June 22, 2007

I went to Penn State. My sister went to Pitt. My brother has degrees from both universities. We had some interesting arguments around the Thanksgiving dinner table back when we were in school with an occasional fling of the mashed potatoes mixed in for good sportsmanship. That was in the heyday of the Pitt/Penn State football rivalry. When games on or near Thanksgiving Day had bowl and even national championship implications almost every year. It’s also ancient history.

In the 15 seasons between 1975 and 1989, Pitt and Penn State each had one losing season. Pitt won a national championship and Penn State won two. Pitt finished ranked in the major polls nine times in 15 years, six times in the top ten. Penn State finished ranked in those polls 11 times in 15 years, eight times in the top ten.

Most of those 15 years, the regular season ended with the Pitt/Penn State game. Penn State won eight. Pitt won 6. There was a tie. The week leading up to the game was as intense as any in the sports year with talk shows buzzing with both excitement and venom. But both teams joined different conferences and the rivalry died.

Joe Paterno was in town this week and was asked about the series resuming. It would certainly be better than Pitt playing Grambling or Penn State playing Buffalo. But it would not be the same or as good as it used to be. First, the games would have to be played in September before the two teams got into their conference schedule. That in itself took something away from the games from 1997 through 2000. Starting the year against each other isn’t the same as finishing it. Plus, it used to be one of the toughest and most significant game on each other’s schedules when they were both independents. Now it would be neither with conference games meaning more to both. And neither program is as good as it was then.

Penn State has had it’s moments since joining the Big Ten Conference but they do not dominate as they did as an independent. Pitt’s program has fallen on hard times. In fact, over the last 15 years, Pitt has had nine losing seasons. Penn State has had four. Neither has won a national title. Pitt has finished ranked in the major polls twice. It doesn’t come close to comparing to the 15 seasons from 1975-1989.

With Paterno’s visit this week prompting the talk of renewing the series, the thing to remember is, rivalries are born of great competition. In the old days the game was a civil war and often pitted brother against brother. It means nothing to the Panthers and Nittany Lions of today. I know. I’ve talked to them about it. You can’t legislate competition. It would be better than games against teams like The Citadel and Florida International. It would give people a chance to paint their faces blue and white or blue and gold. The winners could thump their chests around the water cooler at work. But it will never be the same as it was then.

Those were some great times but the world constantly changes even on the landscape of sports. And football conversation around Labor Day is never as good as it is around Thanksgiving.


The Kids Are All Right!

June 19, 2007

I often hear people say that they’re concerned for the youth of America. And let’s face it: There is some cause for concern. There is no shortage of ways for kids to get into trouble these days. But, after what I witnessed doing a full year of presenting the Operation High School Sports Student-Athlete of The Week, I feel pretty good about the future. Each week I traveled to high schools all across the area to pay special homage to young men and women who understand the balance between what they need to do on the field and what they need to do off the field as well. These kids are nothing short of an inspiration. I’ve met youngsters who are honor students, volunteers with charitable organizations, and role models to their fellow students and teammates. The funny part is, these kids would always thank me when I handed them their trophies, but I’m the one wants to say ‘thank you’ to them. It was truly an honor to meet these kids and I’m looking forward to meeting more great student-athletes in the future, a future that to me looks very bright.

This is the first time I’ve had to really study the Oakmont course, site of this week’s U.S. Open, and all I can say is: wow! When they say this could be the most challenging Open course ever, they were not kidding! Just looking at the short par fours tells me that these guys are going to have to be awfully smart if they want to shoot a low score. If you decide to go for the green in one on the par four second hole for example, you better be right. There’s a ditch waiting for you on the left and bunkers sitting on the right. My advice: unless your name is Tiger Woods, don’t be a hero! That’s where this tournament will be won or lost. Who will make the right decisions at the right time. To me, that’s the beauty of the U.S. Open. It’s often the toughest of the four majors to win and that’s the way it should be. These are the best golfers in the world that will be invading our fair city. I personally want to see them challenged. Some experts are saying anywhere from three to five over will win this thing. Me, I want to see nine over! Why not? Let’s have these guys feel like most of us feel after a round of golf on a tough course!