Pitt bringing basketball power, football tradition, exceptional facilities to ACC

The Petersen Events Center seats 12,508 and opened in 2002

The Petersen Events Center seats 12,508 and opened in 2002 (September 14, 2012)

PITTSBURGH —

Virginia Tech's football game Saturday against Pittsburgh reminds and foreshadows. We recall Big East clashes that showcased Larry Fitzgerald, Antonio Bryant and Michael Vick, and anticipate annual collisions in the ACC.

Those yearly Coastal Division contests start next year, when the Panthers exit the Big East for the ACC.

"I think it's great Virginia Tech's coming in here Saturday because that makes (our move) more real," Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said over lunch Thursday. "We're going to be playing these guys again. Our fans really loved that game.

"I got here in '96, and we really watched the rise of Frank Beamer's teams. Such a fine man and fine coach. At that time, that was an inspiration to us. Our athletic programs (have grown) pretty dramatically (since). The last important piece of this puzzle, as we really rebuilt this program, was to be in a great conference."

Pitt and Syracuse revealed their intentions to depart the Big East, a disparate collection divided by football and basketball interests, for the ACC a year ago this week. But only in July, after the Big East eased its 27-month exit notice, did the Panthers and Orange learn they'd join next year.

The early escape cost them $7.5 million each.

"Our fans are thrilled, and it's changed dramatically since July, now that we know when we're going," Pederson said. "Last fall was different because you're talking about maybe not going for three years. The 27-month provision in the Big East (anticipated) that someone would leave in the spring, so you're looking at two full seasons in the conference to finish.

"The way ours hit in September, you were looking at three full seasons of competition, and that's just too long. Now everybody's talking about it, thinking about it."

Virginia Tech and Pitt met annually as Big East rivals from 1993-2003, prior to the Hokies joining the ACC. As Pitt prepares for the same transition, an abbreviated state of the union:

•Jamie Dixon has built an elite basketball program that plays to sellout crowds and has 11,000 names on the waiting list for season tickets. Prior to last year's hiccup, the Panthers had reached 10 consecutive NCAA tournaments.

•Pitt's football tradition is museum-quality, and the Panthers have finished among the Associated Press' top 25 three times in the last 10 years. But recent turmoil exacted a toll, and Pitt is 0-2 under rookie head coach Paul Chryst.

•Collectively, the Panthers' Olympic sports are not ACC-caliber. Pitt's highest finish in the all-sports Directors' Cup standings in the last five years was 85th in 2008. Every ACC school except Georgia Tech (72nd) and Wake Forest (92nd) was among the top 60 this year; the Panthers were 131st.

•From the Petersen Events Center to the football practice complex and stadium it shares with the NFL's Steelers, Pitt's facilities are exceptional, with the centerpieces constructed during the last 15 years.

"I think the whole campus helps," Dixon said. "In the old days we used to drive (prospects) past our exit and drive by Carnegie Mellon and act like that was our campus. …

"There's a lot of new facilities. Virginia built a new facility. … Maryland's facility is new, Ohio State's. If you haven't built a new facility, you've built a practice facility. But our whole campus has changed, and I think that's what differentiates us."

Indeed, there is an urban vibrancy, and considerable construction, at Pitt, home to about 18,400 undergraduate students. Located in the city's rolling Oakland neighborhood and celebrating its 225th anniversary, the university is an unusual public-private hybrid — it's officially called "state-related" — and boasts a renowned medical school and hospital.

"I think that's a big part of why the ACC came after us," Dixon said.

Neither Dixon nor Chryst expect ACC membership to radically alter their recruiting. Both will gaze south occasionally, but Chryst will continue Pitt's local focus, while Dixon takes a more national approach — high school basketball in these parts isn't very good.

"For us to do well, we've got to be … a western Pennsylvania team," said Chryst, a former Wisconsin offensive coordinator. "The heart and soul of your team has to be there. … If you're a football junkie (here), high school football on Friday, big deal; Steelers on Sunday, big deal. We've got to make sure that Pitt football is a big deal on Saturday."

Chryst's office overlooks the practice fields the Panthers share with the Steelers. Down the hall are Tony Dorsett's 1976 Heisman Trophy, Dan Marino's No. 13 jersey, national championship trophies, and tributes to the eight program alums enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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