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Best thing in Pittsburgh this week

I find that people with no connection to Pittsburgh are always surprised to hear that Gene Kelly was from here. It’s like they expected him to be from Paris or New York, but not here.

Not only was he born and raised here, he dreamed of playing shortstop for the Pirates and was a student at Pitt. Here’s his senior class mug. While there, he staged shows with the Cap and Gown Club and was in shows at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. After graduating, he enrolled in law school at Pitt but dropped out after two months to teach at his family’s dance school in Squirrel Hill before heading off to fame and fortune in New York. They keep talking of putting up a statue of Kelly. I say, bring it!

Kelly’s 100th birthday was Wednesday and for the occasion, 3,000 incoming Pitt freshmen came together to set a record in his honor.

There you go. Well, they could have done it to “Singin’ in the Rain” instead of the “Cupid Shuffle.” But they’re kids. Whaddaryagonnado?

I say, besides my friend Emma’s successful brain surgery, this was the best thing that happened in Pittsburgh this week.

And here’s an impressive clip of Kelly tap dancing on roller skates. Not too shabby. Happy weekend. And Happy Belated Centennial to Mr. Kelly.

Emma’s new head

Good night, peeps. Sorry for no post today. Very busy day; not a lot to say. But I do owe you an update on the subject of yesterday’s post, Emma’s surgery.

I’m so glad to report that she came through the surgery with flying colors. According to her husband Neil, doctors said it went “beautifully.” They accomplished everything they had planned to do.

She is resting (trying to?) while fighting off a great deal of pain and sickness from her medications. Not fun stuff. But nobody said brain surgery was a walk in the park. Obviously, the long road to recovery has begun, but at least the risky part is behind her. I’m looking forward to visiting her when she is feeling better.

Thanks for all your thoughts and prayers. I believe that each one helped to make a difference.

And here’s Emma’s beloved Pitt Panther, exhibiting quite the fighting spirit. I have no idea why there seems to be a palm tree behind it. Just one of life’s mysteries, I guess. Sleep tight.

 

2011 already the pitts for the panthers

I didn’t go to Pitt. I don’t really have an emotional horse in this race. But as a Pittsburgh resident, I just feel that when Pitt succeeds, the city succeeds. Same with CMU, Duquesne, Robert Morris, Point Park, etc. Plus, having the #4 college basketball team in the country is just downright entertaining. It would be the same with football, even more so since this isn’t even remotely a “basketball town.”

But how bizarre it was to spend this weekend watching various schools in their New Years bowl games, including my true alma mater, the Rose Bowl champion Horned Frogs of TCU, as the scroll at the bottom of the screen became a gradual but running account of the self-inflicted suicide of the Pitt football program. 

Let’s go back in time. Pitt went into this season ranked in the top 25. Their running back, Dion Lewis, was being mentioned in some circles as a Heisman Trophy candidate. As the season went along, coach Wannstedt was also putting together a top-10 recruiting class for next year. Things were looking bright. Then the wheels, they started to wobble. They lost a nationally televised game to Utah. They won two games against weaklings New Hampshire and Florida International but lost badly to mediocre Miami and Notre Dame squads. Despite beating some of the least in the Big East, they also lost to conference champion Connecticut and were blown out by close rival West Virginia. Dion Lewis was no longer even the best running back on his team. And for all of Wannstedt’s recruiting triumphs, it seems that he forgot to get him a quarterback.

Thus, at season’s end, the team that had its sights set on the million-dollar payoff of a BCS bowl, had to settle for a bowl game in Birmingham. Wannstedt and his vanilla-flavored game-day strategy was fired, a victim of losses, alumni discontent, and  most notably, declining attendance at Heinz Field. Pitt AD Steve Pederson moved fast, but not fast enough. Their first choice was hired up by the University of Miami. Their second choice went with rival West Virginia. Ouch. Without even interviewing any other candidates, Pederson panicked and hired Mike Haywood, a former Notre Dame and Texas assistant who had turned Miami of Ohio from a no-win team to a conference champ in two years.

