Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Gutter: Curb your enthusiasm, Bob

So the Pitt women’s basketball team lost to Tennessee last night. No big surprises there. Tennessee is one of the best women’s basketball programs in the country, while Pitt is, in reality, still a program on the rise.

Nevertheless, if not for the shootings at Duquesne and the Penguins’ beyond-expectations performance, the Pitt women’s team could be the sports story of the year in Pittsburgh.

Consider: three years ago, in Agnus Berenato’s first year as head coach of the women’s team, the Panthers won a whopping six games (two in the Big East). They more than doubled that number the next season, with a 13-15 record. Then, last season, the Panthers took a giant step forward, winning 22 games (the first 20-win season since 1993-94 and tying the school record for most wins in a season, a mark set in the 1980-81 season). 2005-06 culminated with the Panthers just missing the cut for the NCAA Tournament; instead, they settled for a run to the Final Four in the WNIT.

Even if you don’t care about women’s basketball, any sports fan has to be able to respect that kind of turn-around. And it continued this year, as Pitt won a school record 24 games and earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the program’s history.

It seems to me that that’s the kind of story that writes itself, particularly if you’re a columnist in Pittsburgh. On top of that, it seems to me that writing a column on Tuesday night’s game would be rather easy, given that the accomplishments of the Pitt team have really been tremendous.

But apparently that’s not the case for Bob Smizik.

Let’s look at what Sir Smizik had to say on the occasion of Pitt’s first appearance in the women’s NCAA Tournament:

The predicted sellout never materialized. Neither did a hoped-for upset victory by the Pitt against powerhouse Tennessee.

Okay. So never mind that he starts by pointing out what didn’t happen in the game. Look at the way the paragraph ends.

But with the six games that took place this week in the first and second round of the NCAA tournament at the Petersen Events Center, women's college basketball took a large step forward locally and the Pitt program continued to gain respect as it attempts to climb to the elite level of the sport.

That sounds about as exciting as a brochure for a funeral home.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve always been under the impression that part of the benefit/challenge of being a columnist is that you write from a perspective. You, the writer, are part of the column and you, the writer, are what makes it work. Reporters don’t have that luxury, instead being focused on retelling events and disseminating information. The public has columnists to provide perspective; instead, Sir Smizik has given us text that would probably be too dry to appear on the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s dour website.

Sir Smizik then spends the next six paragraphs (to be fair, two of the graphs consist of one sentence each) extolling the greatness of Tennessee superstar Candace Parker. Fair enough: with 30 points, the outstanding Parker dominated Pitt and ensured the victory for Tennessee.

(I should point out that the Tribune-Review’s John Harris, who in roughly 8 months at the Trib has written just a handful of non-Steelers columns, was compelled by the Pitt-Tennessee game to devote his entire column to Parker. However, Harris did contribute a Pitt-centric piece on Saturday before the Tournament began.)

After Sir Smizik has given Parker her necessary due, he then moves onto the fact that the game did not reach Berenato’s goal of selling out the 12,500-seat Petersen Events Center.

There had been a concern that the Volunteers, whose storied success has earned them a large traveling fan base, might have a larger and/or more vocal rooting section than Pitt. It didn't come close to happening.

With help of 300 free tickets distributed to students and a reduction to $5 for the price of student tickets, a crowd 8,791 was in attendance, about 3,700 short of capacity. It was overwhelmingly in favor of Pitt and was vocal throughout the game in its support of the Panthers.

If Sir Smizik is driving at the “large step forward locally” that women’s basketball has taken, he’s got a funny way of doing it. Essentially, he’s pointing out that it took 300 free tickets and a $5 ticket price to get a less-than-capacity crowd in the door. But hey, at least they cheered for Pitt, right?

Berenato, a relentless promoter who in four years has massively upgraded what was a miserable Pitt program, several times predicted a sellout at an interview sessions a day before the game.

"I really expect a sellout as long as the media gets the word out and talks about our great game."

You got her there, don’t you Sir Smizik? Is that “Berenato…several times predicted a sellout” line an “eat your words” slap from the venerable Sir Smizik to the upstart Berenato? Is he cautioning that her mouth should not write checks that her fanbase can’t cash? Why is it necessary to throw in that jab, especially when the Pitt women’s basketball team is fresh off the highest point it has ever reached?

It seemed like wishful thinking at the time, but almost came to fruition. Berenato's attempt to put the onus on the media was uncalled for. Both the local print and electronic gave the event ample coverage, perhaps more than it deserved.

