December 2001


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Written by
Bill Modoono

Photo by Ric Evans


Heinz Field Scores Big

It rose above the glee. Above the revelers. Above the tubas and batons. Above all the co-eds wearing T-shirts designed to expose belly buttons. Above all the alumni wearing blue-and-gold hats designed to show unity. In the distance you could see it rise above a sea of blacktop that ran uninterrupted for what appeared to be miles. A thing of beauty? Not exactly. Too much glass, too much steel, too much tar. A joy forever? That’s more like it.

Coach Walt Harris and players survey the Panthers' new turf.
Mike Bostic, Bryan Knight, Joe Conlin, Ryan Smith, and Head Coach Walt Harris take stock of their new home.
On another day, its attractiveness would have been harder to discern. What beauty there is in the name (much as with the design) lies in its directness, not its poetry. The product of corporate creativity, the intent is pure marketing. Its location, just as its opponents had warned, is far removed from the campus that holds emotional weight for many of the people who filled those parking lots. Absent also was any sense of ownership. It is a facility destined to be shared with a professional football team that will generate its own high-profile brand of excitement inside and outside its walls.

But on this day, this glorious, sunny, first day, Heinz Field rose above it all. As you looked at it from a distance while the Pitt marching band made its way down General Robinson Street in what became an instant pregame ritual, you could be excused for seeing it as Emerald City, glittering on the horizon.

I don’t think we’re in Oakland any more, Toto.

The record will show that the University of Pittsburgh played the first meaningful game at Heinz Field on the first day of September in the first year of the millennium. That its opponent was East Tennessee State University and the Panthers did nothing unexpected or extraordinary in defeating the Bucs, 31-0. What the record cannot show is how great a victory this truly was.

A great victory for a new tradition, which was how Mark Jankowski saw it. A 1985 graduate, he traveled from central Ohio to be at the first Pitt football game at Heinz Field. What impressed him was that hours before the game started, he could stand in the middle of the parking lots that stretch between the new stadium and PNC Park and finally have a chance to see what a Pitt crowd truly looks like.

No hills, no buildings, no winding roads, no snarled traffic. In such a setting, even the opposition’s loyalists could appear attractive.

“Everybody’s all together here,” Jankowski says. “We get to mingle with all the fans at once. We get to rowdy it up a bit with opposing fans.

“Look at it,” he says, gesturing toward the groups of tailgaters that surrounded him on all sides. “You didn’t get to see all this camaraderie before.”

In a sense, Pitt was reclaiming its identity as an urban university, even as it was establishing its presence on the city’s North Shore. “Pitt is a city school,” says Sean Mitchell. “This is part of campus life.”

As he says this, Mitchell, a 1994 graduate, was sitting in a parking lot behind the D.L. Clark Building with his brother, Lance, a 1992 graduate. Lance is the kind of Pitt fan who admits that the first thing he did when he moved back to western Pennsylvania from South Carolina was to buy season tickets for the first season at Heinz Field.

From where they had camped, these two could not even see the stadium. And with four hours to go until kickoff, their only entertainment in addition to their own conversation was a portable radio. Yet they were content in the knowledge that in an hour or so their friends would find their new gathering place and all would be right in the world. They had no place for such a thing in Oakland, and they were making up for lost time. “Tailgating,” says Lance, “is great for the program.”

Comparisons were inevitable on this first day. Comparisons with places such as Columbus, Ohio, and, of course, State College, Pennsylvania. On the whole, Panther fans would rather be in Pittsburgh, but for years they did secretly covet all that space those other schools had for pre-game festivities. Now, Pitt had it too, and in a distinctly urban package that fit the school’s personality.

If fans were coming in from Downtown (and that’s where campus shuttle buses dropped off students), they could enjoy the party on the Clemente Bridge that featured games, music, and refreshments. Fans coming from the other direction could take part in the Panther Fan Fest in UPMC SportsWorks at Carnegie Science Center, another every-game occurrence. Fans getting to the stadium via the Gateway Clipper could be serenaded by a pregame concert by the University of Pittsburgh Marching Band in the Heinz Field Plaza.

The Panther Prowl, which gives fans a chance to reach out and touch the players and coaches as they arrive at the stadium two hours before kickoff, had been moved from Sutherland Drive to Heinz Field, Gate A.

“It’s not on campus,” says Chas Brncic, a 1988 graduate, who stood and watched as Pitt coach Walt Harris walked the line, shaking more hands and getting more kisses than a politician running for re-election. “It loses the campus flavor.” But the fact was, nobody ever walked down the hill to the campus anyway. “They’ll like this better,” says Chuck Brncic, Chas’s father. “They’ll like this. It will help recruiting.”

The athletes already recruited were among the most impressed on opening day. Too impressed, according to Harris, who thought the team’s slow start against its Division I-AA opponent (the score was a mere 14-0 at the half) was a result of its being “star struck” by its new surroundings, which include seats that match the color of Heinz mustard. “They were awestruck about being here,” Harris said.

