I spent the first 25 years of my life living within the city's boundaries, but for the last 30, I've lived about an hour south of Pittsburgh. So this past Saturday, going to the Pitt game took a little bit of a journey.
I left my home at 9:30 a.m. and headed to pick up my famous son Don, (a.k.a. as the wildly-popular blogger, "Raul Mondesi" to you blog followers out there). I guess a foreshadowing of what was to come later, occured on the trip to his house which is normally only about 15 minutes away. It took me nearly a half hour because I got behind every octogenarian, seemingly, in the area.
After retrieving Mondesi, I headed for Pittsburgh via that most wondrous of roads, Route 51. As we got to the outskirts of Pittsburgh (by now 10:30) traffic was already getting miserable. Raul decided that he needed to stop at an ATM and also get a sandwich which turned into a 20 minute waste of time at a (not-so) "Get-Go". With Rob King and the pregame show on the radio, we munched on a hoagie while discussing the Panthers and in general enjoyed some quality "blogger to blogger" time. But the traffic was steadily getting worse.
As I crossed the West End Bridge it was already 11:00! Even though this trip had just passed the ninety minute mark, I figured we would easily be early for kickoff. It was shortly thereafter that I made a crucial mistake: After going over the bridge, I beared to the right for the "North Shore" exit. That's where Heinz Field is, right? A full hour before the game, traffic was already in a virtual gridlock. I passed a lot for $25 at the Carnegie Science Center (too pricey, I thought) thinking that I would get into a Heinz Field lot. Wrong. Every lot that I passed had reserved parking signs on them, and before I knew it, I had passed the new Rivers Casino, the Carnegie Science center, seen the new Mister Rogers display area, passed the Art Rooney statue, and was now heading for PNC Park! As Heinz Field loomed in my rear view mirror and the clock kept ticking, I knew that we were not a "lock" to see the opening kickoff.
I ended up finally parking for $10 in Allegheny Center, about a mile and a half or so away from the "Big Ketchup Bottle". Mondesi and I did a brisk walk to Heinz Field, but unfortunately, we not only missed the opening kickoff, but also a 54 yard run by Syracuse to open the game. By the time we had been "patted down", the Orange now had the ball at the Pitt three yard line. We had come in through the open end zone and after walking as far as we had, I decided to forego taking our seat on the fifth level. We would end up watching the game standing at the railing in the open end zone. After walking a mile and a half in under ten minutes, ascending to section 523 at the time looked like climbing Mt. Everest. I decided to bask in the barbecue smoke under the twin ketchup bottles and Jumbotron scoreboard.
I always did enjoy watching a game with an end zone view. I used to do it all the time in the '70s while publishing the original "Black & Gold Magazine". The Steelers would use the baseball press box in those days and it afforded a great view of the blocking. Raul and I watched the game with a group of guys from the Aliquippa area. The guy next to me wore a sky blue "Marino" jersey.
Heinz Field had been converted to a complete Pitt motif. You really had to look hard for anything that said "Steelers". Meanwhile, behind us, the new "Uncle Charlie's" barbecue area was belching out delicious-smelling smoke while the scoreboard speakers blared annoying (to me) hip hop music. The temperature was perfect, there wasn't a cloud in the sky. I was enjoying the day with my blogger son. The number 13 ranked home team was playing another major college (albeit a program in shambles right now) yet there were only 46,213 fans in the stands. Why???
How could this be? Isn't Pittsburgh the best sports city in America?
There was plenty of enthusiasm in the Pitt student section and in the band area, but the rest of the 30,000 or so attendees were not what I would call extremely lively. This stood in stark contrast to the boisterous crowd that watched the Cinncinatti-UConn game Saturday night.
Everything that Pitt did, from thrashing Syracuse, to completely transitioning the entire Heinz Field experience into a faux Pitt Stadium, was A-#1. The only thing that I couldn't figure out was why the stadium wasn't packed? This was obviously the best Pitt team since the '80s, so why weren't there more fans?
In the days when Pitt would play Penn State at Three Rivers, the stadium held 50,350. Even though I was disappointed that this game wasn't a sellout, I think it's safe to say that the next two home games, against Notre Dame (with a big Pittsburgh alumni following) and Cincinnati (currently ranked number 5 in the country) should bring out the two biggest crowds ever to watch a Pitt game in the school's history. If Pitt beats Notre Dame and then WVU, that final game of the season with a Big East title and BCS bid on the line will be a high water mark for the program since they last beat Georgia for the national championship. Expect 65,000 fans for both home games.
By the way, even though the Panthers won "going away", I felt that their game plan was very conservative. If they would have thrown downfield more against the weak Syracuse secondary, they probably could have easily scored 50 or more points. As it was, the final 37-10 score in a potential "trap" game was nothing to complain about. Pitt has a great team and is playing in a top facility. In retrospect, it's tough playing second fiddle to the best football team on the planet, but the Panthers are definitely headed in the right direction under Dave Wannstedt and his coordinators, Greg Gattusso and Frank Cignetti Jr..
These next three weeks will be huge for Pitt. Here's what I see happening: Pitt 34 Notre Dame 17; Pitt 21, WVU 17 and finally Pitt 35, Cincinnati 31. I expect the Notre Dame game to be the "easiest" victory of the three if you can call beating a desparate team "easy". As usual, the "backyard brawl" will be gut-wrenching, as will the predicted difficult win over a very tough Cincinnati team. The Panthers had better have their chin straps fastened real tight for all three, that's for sure.
Oh, by the way...When I got home at 5:15 (complete round trip and game time 7 3/4 hours) I parked in my driveway and saw that yep, my neighbor Ken, that member of the "Fantastic Four" had been at it again. He had cut my grass, apparently in his spare time!