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Going head to head against the pros

August 19, 2007|From the Associated Press

During his coaching days at Boston College, Tom O'Brien knew the Eagles would never be No. 1.

He didn't mean No. 1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference or the polls. No, O'Brien was talking about in the collective minds of the Boston sports fan, whose passions always ran deeper for the Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots, who've been a Super Bowl regular for the past decade or so.

Simply put, BC football wasn't going to compete with the NFL.

"It's just a fact of life," O'Brien once said. "You'll never be them."

That isn't a sense shared by everyone in the college game.

O'Brien has now moved on to North Carolina State, nestled in a region where the college game is king -- something that clearly was attractive to him. But there are plenty of major college football programs who coexist nicely alongside NFL teams, with some even saying the pro atmosphere gives the collegians an important edge.

Take Miami, for instance. In South Florida, sports talk radio is dominated by chatter revolving around the Miami Dolphins nearly year-round -- even though the NBA's Heat has three of basketball's most captivating personalities in Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O'Neal and Pat Riley, even though baseball's Marlins are winners of two World Series in the past decade, and even though the Hurricanes have a passionate fan base.

Yet the way new Hurricanes Coach Randy Shannon -- a former Dolphins assistant coach -- sees it, there's plenty of supporters to appease at both the college and pro levels.

"Football fans are football fans," Shannon said. "When I was with the Dolphins, they'd play the Jets down here and the whole stadium would be filled with New Yorkers because so many of them live here. That doesn't mean there's no Dolphins fans. It's just the way it is sometimes."

The Steelers dominate Pittsburgh's attention. So at the University of Pittsburgh, the Panthers have no intentions of beating their NFL neighbors in the race for fans.

Instead, they joined them.

Pitt not only shares Heinz Field with the Steelers -- every stadium gate has both "Steelers" and "Panthers" in steel letters -- but the teams share a practice complex on the city's South Side. The Steelers occupy one side of the building and Pitt the other, in the only such arrangement between teams from the NFL and major college ranks.

Pitt contends that being in an NFL city makes Panthers football more attractive, rather than making it more difficult to market or to attract recruits. And since moving from the now-demolished Pitt Stadium to Heinz Field in 2001, crowds have generally improved, too.

"Because Pittsburgh has both an NFL team and major college football program, we were able to combine our resources in an unprecedented partnership and now share both Heinz Field and a state-of-the-art practice facility," Pitt athletic director Jeff Long said. "Pitt and the Steelers helped make this region famous for football and we are proud that both teams call Pittsburgh home."

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