Three weeks later, as you are probably aware, came Haywood’s New Year’s Eve arrest at his home in South Bend, Indiana, for allegedly choking his baby mama. It took the university all of around 12 hours to cut Haywood loose, who will go down in history as Pitt’s only coach to end his career undefeated.

Haywood is proclaiming his innocence. He says he never touched her. The police say otherwise, and have documented the marks on her neck, back, and arms. Domestic disputes are nasty things. Who knows what really went on? What we do know, however, is that a discussion became a dispute that became an argument that became so heated that someone called the police. There was plenty of opportunity here for the coach – who should know that he is in the spotlight – to defuse the situation and let cooler heads prevail. Didn’t happen. Mr. Haywood let it get to the point that he was celebrating the New Year behind bars.

Apparently, the firing didn’t come from Pederson’s office but from the university president. The school had no choice, especially after they hired Haywood to instill discipline after a year of incidents, including the dismissal of a player for domestic abuse. Oops. Mr. Pederson may have wanted to interview a few more candidates for the job. Well, that’s what will be happening, again, according to the president. And Pederson is probably on a very short leash.

Now comes word that Wannstedt won’t be coaching the Birmingham Bowl this weekend. Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti may be headed to Rutgers. And several of Pitt’s much heralded recruiting class is said to be bolting for greener pastures. (Update: for more uncomfortable details on this debacle, including Wannstedt begging for his job and being forced to read a statement, read the Post-Gazette’s Paul Zeise’s great blog.)

That is a disaster. That is a head wound. And for it all to go down on college football’s biggest day was just an embarrassment. Can you imagine being a Pitt recruit and watching that with your family? And unlike the Big Ten, who went 0-5 on New Year’s Day and was completely destroyed by other universities, Pitt’s wounds are all self-inflicted. We’re only three days in 2011, and this season may already be in the tank. RIP Pitt football.

I say that now they have no choice. They have to wash this bad taste out of the mouths of Pitt fans everywhere. And there is only one way to do it: go back to yesteryear and wake up the memories by reverting to the old school colors and logo. The look of Marino and Dorsett. The hope of brighter days ahead.

Jamie’s crying… “I love Pittsburgh this much!”

I have to admit… I was shocked, SHOCKED to read of the two-year extension given to Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon. I guess I had already assumed that he was on borrowed time in Oakland. Being a California kid, it was only a matter of time before USC or Stanford or San Diego State came calling. This year, I thought the odds were good that the Oregon job might just be the carrot to lure him out west. Sure, it’s not Cali, but they have so much Nike money in Eugene that they can’t build state-of-the-art athletic facilities fast enough. And besides, this is Pittsburgh. This is the place successful people leave as soon as they can, right? 

 Maybe ‘Burghers need to start adjusting those “second city” stereotypes. For Dixon, it seems that Pitt is a destination, not a stepping stone. 

Even in a city that views basketball as just slightly more popular than soccer and curling, Dixon has spent 11 years here building a top-20 national program. Now, with a contract through the 2017-18 season, he will be free to recruit without battling rumors that he is a “short-timer” at the school. Now he can focus on reaching the ultimate goals: a final four appearance and a national championship. Hey, it’s been almost a year with no new trophies or parades. Come on, Jamie. Time to start pulling your weight around here. 

Actually, Jamie and I go way back (even if he doesn’t realize it). Yes, I was a wise and seasoned senior at Texas Christian University in 1984 when our basketball team suddenly had this fresh-faced freshman guard. Was this skinny little guy really going to battle the likes of Texas, Houston (with Hakeem Olajuwon), and Arkansas? Actually, yes. Dixon led the Horned Frogs to two Southwest Conference titles both as a junior and senior. He earned all-conference honors in 1987 and was an All-SWC Academic performer. He was inducted into the TCU Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007. He’s no dummy, either. Dixon received his bachelor’s degree in finance from TCU in 1987 and a master’s degree in economics from UC-Santa Barbara in 1992. 

