The very second I decided to enroll at Maryland, the full weight of my collegiate fandom shifted to Terrapin athletics. But unlike the majority of the student body, I'm not from in-state. I was born and still live in Pittsburgh, and my sports rooting interests traditionally have all fallen in line with my hometown. That means the Penguins, Steelers, Pirates and, until last year, Pitt were my teams of choice. Most of my family has either gone for undergrad or law school at the University of Pittsburgh, taught there or worked in its administration. Some of my closest friends are there now. Both of my parents were students at the main campus So, in essence, before I was a Maryland guy, I was a Pitt guy. I suspect Pitt's always going be my No. 2 squad; that soft spot won't just go away.
Or maybe it will, for only a year. Because just as we're all getting ready for a big move out of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Panthers are coming over from the old Big East. For exactly one year, College Park and Pittsburgh will be bound together in the intransigent web of conference realignment. During a hectic period for college sports, Maryland and Pitt will share the ACC for one year. That's one year of the Terps being involved in an especially stacked basketball conference, and one year for my friends and I to have great excuses for basketball road trips. I'm all about the prospect of watching Dez Wells lead the Terps into the Petersen Events Center for a win.
With that feeble personal anecdote in mind, here's some more on the Terps' newest temporary neighbor: Pitt.
Pitt, the school, was founded in 1787. It's located in the urban neighborhood of Oakland, 10 minutes from Downtown Pittsburgh. Though not quite Stanford, it's a pretty competitive school to get into; most everyone I know there is reasonably smart, and I know a lot of people who aren't. The school's architectural centerpiece, the Cathedral of Learning, is one of the coolest academic buildings you'll ever see.
The university is especially well known for its medical majors and services. I consider the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC, for short) to be the global epicenter of concussion and head injury treatment, and it's widely considered one of the best medical providers in the nation. It runs a world-class children's hospital, too, and there are well-regarded pharmacy and nursing programs to supplement it.
Pitt's most important contribution to humanity, beyond doubt, was Jonas Salk's discovery of a viable polio vaccine while he was at the university in the 1950s. Salk saved an untold amount of lives, and his work remains one of modern medicine's greatest advances.
Now, for the reason you clicked on this post. Pitt's coming to the ACC after a seriously turbulent few years, especially in basketball and football. First, there had always been the matter of a fast-changing Big East, and as the fine folks at Cardiac Hill detail in a new post, the ACC is something of a lifeboat from that conference's sunken ship.
For the last decade, Pitt's had, quite arguably, the most consistently great basketball program in the country. Sure, they've developed a reputation as postseason pumpkins thanks to not-so-classic moments like this, this, this and many more. But Jamie Dixon's one of the best coaches in the country, and I'd be pretty shocked if he didn't get his team to at least one Final Four at some point in the next few years. Pitt AD Steve Pederson thinks I'm right, or else he wouldn't have inked Dixon to a contract until Armageddon last spring.
Dixon has managed to win five tournament or regular season titles in the toughest hoops conference in the nation in the last 10 years, earned multiple No. 1 seeds and been to the Dance every year except one. He's done it by recruiting like a fiend in cities with rich basketball pipelines and coming out with quality college players: New York (Carl Krauser, Chris Taft and LeVance Fields come to mind), Philadelphia (Brad Wanamaker, Nasir Robinson) and D.C. (Sam Young) -- plus some local flair (DeJuan Blair). Dixon has a tremendous track record of finding kids from urban areas, bringing them to his urban school and winning 20-30 games per year, every year. He hasn't won jack in the tournament -- making one solitary, tragic Elite 8 appearance -- but Pitt's been a regular season juggernaut. And that, quite frankly, shouldn't count for nothing in a world where postseason success often comes down to pure luck.
The Panthers should be formidable next year, but I don't see them as the same title contender they've usually been. They lost Steven Adams to the NBA after last season, though they do have a decent recruiting class and some good inside-and-out returners in James Robinson and Talib Zanna. A number of players, including uber-athletic forward J.J. Moore, transferred from the program after last season.
The Terps are 2-1 against Pitt's hoops team since 1989-90.
The football program has been mostly mediocre with a tinge of occasional success on the field, but its recent off-the-field problems have been a total embarrassment. It's a shame, too, because recent teams have churned out great pro players like Larry Fitzgerald (who had his number retired by the program yesterday), LeSean McCoy and Darrelle Revis but won nothing themselves.
Perhaps their players' behavior has had something to do with it.
On that end, where should I start? Did you know that a 2011 Sports Illustrated report found Pitt's football team to be the most criminal in college football? When the Panthers' best players haven't been throwing dudes through glass doors or otherwise facing assault charges, they've been leaving early for the NFL or missing entire years with blown-out knees. Sometimes the same players. Most recently, their talented sophomore tailback decided to transfer to UCLA, had second thoughts, asked to return to Pitt, was told to pound sand and then challenged a 300-pound radio host to a fight on Twitter. Compound that with Pitt's semi-annual appearances in utterly irrelevant bowl games and middling Big East finishes, and things seem fairly dire to the casual Pitt fan.
Things have been no less serene on the coaching side. There have been enough hirings and firings and unannounced departures that I can barely recount them all, but here's the underlying gist: Pitt has had six different head coaches since December 2010, when Dave Wannstedt resigned after a thoroughly disappointing six years at the helm. Wannstedt was promptly replaced by Mike Haywood, who was fired two-and-a-half weeks later after getting hit with a domestic violence charge. Pitt then turned to wranglin' cowboy Todd Graham, who bolted after a memorable, "high-octane" season by sending a text message to his team and boarding a flight for Arizona State. Next in line was Paul Chryst, the former Wisconsin offensive coordinator who, mercifully, didn't make a beeline back to Madison when Bret Bielema bounced last year. There have been two interim coaches in this cycle, bringing the total number of distinguished leaders to six. It's been a comedy of transitions, but no one at Pitt is laughing.
The players themselves are comparatively boring. Pitt's had great running backs and kickers and some pretty swell linebackers and receivers, but they've been plagued by the horrid QB play of Tino Sunseri for the last three seasons, and there's just about nothing that I'm personally intrigued about going into the next one. Here's a spring depth chart. I'd like tell you there's at least one really tremendous player in there, but for the first time in a while, I think I'd be wrong.
At any rate, when Pitt and Maryland meet in the conference championship later this year, be sure to keep in mind that the Terrapins hold a 3-2 edge in the all-time series.