Jerry Gaughin went to his first Pitt football game with his father in 1969. The Panthers played the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Pitt Stadium, which served as the on-campus home to Pitt football until its 1999 demolition.
It didn’t take long for 9-year-old Gaughan to get hooked. The amazing plays, community rituals and roaring crowds made Saturdays at Pitt the true college football experience — Gaughan partook in the festivities with his father every fall. He carried the spirit with him after he graduated from Pitt in 1982, and has been a loyal season-ticket holder ever since.
Over the past five decades, he can count how many Panther home games he has missed on one hand. But when Pitt kicks off its 2020 season against Austin Peay next weekend, Gaughan won’t be in attendance.
Pitt announced it won’t have any spectators in the stands for at least the first three games of the season, in compliance with Pennsylvania’s health guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pitt football season-ticket holders such as Gaughan have started to plan for the possibility of a season without any of the Saturday traditions they’ve grown so accustomed to.
“It’ll be weird,” Gaughan said. “It’s gonna be odd, but as long as they show it locally, we’ll work something out. You have to adapt. The world changes and you have to adapt.”
John Marshall, who became a season-ticket holder six years ago, has gotten used to a Saturday routine in Pittsburgh. He drives Downtown with his stepson, takes in the March to Victory and Pitt’s frenzy of connected fans on the way into the stadium, grabs himself a hot dog and heads to their 500-level seats to watch the show.
Marshall said he wasn’t surprised by last week’s decision, but he will miss the Heinz Field experience to start the year.
“You can watch it on TV, but I like being there in person so I can take in the whole field and see what’s really happening,” Marshall said. “I’m disappointed, but I’m also trying to say that they’re playing it cautiously and we’re waiting to hear if they allow people back in the stadium [later in the season].”
Although many Pitt season-ticket holders will have to adjust to a new normal this year, some fans must delay their introduction to the Panther fandom. Jim Rogers, an avid college football fan, bought Pitt season tickets this year because his daughter began graduate school at the University last year. A Virginia resident, he made the four-hour trip to the Steel City a few times last year to get his first taste of Pitt athletics. He went to multiple Volunteers games with his daughter while she was an undergrad at the University of Tennessee and looked forward to carrying on their football-going tradition at Heinz Field this fall.
“I wanted to be a fan as a father to experience some other great moments of college with my daughter,” Rogers said. “It really is a great environment in and outside of the stadium. It’s a beautiful location along the river to spend some time with her and her friends as a family.”
Rogers added that he’d love a chance to see the Panthers in person this fall, trusting the University to provide a safe environment for fans if the opportunity arises.
“If they said 25% [capacity], that’s fine, if they say 50%, I’m good, if they say 75%, I’m good, if they say 100%, I’m good,” Rogers said. “And I think different people will opt in or opt out at each one of those levels at this point until we can confirm that everything’s OK. But I’m OK with whatever they decide.”
Marshall said his decision to attend or not attend games this year would depend on the status of the virus in Pittsburgh at the time. Like Rogers, he said he’d be happy to comply with all precautions the University might request to make the games safer, from reduced capacities to wearing masks.
“I’m 68 years old, I’ve got a couple of underlying conditions, which makes it kind of tough for me,” Marshall said. “I wanna go, I wanna see Pitt play in person, but once we get this COVID thing under control I think it might be more of a plan than it is right now.”
Panther season-ticket holders now have three options for their payments — “re-invest” as a donation to the Panther Club, roll over to the 2021 season or request a refund. Gaughan, Rogers and Marshall all plan to roll over their purchases to the 2021 season.
While Pitt has prohibited fan attendance in September, many ACC schools have announced plans to hold upward of 10,000 fans per game this year. With uncertainty surrounding the future of Pitt’s home games, several fans are exploring the possibility of traveling to see the Panthers play in one of these road venues.
Although Gaughan had made plans long ago to see the Panthers play Miami in Hard Rock Stadium on Oct. 3, the ACC’s revised schedule means Pitt won’t play the Hurricanes until two weeks later. Gaughan doesn’t plan on making the trip anymore.
“For obvious reasons I cancelled it,” Gaughan said. “I’m cancelling my travels for this year.”
With traveling, tailgating, spectating and celebrating, a college football game day can often be a full-day experience. Without access to all of those activities at Heinz Field for now, fans have already begun to plan how they’ll make Saturdays feel special from home.
“We’ll probably tailgate in my driveway or one of my buddy’s driveways,” Gaughan said. “My buddy has a big-screen TV, so we’ll probably just tailgate and watch the game on his back porch.”
Although the stadium experience will be missed, Rogers still plans to come to Pittsburgh to cheer on the team with his daughter.
“We’d probably go less up to Pittsburgh and she may come here, but we’re definitely college football fans, so we’re going to watch games if they’re on,” he said. “I don’t think we’d necessarily have six meetings to watch it on TV altogether, but it would be fun to create a couple of those to do something like that.”
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