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Penn State and Pitt meet again, but is it a real rivalry?

Rivalries are all about creating an identity through a nemesis

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“Eat shit, Pitt.”

That was a recurring chant last weekend at a wedding in Morgantown, W.Va., where two Mountaineers were married on the West Virginia University campus in the company of their families, friends, the bride’s cousin’s boyfriend (me), a Catholic priest who mentioned the Steelers/Ravens rivalry in his homily, and a handwritten sign that read, “Pitt Still Sucks.”

I’m not exactly sure who the chants were for. My girlfriend and I are both Pitt grads, but aside from our diction and good manners, there’d be no way of knowing. We weren’t in Panther garb. We had no plans for a counter-rally. We were mostly interested in the free cheese.

Even if I were inclined, I’m probably not the best person to counter that “argument.” I haven’t actively followed Pitt sports since the days of LeVance Fields and LeSean McCoy, and even then, it was far from “chanting-at-a-wedding”-tier fandom. How’s that Gary McGhee doing? Love that guy.

Still, rivalries remain more interesting to me than the individual teams or their sports. I was born outside Boston and raised outside New York City. Wearing a Red Sox hat to school early in my New York days taught me just about all I needed to know about rivalries I didn’t care about. Ten-year-olds are vicious.

At my first college football game at Pitt — they played Notre Dame — my friends bought shirts that said “Rudy Sucks.” It wasn’t until years later that I admitted that I had no idea who Rudy was. I am kind of like the Sandlot’s Scotty Smalls in this way.

Both Notre Dame and WVU qualify as rivals for Pitt, but Penn State easily takes the title of archrival

Dating to 1893, Pitt/Penn State (or “PiPeSt”) was considered one of the premiere college-football rivalries until its hiatus in 2000 thanks to some bitterness involving Joe Paterno, the Big East and Wawa v. Sheetz (unconfirmed). Next month, Pitt and PSU meet at Heinz Field for their first football matchup in over 16 years. People are jacked up.

While I’m sure the reunion has probably boosted interest in the rivalry, the Pitt/Penn State relationship always felt a little one-sided. At that wedding, while eating the aforementioned free cheese and listening to the bros sing “Eat Shit Pitt!” over “Sweet Caroline” (twice), I started to wonder how often rivalries like this feel unrequited. Declaring a rivalry with a bigger fish is a smart way to elevate the lesser team while helping them identify as underdogs.

Does Pitt consider West Virginia a main rival? Probably not. Do Penn Staters think of Pitt as their No. 1 rival? I doubt that, too. There’s animosity in any contest, but a good rivalry requires more. 

Rivalries seem to be about having just enough in common — region, student body, focus — and enough discernible differences to create identities in contrast. Penn State as big, cultish, rural, self-contained; Pitt as urban, old, prestigious, immersive. 

Despite that contrast, Pitt, WVU and Penn State are all currently in different conferences. The rivalries are closer to historical re-enactments than true battles. They’re history lessons.

Maybe college rivalries are so ingrained because they offer a way for fans to inject some consistency into a sport that is otherwise constantly changing: Coaches come and go, athletes last no longer than four years, stadiums change, conferences are juggled. But the rivalries, even the dormant and one-sided ones, remain. 

The easiest way to hold onto a sport you love to is to focus on the team you hate.


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