Dixon drives the lane at TCU.

In the past 11 years, we’ve seen him grow up. We’ve watched the hairline recede a bit. We watched him raise a family. We cried with him at the tragic loss of his sister, Maggie. We saw him guide Pitt to the Big East championship game four of his first five years at the helm. We cheered as he led Pitt to its first regional final and Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA tournament. He reached 100 wins faster than any other coach in school history. He set an all-time NCAA Division I record for most wins after six seasons as a head coach. Someday soon, we may watch him in the Final Four. 

I’m starting to think that Jamie Dixon might be a ‘Burgher, after all. And now, some vintage heroics when Dixon could shoot the rock. 

NCAA Math: 101

It’s the time of year when NCAA sports conferences begin to toy with the concept of realignment. This year’s tinkerer: the Big Ten (which actually has eleven teams). Get out your blue books and a No. 2 pencil and get ready to do a little NCAA math. And, you need to show your work.

The Big Ten (eleven… see? there’s an 11 right there in their logo!) is intrigued by the idea of adding a twelfth team for four reasons, all having to do with football: 1) the prospect of a big-money conference championship game in December; 2) getting their champion a BCS boost by beating another ranked team in a 13th game; 3) avoiding the 6-week layoff their best teams endure before a BCS bowl game; and 4) the possibility of adding a new television market.

Of course this would then make the Big Ten (eleven) the Big Twelve—a problem since there already is a Big XII. Maybe the Big Ten (eleven) would continue their tradition by calling themselves the Big Eleven (twelve) even though they would have twelve teams. Hard to say.

For several years now, there have been discussions with Notre Dame about joining the conference, but ND has a lucrative NBC television contract and wouldn’t want to give up the schedule flexibility they have as an independent. Besides, their ego is immense and they would ask for the moon. They haven’t won anything in over a decade, but they still think that their poop does not stink.

That leads us to the Big East where the possibilities would be Rutgers, Syracuse, and Pitt. Rutgers may be the leader here. They have rebuilt their football program. They have a rather small football stadium (although it is the same size as Minnesota’s new home), but they would bring the coveted New York City/New Jersey television market with them. This would essentially double the audience of the Big Ten (eleven) conference. Also, Rutgers is a state school and not a city school, which the Big Ten (eleven!) seems to favor.

Pitt would bring a great rivalry with Penn State. After decades of playing each other, Paterno has refused to schedule Pitt for several years now. Wannstedt has indicated that he’d love to see the game revived. Other than that, Pitt wouldn’t bring much in the way of a new TV market. Syracuse is probably too far north and too far away from Manhattan to be very attractive.

Here’s the pushback. Would Pitt or Syracuse want to leave the best basketball conference in the country to go the Big Ten (eleven)? That would be like the New York Yankees deciding to go to the AAA International League next year. In the end, the answer is probably yes. The Big Ten (eleven) is, first and foremost, a football conference and there’s probably more money available to Pitt there than in the Big East. Then the Big East could replace them with Temple.

The other options for the Big Ten (eleven) would be Missouri or Iowa State in the Big XII. Iowa State should be campaigning to make the jump since they are irrelevant in the Big XII. But once again, with Iowa already there, the Cyclones wouldn’t be bringing any new TV sets with them. Missouri is probably more attractive. They are Midwestern. For the second year in a row, they were pushed to the bottom of the Big XII bowl games. Plus, they would open up a new geographical region for the Big Ten (eleven… twelve).

Should Missouri move, the Big XII would have to add a team so as not to become the Big XI, as the Big Ten (eleven) did. Most likely, they would then make amends for the sin they committed after the Southwest Conference dissolved in the mid-80s when they added Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor—leaving TCU, SMU, Rice, and Houston as orphans. Really? Baylor! Not TCU? How has that worked out for you, Big XII? They could admit their mistake and take TCU from the Mountain West Conference. I went to TCU. Ft. Worth, Texas, should be in the thesaurus as an antonym for the word “mountain”. Then the Mountain West could snatch Boise State from the WAC. You see? The universe would be back in alignment. Yes, I said the Big XII “sinned.” No, I am no longer bitter. Really. 

