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Pitt trying to bring an on-campus atmosphere to Heinz Field

In a symbolic gesture at Pitt’s final on-campus football game, Panthers great Marshall Goldberg captured the spirit of Pitt Stadium in a wooden box that wasn’t reopened until the Panthers played at Heinz Field.

Now, after several sub-par seasons and sagging attendance, Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson is trying to recreate the festive atmosphere with fan-based initiatives designed to enhance the overall game-day experience.

Pederson is trying to create an on-campus feel at an off-campus stadium better suited for the Steelers, but sees no reason why it can’t be accomplished. He recalled the enthusiasm at Heinz Field when the Panthers first began playing there, especially for the 2002 Backyard Brawl.

“You walked into the stadium and there was an unbelievable, electric feeling,” Pederson said. “We can do that again.”

Pitt has directed its attention at the student body to try to get them more involved in the game by asking directly for their input. One request that was honored was to move the marching band from the corner of the south end zone to next to the student section. Another was to play a sing-along song between the intermission in the third and fourth quarter with an interlude that will allow “Let’s Go Pitt” cheers.

“It was borne of their ideas,” Pederson said. “These were ideas the students have to make game day more fun. They like songs I like when I was 19 years old. I can’t believe they like them again. Everybody singing along to Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline,’ I would have never believed it.”

With 7,000 of the 10,000 season tickets allotted for students already sold, Pederson said the percentage of students at 65,050-seat Heinz Field will be similar to the number in the Oakland Zoo student section at Pitt men’s basketball games at the 12,508-seat Petersen Events Center.

“We’ve got fabulous students,” Pederson said, “and their enthusiasm is infectious. These 7,000 students we have right now can change the entire atmosphere of the game. There’s a big section that is going to be fun.”

Pitt also is counting on some changes in the way it is treating students to improve their attitude. Students who leave more than 90 minutes before kickoff will be dropped near Jerome Bettis’ 36 Grille for a tailgate party at the Great Lawn, a short walk to enter Heinz Field, where they can use university-bought grills for cookouts. Saturday’s opener against Bowling Green also marks the return of student organizations being allowed to bring wooden standard-bearers promoting their clubs and/or fraternities.

“That fires me up,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “Now, they’re right there, across the parking lot from where all the action is. I think that’s a huge step in the right direction. I’ve been told that we’re going to have the fraternities and sororities lined up when we run out of the tunnel. That’s how it was when I played and coached here. I think that’s a step in the right direction. All those little things do make a difference.”

The Pitt marching band will move its “March to Victory” down General Robinson St. one hour before kickoff to help alleviate traffic problems. Art Rooney Ave. will be the site of what Pitt is promoting as the “World’s Largest Family Tailgate,” with a food court and a 9-by-12 video screen with a live feed of PantherVision from the stadium scoreboard.

“We are really trying to transform this area into a destination, not just an area you pass through on the way to the stadium,” said Chris Ferris, Pitt’s assistant athletic director for marketing and promotions. “I really think the North Shore is going to be electric on Saturdays in Pittsburgh.”

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