March 2002


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Good Sport

Written by
Bill Modoono

Photograph by
Mike Drazdzinski, CIDDE

Tangerine dreams

The Panthers bowl a perfect game

By the pool, you would see them. By the pool, you would know them.

Central Florida was experiencing something of a cold snap that week in mid-December. Just a few days earlier, temperatures had been in the mid-80s, but by the time this crowd arrived, they had plummeted to the 60s. Not that anyone by the pool of the Caribe Royale Hotel in Orlando seemed to care.

Maybe that’s because this crowd was more than a gathering of sun worshippers from the north. What united them was not a vat of suntan lotion. Rather, it was a football team. A football team that had spent a great deal of the autumn confounding them, disappointing them, and—yes—even angering them. A football team that stumbled on its way to five losses in its first six games only to rebound in spectacular fashion by winning its final five regular-season games. A football team that had lost its way early, but had a clear destination by year’s end. They were going to Disney World.

Actually, the University of Pittsburgh football team was headed to Orlando, site of the 2001 Visit Florida Tangerine Bowl.* Visits to the Magic Kingdom were optional. As were afternoons out by the hotel pool, although judging by the number of Pitt players and coaches mingling among the crowds, those spots could have been mandatory.

Sure, there were bigger college bowl games played this past winter in more exotic locales. But none could have provided more satisfaction for a team and its supporters than what the Tangerine Bowl did for the Pitt Panthers and for everyone who followed them on down.

College bowl games exist to promote tourism and lift spirits and while Orlando would have wished for more than the 3,500 or so Pitt loyalists who ventured south, it was an impressive turnout considering the Panthers received the invitation less than three weeks before the date of the game. The game’s pre-Christmas December 20th kickoff and the public’s resistance to fly after the events of September 11 were both factors working to keep fans away.

But for those who have made a bowl trip or two in the past, it’s difficult to stay away. “It’s the camaraderie,” said Hope Bielich of Bethel Park, a 1954 graduate. “You see people you haven’t seen for so long.”

This season, the Caribe Royale served as Pitt’s bowl headquarters, which was convenient since it was also the team’s hotel. That meant Pitt fans had some added attractions. They could talk with quarterback David Priestley in the hot tub. They could offer words of encouragement to head coach Walt Harris as he walked through the lobby. They could take in the Florida version of the Panther Prowl out by the pool on the afternoon before the game.

“This is part of the college experience—the opportunity to come to a bowl,” said Leland Patouillet, executive director of the Pitt Alumni Association, who estimated that about 800 people a day stopped by to visit the association’s bowl headquarters located in the lobby of the Caribe. “Orlando has so much to offer. It’s hard to beat as a venue.”

That could explain why it took Erica Borgia, Kelley Eltringham, Ashley White, and Courtney Caldwell—all members of Pitt’s Class of 2005—about two minutes to decide to come on down to root on the Panthers. Once their finals ended, this was where they had to be. “As soon as we heard about the game, we were going,” said Borgia. Borgia wore a blue T-shirt with the letter “T” written on it. White, Eltringham, and Caldwell were “P,” “I,” and “T,” respectively.

The four freshmen were in costume about eight hours before game time and excited about having a seat in the front row, the better to send their T-shirted message to the world via ESPN. In case that was not enough, they also carried placards, one of which read: “All We Want for Christmas Is a Pitt Win.”

Oh, yes, the Pitt win. In bowl games, most especially minor bowl games, everyone—coaches, players, and even some fans—say winning the game is less vital than just making it to the game. It’s a reward for a season of effort. A reward that cannot be diminished by defeat.

Perhaps not, but it can be magnified in victory. Pitt proved that with its 34-19 win over North Carolina State. It was evident that Wolfpack fans—many of whom probably drove from Raleigh, North Carolina—had a 3-to-1 edge in number over the Panthers in the stands that night and along Universal Studio’s lively City Walk the night before the game. But it was the Pitt faithful that wound up making all the noise once the game began.

In fact, Harris was so impressed with the support and enthusiasm that Pitt fans showed on this trip, the first people he thanked after he had accepted the Tangerine Bowl trophy from Florida’s lieutenant governor was “you people sitting out in the stands.”

Later, the head coach would thank his staff and players and then reveal that he was “very thankful” to win a bowl game, even one that wasn’t played on New Year’s day. Not that any of the Panthers’ contingent in Orlando that week seemed to mind. They had sun, they had fun, and they saw a victory.

—Bill Modoono is a sports writer living in Pittsburgh.

*—denotes an external link. Links to external websites are offered for informational purposes only and the information there is not guaranteed or endorsed by the University of Pittsburgh or its affiliates.

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