Personally, I hope Pitt is the choice. It would make tons of sense geographically, making it easy for other teams’ fans to attend. Wouldn’t it be great to see teams like Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan State on Pitt’s conference schedule? Wouldn’t that draw a bit better than South Florida and Connecticut? Plus, it would reignite the simmering hostility that exists between the Panthers and Nittany Lions. Finally, a rivalry that exists only on paper and around water coolers would grow into a yearly civil war. And, we could still schedule West Virginia as a non-conference Backyard Brawl every year. Such a move might make Pittsburgh a college football-town afterall. But, again, it would be potentially devastating to basketball. It would probably hurt all the recruiting they currently do in New York and New Jersey. Those kids are excited at the prospect of playing against U Conn, St. John’s, Georgetown, and Syracuse every year. How excited would they be to play Purdue and Minnesota? Not very. In the end, Pitt would have to decide if it is a football school or not, or if they want to be a basketball school in a football city.

Either way, it’s a pretty slow news day when this is all I have to worry about.

Never bet against a Cicilian when death is on the line!

I’m not sure if death is on the line, but there sure is a lot at stake tomorrow for Pitt. This is one of those games that can turn the direction of a program. It won’t pay as much as a bowl game, but I think it’s more important. What was more important for Pitt in the last few years? Their loss in last year’s Sun Bowl? Or the win against WVU in 2007? Who cares about the Sun Bowl!? The WVU win not only kept those hillbillies out of the National Championship game, but it turned Pitt recruiting fortunes around. Heck, two visiting WV recruits at that game followed Pitt into the locker room and are on the team today!

A couple of years ago, the two schools created a trophy and tried to manufacture a rivalry…  I know it was a rivalry because they named it The River City Rivalry. The trophy looks like a riverboat control. It never really took–as you can tell by the nearly empty stadium. I’m guessing it might take now. Tomorrow’s game is already sold out. See, you can’t fake these things. Rivalries have to happen on their own. This one is a natural though… no need to manufacture hate between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati fans when it comes to football, is there?

As big as this is for Pitt, it’s even bigger for Cinci. They are undefeated. A win combined with a Texas loss would have them in the conversation for the National Championship game. With their coach probably be moving on to Notre Dame next year, this could be their only shot.

But it’s big for Pitt, as well. A loss would mean a great regular season ends with two disappointments. It would probably drop them behind West Virginia, and maybe even Rutgers, in the bowl selection process. Hello Papa John’s Pizza Bowl and a trip to beautiful downtown Birmingham. How will we ever get those boys back to Pittsburgh once they’ve seen Birmingham? A win, however, would mean a Sugar Bowl birth in the Big Easy against either Alabama or Florida.

Vegas seems confused on this. You would think the #5 undefeated Bearcats would be favored by 5 or 6 points at least. But the game opened with Pitt favored by 1. Gamblers jumped on Cinci and now the spread has moved to favor them by 1. Of course, most people mistakenly think a point spread is a prediction on who will win. It’s not! A spread is simply the point at which equal money is being bet on both sides of the line. Therefore, the early money was pushed toward Pitt. Vegas must like the cut of Dion Lewis’ jib and Dave Wannstedt’s mustache!

Also, what’s with the Bearcat? Did a little research on that and, according to About.com (Yeah, that’s my source. Get off me!) they were named by a UC cheerleader in 1914. They were playing Kentucky and their best player was Leonard K. “Teddy” Baehr. According to the story, this cheerleader (a dude, by the way) created the chant: “They may be Wildcats, but we have a Baehr-cat on our side.” Hmmm. Do you clap with that? Is there a rhythm? Lame right? Named by a cheerleader. And it stuck. Okay. What horrible name did they go by before that? The Cincinnati Flotsam? The Cincinnati Chilisuckers?

