitive across the board in athletics. I don’t think this is a reason to keep them from joining, especially with their impressive revenue-making programs and academics (more on that later), but it’s something to keep in mind when discussing their candidacy — they’re not bringing a lot to the conference besides football and hoops.

Academics: A huge sticking point for Big Ten expansion has been academics — the conference wants a public research institution that is a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU). Does Pitt meet that criteria? Can I get a “hell yes”?

Pitt has been placed in the top cluster of 7 leading U.S. public research universities and among the clusters comprising the overall top 26 research universities, is ranked among U.S. News & World Report’s top 20 public universities, has been named as a “best value” by various publications, and has appeared in multiple rankings of the world’s top universities.

One of 62 elected members of the Association of American Universities, Pitt is among the top universities in total research expenditures and is a top 10 school in National Institute of Health research allocations, bringing in over $430 million a year for biomedical and health science research alone. Pitt and its medical school are also closely affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a leading academic medical center and the most active neurosurgical and organ transplant center in the United States. These resources have propelled Pitt to a leadership role in, among other fields, stem cell science, bioterrorism defense, and tissue engineering.

The latest U.S. News & World Report rankings have Pitt as the #56 overall school in the country and the #20 public school (Michigan is the #4 public school, which bears mentioning because we’re awesome). That would put Pitt right in the middle of the Big Ten in terms of academics, which is very impressive considering the academic prestige of the Big Ten as a whole. In short, academics will not be a sticking point for getting Pitt into the Big Ten.

Alignment: This is the interesting part of the whole thing: how would adding Pitt to the Big Ten affect the conference alignment? Obviously, the benefit of adding a 12th team to the conference is to allow the Big Ten to split into two six-team divisions and play a conference title game in football, which I think is long overdue. How would these divisions look? I like this plan, proposed after the announcement that the Big Ten would explore expansion, by Chadnudj on The Rivalry, Esq. [note: I did a little editing and inserted Pitt where he listed Mizzou, his choice for the 12th team — the divisions still work out the same and make geographic sense]:

North:    Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State

South:   Mizzou [Pitt], Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, Ohio State, Penn State

Every team would play all their division rivals once. (5 games)

Each team would play a “protected” cross-division rival once each year: Iowa-Mizzou [Pitt], Northwestern-Illinois, MSU-PSU, OSU-Michigan, and then your pick of Minnesota-Purdue, Wisconsin-Indiana or vice-versa. (1 game)

Then, each team would play 2 of the other 5 cross-divisional opponents on a rotating basis (2 games).

8 conference games, and EVERY current protected rivalry protected, while still allowing Mizzou to have its two best geographic rivals (Iowa and Illinois), and ensuring some competitive balance by dividing up the Michigan-OSU-PSU triumvirate.

(For reference’s sake, here is the list of Big Ten protected rivalries….notice, the ONLY one that would disappear is NU-Purdue….which I think we’d gladly trade for NU-Wisconsin being an annual game:

Illinois: Indiana, Northwestern
Indiana: Illinois, Purdue
Iowa: Minnesota, Wisconsin
Michigan: Michigan State, Ohio State
Michigan State: Michigan, Penn State
Minnesota: Iowa, Wisconsin
Northwestern: Illinois, Purdue
Ohio State: Michigan, Penn State
Penn State: Michigan State, Ohio State
Purdue: Indiana, Northwestern
Wisconsin: Iowa, Minnesota)

Unfortunately, Pitt-Iowa doesn’t make a lot of geographic sense as a rivalry, but they’re two solid football programs and the rest of this plan works out so well it’s tough to gripe. The balance of power works out remarkably well here for both football and basketball: Michigan (assuming, of course, that we rise to national prominence again, which we will), Iowa and Wisconsin (North) do a good job of offsetting Ohio State and Penn State (South) from a football standpoint, and Michigan State and Wisconsin (North), the conference’s two biggest basketball powers, would be balanced by having Pitt, Purdue, Illinois, and Ohio State in the South.

If the divisions listed above look familiar, CBSSports.com’s Dennis Dodd proposed the same alignment (with Pitt/Rutgers replacing Mizzou) in a December column. He went to far as to name the conferences, with the North called the Schembechler Division and the South the Grange Division. Why Dodd didn’t go with Schembechler and Hayes is completely beyond me — I think it was too obvious and perfect.

My Take: I really, really hope that the rumors are true. The only negative I can see is that Pitt doesn’t have strong Olympic programs, but that shouldn’t stop the Big Ten from taking a strong academic school with good football and basketball programs. The prospect of having a Big Ten title game, one that brings Big Ten football into December and back into the conversation with the SEC and the Big 12 right before the bowl selections are made, is something that gets me excited as a fan of Michigan and the conference.

  1. John said:

    Good take. My only beef is with splitting up UM and OSU in divisions; that would open up the possibility of the schools meeting on back-to-back weeks (if they each win their division), which would be a drag. The alternative would be for us to play earlier in the year, which might be worse still. I hope they can find a way to not split us up.

  2. Bryan said:

    Great post…obviously my fellow Pitt fans are torn over the issue. Its also nice to read an outsiders point of view on the issue. Personally, I agree with most points you have made and would love to see The Fighting Wannstaches play at The Big House 🙂

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