Then again, Harris himself was not immune. He was so excited he shook hands with Steelers owner Dan Rooney and his son, Art II, the team vice president, before both men took part in the ceremonial coin toss. Then he ran up and shook hands with both of them again minutes later as they exited the field. It was a temporary loss of cool for the normally collected coach, but he could not help himself.

“I can’t thank them enough,” says Harris. “This is our stadium on Saturdays. How lucky can you be?”

For the older players, this was their third home field in as many years, but this was the one that mattered. The promise of this new palace on the North Shore had been impressed on them way back when they were still in high school. It was the future, and suddenly the future had arrived. “It’s a sign of what’s going on with this program,” says Chad Reed, a junior center from Latrobe, Pennsylvania. “Everything is clicking at the right time. Everything is on the rise.” Senior quarterback David Priestley, who scored the historic first touchdown in memorable fashion—an 85-yard run on a bootleg play – thought the new home was more impressive than his effort. “It was unreal, to tell the truth,” he says. “It’s a blessing to be in this situation as a team.”

It was even enough to make a grown man dance in public. A postgame concert featuring J.T. Taylor of Kool and the Gang was lively enough to get Walt Harris up on stage to show off a few moves. Not exactly dancing, but movement nonetheless.

“I didn’t want to embarrass [Taylor],” Harris says of his reluctance to really cut loose.

At the end of this day, no one had any reason to feel embarrassed. The first-day jitters only added to the excitement.

“It’s more of an event here,” says Chas Brncic. “There’s a Pitt feel here. It’s not like you feel this is the Steelers’ stadium and you just borrowed it for the day.”

“It’s really a terrific thing for the University of Pittsburgh and the City of Pittsburgh,” said Steve Pederson, Pitt’s athletic director. “There were 8,000 people on the plaza for the Panther Prowl. It was exciting. It’s what we’ve been striving for.”

In typical Pittsburgh fashion, the night ended with fireworks, but on this night they seemed redundant. The party was over, the noise already made.

—Bill Modoono is a sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Center Stage

Pitt Stadium is gone, but an impressive Phoenix is rising from the rubble between DeSoto and Terrace streets.

The $69 million John M. and Gertrude E. Peterson Events Center will soon crown Pitt’s upper campus. Crafted of buff-colored brick and glass, it is scheduled to open in time for the 2002-03 basketball season.

The center is named for Petersen, a 1951 Business School graduate, and his wife. The couple, which has supported several Pitt scholarships over the years, donated $10 million toward the center’s construction.

A native of Erie, John Petersen is retired as president of Erie Insurance Group. While at Pitt, he lettered in swimming and diving.

The 12,500-seat facility will provide a modern home for Panthers men’s and women’s basketball and will be available for concerts. When no events are scheduled, members of the University will be able to buy lunch at an array of food outlets or even play Frisbee on the lawn.

Apostolou Associates of Pittsburgh and Atlanta-based Rosser International designed the five-level Petersen Events Center. Ticket offices, a Pitt store, and the McCarl Panther Hall of Fame will be on the lobby level. The main level, training, and locker rooms will be a short escalator ride away.

The Petersen center will also include Pitt’s athletic administration offices, a food court, and the Willis Center of Academics for student athletes, along with a recreation center, where students can play indoor sports, work out, and do aerobics.

Upper levels will include general admission seating, while special club level seating will give fans sweeping views of both the court and the Cathedral of Learning. —Emily Tipping

Handy Wipes

Heinz Field isn’t Pitt’s only new look these days. The rest of the Oakland campus has a little more sparkle, too.

A dozen University buildings have been wiped clean of urban grime, most of it dating to Pittsburgh’s heyday as a steel-producing center. What’s more, the wraps have been taken off two stone markers that improve campus identification and add a touch of elegance.

Power-washed, pointed, and repaired were Bruce, Amos, Brackenridge, Holland, and McCormick student residence halls, which are among the University’s oldest buildings, according to University architect Park Rankin. The repairs included replacing damaged face brick. The same treatment is also on tap for Thackeray Hall. Already scrubbed are the music buildings, Stephen Foster Memorial, Bellefield, Lawrence, and Ruskin halls, and portions of the law school.

The heaviest soiling came during the city’s steel boom years, Rankin says. Pollution curbs and the downsizing of the steel industry mean the buildings will hold their shine for years to come.

Marking the campus at its main entrances are two formidable stone marquees, located on Fifth and Forbes at South Bellefield Avenue. The new markers are made of Indiana limestone. Each measures 18-feet long by 8.5-feet high, and the base is granite. The University seal is carved into the stone, and the University of Pittsburgh is spelled out in regal bronze letters. Two smaller portal signs have been added at campus entrances on Bates and Allequippa streets. Improving campus identity was an idea that grew out of an Association of University Architects conference, Rankin says. The University hosted the conference two years ago. —Kris B. Mamula

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