Not On-Campus, But Close

For those who still pine for an on-campus stadium, Pitt athletics director Steve Pederson is hopeful that several fan initiatives in place for this season -- beginning with the opener against Bowling Green Saturday at noon -- will help provide a similar atmosphere at Heinz Field.

There are three areas where students and the public can party up to three hours before kickoff. There will be a Pittsburgh band tailgate that includes current members, alumni and their families at the corner of Tony Dorsett Drive and General Robinson Street. There also will be a student tailgate section on the Great Lawn adjacent to Jerome Bettis' Grille 36 restaurant.

And finally, along Art Rooney Avenue, Pitt will stage what it has termed "The World's Largest Family Tailgate. The annual Rib Fest is this weekend there, and other food and beverage venues will be available. Also, similar to the Penguins playoff games, a 9x12-foot video screen will be in the area to provide highlights and information.

"Typically, in college, the atmosphere and the college feeling is wherever the students are,'' Pederson said. "They create what they create, at the stadium and in the Petersen Center. They dictate the momentum in games, in basketball and football games. So, we want to make sure they feel a part of our team.

"It's their university and team, and we want to enhance their connection to the team. These ideas came from our students. Percentage-wise, it's probably the same ratio from students to the general public, in basketball and football. And those 7,000 students (at Heinz) can change the whole complexion of games.''

Pederson preferred not to say if the Panthers hoped to emulate some other campus venue that was particularly exciting on game days, but he most certainly had an example of how he wanted Heinz Field to look.

"Heinz Field, 2002, when we were selling standing-room-only tickets for West Virginia,'' Pederson said. "You walked into the stadium, and there was just an unbelievable and electric feeling. And I believe we can do that again. Heinz Field, with a lot of people cheering and excited is an unbelievable stadium.''

The student tailgate aspect of the fan initiatives was interesting, because it was suggested by students and is entirely different from recent years where they were dropped off by shuttles downtown and had to walk across the Clemente Bridge to get to the tailgate area near PNC Park. Now, according to Pitt's assistant athletic director for marketing and promotion, Chris Ferris, the students have a much easier way to get to Heinz Field.

Now, students can purchase on-line up to Thursday afternoon before each home game a tailgate pack that includes eight hot dogs or hamburgers or whatever the meat selection is that week and one of 75 one-pound propane tank grills that the University purchased for $24. That's $3 per person. Beverages will also be made available.

Students will be shuttled to the Great Lawn where they can pick up the packs and grills to have their own tailgate experience. Alcohol use is being discouraged. Other food will be available for those who just show up. Then, students will be shuttled to Point State Park so they can walk across the Fort Duquesne Bridge to get to the game. These shuttles will run until game time.

The Panther Prowl with the team will begin two hours before game time, and when the team processes into the stadium students can form a pathway for them like the old days at Pitt Stadium. So, according to former Panthers fullback Justin Acierno, now Pitt's event presentation coordinator, fraternities and other campus organizations can make signs to show during the procession.

The University purchased wood to help the process, and the organizations were notified so they can make the signs tonight at the Petersen Center.

According Pederson, season-ticket sales have just surpassed 41,000, up from slightly less than 30,000 last season. That number includes 7,000 student season tickets (out of 10,000 available). So, the increase has been dramatic.

With guaranteed parking this year, about 2,500 more parking spaces have been sold, all on the North Shore, Pederson said. This number is up to 7,500 from 5,000 previously.

The athletic department set a goal of 50,000 season tickets, and that likely won't be reached for the opener. However, if a single-game ticket is purchased for the Bowling Green game, a voucher will be given out which provides the option to convert that ticket into a season ticket. The cost of the single ticket will be subtracted from the season ticket price purchased.

To even approach a sellout for the opener, a large walk-up will be needed, because Bowling Green isn't bringing too many people. And 5,000 tickets must be held for the opposition, until the visitors return them.

"We wanted to make the game day bigger than simply from kickoff to the end of the game,'' Pederson said. "That's the focus and why we're there, but we felt like we had some special opportunities to do something pre-game.

"I really believe that if people of all ages come down before the game, they're going to have a good time. And we've put a lot of effort into supporting what it is our students want to do. And their enthusiasm is infectious.''

Parking passes can still be purchased on the North Shore, Pederson added. At some point, they'll be across the river, but not yet. The longest walk now is from the Allegheny Center parking garage.

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