Back in the day when Penn State and Pittsburgh had no conference affiliation, players in the hotbed of Western Pennsylvania football usually chose either university to continue their careers.
Some families chose both.
“My oldest brother played at Penn State,” Troy Benson said. “I grew up hating Pitt because of my brother. Then I ended up playing there and I’ve loved my alma mater ever since.”
Benson, a linebacker who grew up in Altoona, played for the Panthers from 1981 through 1984, serving as a cocaptain his senior season. The rivalry with Penn State continued annually. Players who competed against each other in high school now were on the same team, or players who were high school teammates landed on opposite sides.
But nothing is forever. The rivalry took a four-year break before it was resumed in 1997 for four years. That was followed by an agonizing 16-year wait before a new series kicked off in 2016. The final contest under the current agreement takes place Saturday at Beaver Stadium where the Nittany Lions and Panthers meet for the 100th time.
After that, the tradition will pause again. Will it be a hiatus of eight years? Ten years? Or will the Penn State-Pitt rivalry expire for good, given the current climate in college football emphasizing conference play and winning one of four coveted berths in the College Football Playoffs?
“It’s something that shouldn’t go away but probably will,” former Penn State defensive tackle and NFL linebacker Matt Millen said.
Asked Tuesday if he could see the rivalry resuming after this year, Penn State head coach James Franklin said, “I could. It’s hard to predict the future.”
He said the problem is a lack of consistency in the numbers of Power 5 conference games. The Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 each play nine league games while the SEC and ACC play eight. With three nonconference games to schedule since the Big Ten went to nine league contests in 2016, Penn State has chosen to play one Power 5 nonconference opponent, and will continue that practice for the next six years.
“I think we’ve got to be creative in the ways that we look at it,” Franklin said. “One of the things that no one’s really discussed is [the Panthers] play eight conference games. We play nine. That factors into scheduling philosophies. That has an impact on it.”
Franklin said the difference in conference games could affect whether the two teams can schedule a home-and-home series. He said a possibility could be a neutral-site, game although he wondered if that would make sense since both teams are in the same state.
“We’re open to having discussions,” he said. “But it’s got to equally make sense for both parties.”
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi was asked Monday at his news conference if he thought the game should be played every year.“Of course I do, but it doesn’t matter what I think,” he replied.
Much of the attraction to Penn State-Pitt relates to geographical ties or family ties.
Former Penn State defensive end Justin Kurpeikis of Allison Park, a Pittsburgh suburb, remembers going to Pitt Stadium as a kid watching the Nittany Lions defeat the Panthers and seeing their fans throw oranges to celebrate an Orange Bowl invitation.
Then you have former Panthers linebacker Mike Caprara of Turtle Creek, another suburb, who had two uncles who played for the Nittany Lions -- running back Fran Rogel, the team’s leading rusher for three straight seasons from 1947 through 1949, and fullback Babe Caprara.
In either case, Kurpeikis and Caprara needed no introduction to the rivalry.
“I have a real recollection of it from my childhood,” said Kurpeikis, who played from 1997 through 2000. “The rivalry started back up when I was at Penn State. I’m a Pittsburgh guy through and through and that game meant a whole lot to me.”
Caprara, whose senior year of 2016 marked the first game in the latest resumption of the series, called it an “awesome experience” taking the field in front of his family and high school friends.
“Having two uncles that played there, it definitely split the family so we knew the rivalry from way back,” Caprara said. “My family is a big mixture of Pitt and Penn State fans. So I always knew about the rivalry and once the opportunity came up that I knew we were going to play, it was that much better, really something special.”
That’s why neither man wants to see the rivalry become extinct. Both think it could resume someday.
“You hope it’s not so far out that the current crop of kids and the ones coming up aren’t going to know about the history and tradition and the brawls that they used to be,” Kurpeikis said. “I think it’s a shame because of the geography and the recruiting ramifications and the fact that these are guys that played against each other in high school. It’s just a natural rivalry where you have history, geography. You can’t manufacture a rivalry, so it’s too bad to see it go away.”
Caprara said he hopes the upcoming break in the series is “a temporary hiatus.”
“But based on what I’m hearing, especially being a part of the series and being around it so much, it doesn’t sound too promising right now,” he said. “It’s sad because I admire that tradition, the rivalry part of it. That’s what makes college football college football, so why take that away?”
Todd Blackledge provided Penn State fans with a special memory in the series, having played quarterback for the Nittany Lions on the 1981 team that overcame a 14-0 deficit to Dan Marino and the No. 1 Panthers and posted a 48-14 upset before a stunned crowd at Pitt Stadium.
Blackledge, who will be working Saturday’s game as an analyst for ABC and ESPN, said he is concerned that the rivalry might be in jeopardy.
“That’s unfortunate,” he said. “I understand. I’ve heard the arguments and I know the arguments and I understand the economics, but I still think it’s a game that, in its heyday, was as good as any rivalry game out there and I just think games like that are unique.
“So it would be disappointing to me if it never comes up again. But by the same token, I think that’s a very realistic possibility.”
Blackledge said rivalries such as Penn State-Pitt would have more of a chance if every Power 5 team played an equal number of conferences games.
“I think they should all play eight or all play nine,” he said. “But in either case, I think you can figure it out. I think there’s a way to do it and still get your seven home games. That’s the economics of it for people. So I’d like to think there’s a way that it can be done, if it was important enough for people to get it done.”
Millen, who underwent a successful heart transplant last Christmas Eve and has resumed his analyst duties with Big Ten Network, was a freshman on the 1976 team that went into Three Rivers Stadium seeking to derail the national championship hopes of the Panthers, who were led by Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett.
“We shut him down in the first half and then in the second half, we held him to 224,” Millen recalled, referring to Dorsett’s yardage in the game. “He ran all over us.”
While he says the rivalry should continue, Millen acknowledged that teams seeking to make the College Football Playoff “don’t want to take unnecessary chances."
“The whole landscape has changed,” he said. “Penn State-Pitt isn’t the only rivalry that’s kind of lost its shine. I think because of all the realignment and everything else, the end goal isn’t to beat your rival. The end goal is to get into the playoffs, and the best way to do that is to stack wins up. I don’t blame them. That’s just the way it’s set up.”
Having said that, Millen thinks the rivalry will resurface at some point, a possibility if the playoffs are expanded to eight teams.
“I don’t know in what form,” he said, “but I think the answer’s yes because it’s so cyclical. Who knows how things are going to happen out there in the future?”
Benson had an interesting solution to making sure the rivalry resumes: having Pennsylvania officials dictate that the two state-related universities play.
“They don’t want to play someone that good out of conference because it hurts your chances for a national title; that really shouldn’t be,” he said. “The state should just come in and say, ‘Listen, we pay the most money to you guys. You guys are playing whether you like it or not.’ The state has the power to do it if it wanted to.”
Few people believed the rivalry would resume after the 2000 game, and they had to wait 16 years to see it again. The atmosphere at Heinz Field that day was electric, and a record crowd of nearly 70,000 packed the stadium.
As long as the two teams recruit Pennsylvania heavily, the demand for the game will always be there.