The Pittsburgh Panthers finish their best season in over a decade with the Insight.com Bowl.
"We Believe." That sign kept hanging around during the Panthers 2000 season, win after win after win. On office doors in the Cathedral. In the William Pitt Union. At the Duratz Athletic Complex on the South Side. At Three Rivers Stadium.
And it was here this final week of the real end to the millennium, some 1,800 bumpy air miles from Pittsburgh (2,090 by land), right here, in the Valley of the Sun. Hanging on the stucco walls of hotels. Attached by white athletic tape to the cushioned walls separating fan from player at Bank One Ballpark. Gleaming gold and blue in the glorious mid-70 mildness of Phoenix winter. (Is it legal to mention "mid-70s" and "winter" in the same sentence?)
The sign, along with cousins "Go Panthers" and "Pitt Is It," carried more than the sentiments of thousands of Panthers fansthose both here at the Insight.com Bowl and at home. The sign brought with it, all the way from Pittsburgh, the reality that Pitt football in late December is as special as college football can get.
They do play the game in this story. After all, nobody travels five hours by plane to don pads and helmet and uniform just to sing "Hail to Pitt" in the desert, even if it is five degrees back on campus. Billed as a potential shootout with no clear favorite, the game provided the expected fireworks. Iowa State jumped ahead, 27-7, at the half, then barely held off a fierce Pitt comeback to win, 37-29. It closed out Pitts best season since 1989, left the Panthers with a respectable record of 7-5, and caused head coach Walt Harris to proclaim: "We have a lot of work to do."
Still, despite its outcome, the game continued to rekindle, as have each of Harris four years at Pitt, an excitement that had been lost for much of the early 90s. This was (minus the second quarter) Pitt football: daring throws and leaping catches, dazzling runs and bone-jarring hits. Did a win matter? Well, a spoken no, but an implied yes. There was Walt Harris addressing the press some 42 hours before game time, dapper in a gold sport coat and tie, admitting that he and his staff and his players were "looking at the long haul." A win would be nice. The fact that the Panthers were playing in a bowl, however, had the team on the road toward fulfilling the ultimate goalgetting back to being perennial contenders for a national championship.
"We have a lot of potential, but
potential means you havent done it yet, so we have to keep our foot on the gas pedal and keep working to get better," Harris added, his brow wrinkled. He made a similar statement following the game. But what he was really saying is this: Were happy to have this chance, and, no matter what happens, were going to do our best to make this a regular occurrence. He was saying: We Believe.
And you could feel that sentiment among the thousand or so Panthers fans, young and old, the night before the game as the cheerleading squad greeted partygoers at Jacksons on 3rd. A sports bar a block from Bank One Ballpark (known here as The BOB) and Pitt fan headquarters for the week, thanks to the Alumni Association, Jacksons was abuzz with excitement. Take Kelly Stell, a senior pharmacy major. Shed just had a travel experience to make anyone want to stop traveling, and still she was smiling. See, the Pitt Band and cheerleaders were supposed to take two charter flights from Pittsburgh, but only one plane showed on time. Half the band boarded while the cheerleaders and the other half of the band waited for the next flight, which arrived later in the morning. At last, three hours behind schedule, the second plane took off. Most of the squads luggageincluding their uniformsdid, too. Sort of. The luggage wouldnt fit in the plane they were flying on, so the airline placed it on yet another flight. Trouble was, that plane wasnt heading for Phoenix; the bags went straight to Omaha or Iowa or Utah. Or maybe it was Alaska. No one in Phoenix was really quite sure.
By now, the sun had settled behind the 400-square-mile valley that is metropolitan Phoenix, and rumor had begun to circulate around Jacksons that some of the aforementioned luggage had finally arrived. "Despite everything that happened, were still having fun," Stell said, laughing. Indeed, when the cheerleaders appeared at Jacksons for the next days pep rally, they were in uniform.
There was something special in the hours leading up to the game. Alumni were hugging and shaking hands, excited about the game but probably more happy to spend time again with friends. The special atmosphere lies in the traditions of game day, said Dave Scarnati, a cellular phone vendor who has attended Pitt games since the late 1960s. "It just never stopped," he says of his love for Pitt football.
Tradition means you sing while the Pitt Band plays "The Pitt Victory Song"; its chanting "Fight, Pitt, Fight." Its sharing with like-minded people the University of Pittsburgh and all its wonderful and quirky delightfulness. And winning? Doesnt matter, says Scarnati, whod probably have come to the game even if his wife, Amy (Arts and Sciences 84), werent a Pitt alum. Its about believing in something greater than yourself.
At last its time to head to the stadium, walking down the streets behind the cheerleaders and the band as police on horseback block off traffic. Youre hurrying past vendors who set up their stands the day before to hawk: Authentic Indian Frybread and Vienna Beef, Chicagos Hot Dogs! and Freds Frozen H20. Youre pushing through the turnstiles at The BOB, and the glass doors are closing behind you, and the field before you is decorated at one end in Pitts colors. And youre standing under five-point-five acres of sky as four parachutists drop in through the 7,000-ton retractable roof, which later closes in just five minutes as the sun dips below the desert. And youre down in the front row, at the back of the end zone, sitting behind the goalposts with Pitt freshman Brian Goldman and sophomore Bob Conrad, who are paying their own way on this trip. And its here, as Goldman and Conrad scream until their voices are almost gone, that you realize they believe in Pitt and everything its given themmidterms and student loans and bowl games and good-spirited shouting matches with Iowa State fans the night before at the Roadway Inn. All the wonderful experiences that only college can provide.
As the sign says: We Believe. We all believe.