It’s completely fictitious, like a Horselizard or a Monkeygnat. Now, however, they pretend that it’s an actual animal. Here is the closest thing to a bearcat. It’s called a binturong and it’s from Malaysia. The Cincinnati Zoo has one and they sometimes bring it to the game as if that was the idea all along. Yeah, that’s one ugly-ass animal. Not cool and sleek like a panther.

Meow. Bad kitty!  Hail, Pitt!

Hail Pitt! Hell, yes!

As Jerry Seinfeld astutely once said about sports fans, “In the end, we are really cheering for laundry!” How true. We cheer for the Black and Gold. Even if some of them are drunk, weed-toting womanizers, we still cheer for the Black and Gold. We cheer for Joey Porter until he dons the aqua and orange (doesn’t have the same ring, does it?), then we cheer for whoever the new guy is in the Black and Gold. Nothing wrong with that. It happens everywhere. It’s not like the players all grew up on Bloomfield stoops or the South Side slopes. The players come and go—and are paid handsomely to do so—but the colors remain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, after a rather rough Sunday, how about a little love for the Navy and Gold! I don’t care if you went to Penn State or Edinboro or Point Park or CMU or CCAC or the school of hard knocks, Pitt has been a part of this city since the 1700s—I think they just might be here to stay. They are as much a part of Pittsburgh as fries on top, Iron City, and Clark bars. (But isn’t it time for them to bring back the cobalt and mustard and stop trying to look like Navy or Notre Dame? Half the fans wear it to every game anyway. Just sayin’. They seem more like Pitt’s true colors than navy and gold.) 

Hail Pitt! I’m “all in” on this. I’m especially happy for Dave Wannstedt. Around 15 years ago, I watched as he had the unenviable task of replacing Chicago legend, Mike Ditka, as coach of the Bears. (Both, of course, former Pitt Panthers.) Just a few years past a magical Super Bowl season, the team had quit listening to Ditka, who had quickly become a caricature of himself and better known as an SNL skit. As a rookie coach, Dave was not the larger-than-life Ditka, and never would be. It just didn’t work. Even after the local media dogged him and made fun of his Pittsburgh accent,  reporters still talk about what a great guy Wannstedt is.

So how great is it that Dave has hit his stride as a college football coach at his alma mater in his hometown. That kind of situation is not always a good fit, but Wannstedt wears it well. Turns out he’s a stellar recruiter in the living rooms of high school talent. Hey, he was the only Division I college coach to see something in running back sensation Dion Lewis. After just five plays on a DVD, Wannstedt had seen all he needed to see. He invited the 5’9″ Lewis to campus to see if he could make it physically, and the rest is history in the making.

And even though his coaching tactics have been questioned, he’s proven himself to be a great judge of coaching talent by installing Frank Cignetti–another Burgh native–as offensive coordinator. Since that move, the Panthers have become a scoring juggernaut.

 

I don’t care if you went someplace else. Look, my alma mater, the TCU Horned Frogs, are having the season of a lifetime. (And by the way, best college nickname ever?) They are a little school knocking on the door of a National Championship. While a TCU/Pitt matchup would seriously test my loyalties, heck, I’ve already been in Pittsburgh longer than I was in the dry and dusty  city of Ft. Worth, Texas.

Two more wins and Pitt sows up the Big East championship and a BCS bowl bid—probably to the Sugar Bowl against the Florida/Alabama loser. Yikes. If the BCS really knew what they were doing, they would make a Pitt/Penn State game happen in the Fiesta Bowl. But, whatever. The payday for a BCS bowl would be around $18 million for the conference. Pitt wouldn’t get all that money (they would get around $2-3 million), but future recruits would see a team on the rise and a local coach who just might be becoming a local legend.

So move over Steelers, Penguins, and the girl who just won on Jeopardy!… there just might be another champion in Pittsburgh this fall.

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