Okay, Bob, now you’re just being a dick. Honestly, I can’t see what the point of this is. Since she came to Pitt, Berenato has embraced the media at every turn. Prior to every press conference she has ever held at Pitt, Berenato has personally introduced herself to each media member in attendance. And at the conclusion of her press conferences, she announces her appreciation for the media’s attention. Berenato understands the role that the media plays in promoting a program, especially one that needs as much promotion as Pitt women’s basketball does.

And, really, why does Sir Smizik think that the event might have received more coverage than it deserved? This is the Pitt women’s basketball team making its first-ever NCAA Tournament in school history, and playing at home no less. Then throw in the fact that that two No. 1 seed, nationally-recognized teams are playing at the Petersen Events Center (Tennessee and North Carolina), and you have a pretty big deal going on.

But apparently not to Sir Smizik. In fact, while the Panthers were making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, traffic patterns in Oakland were far more notable to Sir Smizik on Tuesday night.

The crowd was late arriving because of a massive traffic jam in lower Oakland. It took some people 90 minutes to make the 1-mile drive from the Parkway exit in Oakland to the game.

Thanks for that update, Sir Smizik. What’s the weather going to be like this week?

What the event displayed more than anything is just how far the women's game has come. No sport has come further faster in the past decade in terms of improved play than women's basketball.

No, Sir Smizik, what the event displayed is how far the Pitt women’s basketball game has come. Women’s basketball has been popular for quite some time, and the power teams have been huge draws for years. At Tennessee, for example, the court at Thompson-Boling Arena is named “The Summitt,” in honor of the Volunteers’ women’s basketball coach, Pat Summitt. I know that the Post-Gazette has sent Sir Smizik to the Super Bowl even though the Steelers weren’t in it, so perhaps he considers himself a nationally-minded scribe, but the first word in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is still Pittsburgh; as such, I don’t think it would hurt to acknowledge the fact that Tuesday night’s event displayed just how far the Pitt women’s basketball program has come.

And as to his claim that “no sport has come further faster in the past decade in terms of improved play than women’s basketball,” well, that’s an impossible-to-quantify statement that reeks of columnist looking to fill space.

Parker might have been the most accomplished player on the floor but she was far from the only one.

Pitt has two excellent players in Marcedes Walker, who scored 19, and Shavonte Zellous, who scored 18.

"Zellous was a tough guard for us," Summitt said. "It seemed like she was getting more open shots than I liked. She got off 18 shots. That was the most disappointing part of our defense."

Summitt acknowledged that Pitt is on its way up.

"Tonight is going to be a wake-up call for a lot of people in terms of seeing this Pitt team against our team and seeing how they performed,'' she said.

"We'll be back," Berenato said, "bigger, stronger and faster."

Ah, a breath of fresh air: an actual mention of Pitt in this column, a piece that is perhaps mis-titled as “Panthers, Berenato gain a lot of respect.” Only with Summitt’s quote does Sir Smizik really reference any increase in respect for the Pitt women’s basketball program. And really, couldn’t that quote have been a jumping-off point for a column that actually does reflect the growing respect for Pitt as a national program? I’m sure Summitt said more than just that one sentence; why not use the esteemed Tennessee coach’s statements as evidence of how far the Pitt program has come? It’s certainly worth something when Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in college basketball history (men’s and women’s) is giving you credit, particularly if you’re a program that has come as far as Pitt has in such a short amount of time.

But Sir Smizik doesn’t go in that direction. Instead, he closes the column with this inspiring look at the future of Pitt women’s basketball.

This event, with Berenato pushing the sport, also will be back in Pittsburgh. When that happens, they won't have to give away tickets to fill up the building.

Really gets the blood flowing, doesn’t it?

I’m not saying Sir Smizik should be a cheerleader for the Pitt women’s team, just as he shouldn’t be a cheerleader for any sports team. But this occasion, this event (as he repeatedly calls it), is big enough and represents so much that is positive about sports that it should merit some noticeable excitement from one of the city’s most-respected columnists. But it comes off as the writings of a grouchy newspaperman who has been around too long to appreciate the fact that sports can still make you feel good.

I know it’s women’s basketball, and I know that the sport turns off a lot of sports fans. But it’s a story that can inspire true sports fans, and it’s a story that deserves better than a mailed-in column like the one featured in Wednesday’s edition of one of America’s Great Newspapers.

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