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College football in Bizarro World: Recapping a great, weird trip to Pittsburgh

Rule of Tree got the opportunity to experience a weekend in Pittsburgh, and fell in love with a new city.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Pete Volk here again, representing Rule of Tree and recapping a fantastic trip taken to Pittsburgh thanks to the generosity of the fine folks at Hampton Inn. Honestly, the experience was tremendous, and if you want the same kind of great time (bowl season is coming up, folks), I would suggest booking your trip now.

Gameday against Miami fell on Black Friday, ensuring that our experience at a college football game would be as strange as humanly possible. With more shoppers than college students out and about, the game felt distinctly like a professional one (and not just because they play at Heinz Field) -- but more on that later.

After waking up in the morning, the day started with a trip downstairs to the waffle bar (waffle bar!) before hopping on the bus and heading into town. Pitt's campus is in Oakland, which feels completely different than the downtown portion of the city. It's a hip area with cool restaurants and a legitimate night-life scene, and our first stop was to Mad Mex, a great Tex-Mex place with wonderful service and a terrific menu on Atwood Street.

Next stop was Heinz Field -- or, the area around it, made up almost entirely of stadiums and stadium-like accessories (statues, bars, etc.). For those that don't know, Pitt is one of the few college teams that play their games at an NFL stadium, sharing Heinz Field with the Steelers (and the Gotham Rogues).

With Heinz Field and PNC Park next to each other, the signage around Pitt's home stadium is primarily Steeler-based, with the Pirates second and the Panthers a distant third (the Penguins are actually the second most popular team in the city, but the stadium is not in the same area). The bar crowd, at least for Thanksgiving weekend, was primarily made up of folks in their late 20s to early 30s, and the music reflected that -- "Tubthumping" was followed by "Who Let the Dogs Out."

Pitt has a dedicated pre-game area marketed as a "club" for Panther fans to hang out before the game, called Stage AE (and sponsored by American Eagle). Along with a full bar, live music is played, and before the Miami game three country musicians, bless their heart, were trying their hardest, earnestly singing about divorce and breakups on acoustic guitars in front of a crowd that was clearly there for the warmth. Somber acoustic music was, needless to say, a very odd choice for pre-game warm-up music, and it felt as if there were two different crowds clashing in the same building -- half were in front of the stage, while half were at the bar and TVs.

The game was very, very cold, but the fans were game, despite the result (and the lack of students around on Thanksgiving weekend) -- a late Tom Savage touchdown brought the final score to a more respectable 41-31 loss for the Panthers. The stadium itself is fantastic (unsurprisingly, as NFL stadiums generally are), and the entrance is nearly right on top of the field, giving fans a chance to relax and watch the players warm up before heading to their seats.

Our seats were unbelievably good, and the people around were very friendly -- we chatted about Pitt football, basketball and the city in general.

You can't, however, shake the feeling that going to a college football game in Pittsburgh feels like entering Bizarro World, leaving the friendly, fun confines of Oakland for this weird zone where Pitt football has a house but not a home. Everything in the area was built for something else -- Heinz Field was built for the Steelers and the bars are clearly focused towards the city's NFL team, with Panther signs up seemingly by token requirement. Stage AE falls in here as well -- it's a legitimate concert arena that gets used instead as an awkward pre-game club for Pitt fans.

Even if you only pay attention to the fans, you can't escape the sense that nothing is there primarily for the Panthers. Much of the talk and clothing was focused not on Pitt, but on the Steelers, who had played the night before (although a lot of that can probably be attributed to the absence of many of the students on Thanksgiving weekend). That's not to say the fans don't cheer hard for the team -- it's a fantastic stadium to see a game in -- but you do get the sense that many of them are Steeler fans first and foremost.

But through all this change, with people, places and things being used for the Panthers instead of their original purposes, there's one integral part that may have gone through the biggest change of all -- Pitt's athletic department.

The Panthers are obviously in a new conference, a Big East team still adjusting to ACC life, with a Big East quarterback (Tom Savage transferred from Rutgers). But the biggest change for Pitt? They're a football school, currently facing the reality of a much more successful basketball program.

Pitt football has a long and storied football history. Before the game, the scoreboard proudly announces 124 years of Pitt football, with 88 All-American selections. The Panthers have nine claimed national titles (and eight unclaimed ones) with a Heisman winner (Tony Dorsett) and one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game (Dan Marino). Pitt football had a stretch of relative success under Walt Harris and Dave Wannstedt in the mid-2000s, but the only major bowl that resulted in was the 2004 Fiesta Bowl, where they were summarily blown out by Utah.

No, the last stretch of true success for Pitt football (at least by their standards) was in the late 1970s and early 1980s -- the teams of Dorsett and Marino. Since then, it's been Pitt basketball who has found success, reaching the Sweet Sixteen five times in the 2000s (after previously only making it that far three times since the tournament's inception in 1939).

When you ask Pitt fans whether the university is a football school or a basketball school, there's a sad resignation from the older fans before they admit that yes, Pitt is now a basketball school. It didn't used to be that way, you see. But between the success of Jamie Dixon's program and the lack of an NBA team in the area (while the Steelers will always reign supreme on the gridiron), basketball has become the bigger draw.

After the game's conclusion came the cold walk to the hotel -- where lifesaving fresh-baked cookies awaited in the lobby.

After some much needed thawing in the room, dinner was next, and a trip to the Union Grill was in order. With fantastic burgers (blue cheese and buffalo sauce was our choice) and great black and tans, it was a most excellent choice before heading home for another good night's sleep.

The biggest takeaway from the whole trip, from restaurant visits to bus trips to hotel service to the game itself, was how unbelievably friendly each and every person in Pittsburgh I encountered was. I made this trip alone -- my brother was originally slated to go with, but had to back out -- and knew no one in the city, but was able to make my way around easily (and cheaply), finding great food and fun places to hang out. It's a fantastic city to go visit, and has to be one of the most underrated food destinations in the country.

After that, it was back to the hotel room for another night of sleep before heading to the airport. I'd like to again thank the fine people of Hampton Inn, who were incredibly accommodating the entire trip (they even let me stay a few hours past check-out time so I could watch the Maryland game). Go ahead and book your next trip with them here. You can find their Facebook page here, their Twitter page here and their Instagram account here.