The University of Pittsburgh plays football against the University of Notre Dame this weekend. It will be the 70th time these schools have played one another. Notre Dame is Pitt’s 4th most played opponent. Pitt is Notre Dame’s 5th most played opponent. When the Irish take on the Panthers at Heinz Field this Saturday afternoon, it marks the latest chapter in a matchup of two of the more successful teams in college football history. Both teams have bigger rivals. Pitt has WVU and Penn State (maybe they should play those schools?) and Notre Dame has Michigan and USC, but as a Domer in Pittsburgh, when these two teams get together…well, there’s not a game on the schedule I’d hate to lose more than this one.

My first memories of college football take place in Pitt Stadium. On random fall Saturdays, my dad and I would head to Oakland, park far away, and walk up to get tickets. I didn’t beg to go to games as a kid (I don’t think), and these sojourns were not big, planned, indelible childhood moments. It was something to do on Saturday. I can’t specifically recall a date, or an opponent, or a final score of my first game, or any individual game, for that matter. I kind of remember really liking Ironhead Heyward. Mostly, I remember the walk. My father passed on two important lessons when it came to parking a car: 1) leave the close spots for the old people, and 2) paying for parking is for suckers. In my imperfect memory nearly 30 years later, we parked miles away. More likely, it was a few blocks. Still uphill, though. Anyway, Pitt football provided my first memories of the college game, and I always cheered for them as a kid. I also cheered for Penn State. I was never really a fan of either, if that makes sense. There were no battle lines in the Grau household. We all rooted for the “local” teams.

One of the laziest clichés in sports is that everyone feels strongly about Notre Dame (the whole “either you love them or you hate them” trope). Lots of people are completely indifferent towards Notre Dame football. I know plenty of people who identify themselves as college football fans who don’t really feel strongly one way or the other. I was one of them. Until I was 18 years old and matriculated, I never had strong feelings either way about the Fighting Irish. I’ve always been a fan of college football, but I never had the connection to a school that makes college football special. From that point on, I’ve been singularly in the “love them” list, and became more acutely aware of those that “hate them.” So, without further ado, a few reminiscences of recent installments of the Pitt-Notre Dame series, from an Irish fan in Panther territory.

1999: Last game at Pitt Stadium. Five friends from Notre Dame and I road-trip back for the weekend, only to see Kevan Barlow score two touchdowns, including the late game-winner. Pitt fans rushed the field, crossed the track, and for reasons I’ll never understand, tore up pieces of artificial turf as souvenirs. At least Pitt drew a good crowd for that game? Of course, it was to say good riddance to crumbling Pitt Stadium. That game was a bummer.
Notre Dame won the next three installments from 2001-2003, but Tyler Palko broke that streak (and a few FCC regulations) with his record-setting 5 touchdown passes at Notre Dame Stadium in 2004. As if Notre Dame games on NBC didn’t drag on long enough, now at least another 7 seconds were added for the purposes of censoring on-field audio. However, that’s come in handy for the occasionally maniacal Brian Kelly.

2005: The coinciding debuts of Dave Wannstedt and Charlie Weis, at Heinz Field. Both men were back coaching their alma maters. Both men were respected coordinators with questionable head coaching bona fides. Notre Dame rolled with Brady Quinn, Darius Walker, and Jeff Samardzija doing most of the damage. That game was fun, and in hindsight, was a microcosm of the problems that plagued both coaches during their respective tenures. Weis promised unrealistic achievements; Wannstedt couldn’t deliver on unrealistic expectations.

Break in the series until 2008: Pitt wins the longest game in Notre Dame history (the 4 OT game) to round out a horrendous month of November for the Irish. A second consecutive loss to Pitt, this time at Heinz Field in 2009, dropped ND to 6-4. Weis would be fired after that season. The 2009 game, though a Notre Dame loss, will always be a fond memory for me. That night, I made my national radio debut, giving live updates from Heinz Field on Mel Kiper Jr’s show. Shortly thereafter, smartphones would become ubiquitous, rendering those updates, and my opportunities to inform Mel Kiper about football, obsolete. Sigh. Ray Graham made some plays that night.
Notre Dame won three in a row from 2010-2012, none more memorable than the Kevin Harper game in South Bend. Everyone remembers Kevin Harper’s kick and the ref missing the duplicate jersey numbers on that fateful overtime field goal attempt that would have derailed Notre Dame’s perfect regular season. As a Notre Dame guy, I’ll just say this: pick up one first down in the last 20 minutes of that game, Pitt, and overtime never happens.

2013: Touchdown Tommy Rees mistakenly thinks Ray Vinopal is on his team, and James Conner scored twice. Irish turnovers nearly cause Brian Kelly’s head to explode on the sideline.
Yes, this year’s installment has lost a little bit of juice after Pitt’s letdown against North Carolina, but if recent history is any indication, the game will be close. I just hope the Irish win. I don’t want to have to hear about a loss until 2018.

Posted in College Sports