Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012: The Year of the "Lost Season" for Pittsburgh Area Sports Teams

The Pittsburgh sports scene has had some pretty exciting years in recent memory.

Take 2005, for example. The Pitt Panthers football program actually earned a BCS bid and played in the Fiesta bowl in January of '05. Later that year, the Steelers actually won their first championship in a quarter of a century with a victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.

From 2008-2010, Pittsburgh sports fans were really spoiled after the Penguins made back-to-back appearances in the Stanley Cup finals--including the team's third championship in the summer of 2009--and the Steelers won another Super Bowl following the 2008 season and appeared in Super Bowl XLV two seasons later.

Heck, the Pitt Panthers men's basketball program even made it to the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament following the 2008/09 season.

Of course, sports can by very cyclical, and the past couple of cycles haven't been too kind to Pittsburgh area teams, especially the just concluded year of 2012.

Below is a recap of what went very down in Pittsburgh area sports in 2012:

2011/2012 Pitt Panthers: Your CBI Champions

The 2011/12 Panthers men's basketball season was supposed to be like many others in the previous decade, and it sure appeared that way when the team was ranked ninth early in the year. However, non-conference home losses to Long Beach State and Wagner (as well as the defection of big man Khem Birch) foretold what was yet to come, as Pitt proceeded to drop its first seven games in conference play before finishing the regular season at 5-13 in the Big East and 16-15 overall. After going 1-1 in the Big East tournament, there was no shot for the 17-16 Panthers to be invited to the Big Dance, but after making it to the NCAA tournament for 10 straight seasons, many hoped an NIT bid would be in order. Unfortunately, Pitt didn't have enough cache for the Not Important Tournament and had to settle for a bid to the CBI. Proudly, the Panthers took care of business against the Woffords of the basketball world along the way to the best of three finals. After falling at Washington St. in the first game, the Panthers took the last two at the Peterson Events Center to claim their first CBI championship.

2011/2012 Pittsburgh Penguins: If you don't win your division, your punishment is a first round match-up with the Flyers

The Penguins were flying high down the stretch and entered the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs with 108 points, the second most in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh plays in the Atlantic Division, a division where four teams finished the year with more than 100 points, including the New York Rangers, who had 109 points and won the division and the first seed in the playoffs. Since the three division winners get the top three seeds in the playoffs, that meant the Penguins could only get the fourth seed and a date in the first round with their blood rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, who finished just behind Pittsburgh with 103 points. Philadelphia defeated the Penguins four times in six regular season match-ups (four out of five in games that mattered), and once the postseason started, the dominance continued, as Pittsburgh fell behind 3-0 in the series before winning the next two to give the fans some hope. Unfortunately for the Penguins and their fans, they put on a lackluster performance in Game 6 in Philadelphia and were eliminated in the first round for the second straight season. Had Pittsburgh been able to accumulate just two more points during the regular season..............


The NHL decided to lock its players out for the start of the 2012/2013 season, so it was a lost year for Penguins fans in more ways than one.

2012 Pittsburgh Pirates: So good at the start of year, they had to be historically crappy down the stretch just to reach 20 straight losing seasons

Andrew McCutchen was the talk of baseball with his MVP (and Triple Crown) like numbers. Zoltan was the  best thing going since the Terrible Towel ( or at least We All We Got!) It was  one of those magical seasons Pirates fans had been dreaming about for decades (literally). After 19 straight losing seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates were 60-44 and four games up in the National League's Wild Card chase. Pittsburgh was on a 40-20 tear, and even .500 baseball down the stretch probably would have been enough to earn a wild card spot. Unfortunately, much like the 2011 season, the Pirates finished the year by going 19-39 over the last two months, and they not only missed the playoffs, they made it 20 straight years of losing with a 79-83 record. Not only was the collapse bad, it was historic, as no team in baseball had ever been that many games over .500 that late in the season and then finished with a losing record.

Beat 'em, Bucs! At least they made history.....again.

Penn St. Nittany Lions: Jerry Sandusky sex scandal rocks State College as the football program is stripped of bowl eligibility for four seasons

It all came crashing down for the Nittany Lions in late 2011. Long-time defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was the center of a child molestation investigation. He would soon be charged and eventually found guilty last summer.

Because many high ranking Penn St. officials spent years covering up the Sandusky scandal--including legendary head coach Joe Paterno who passed away last January shortly after being fired--the program received severe penalties from the NCAA, including no bowl eligibility for four seasons starting in 2012.

The football team actually finished with an 8-4 record under first year head coach Bill O'Brien, but the disappointment of no bowl games could be just the tip of the iceberg for Penn St. as the loss of revenue and scholarships could have a long-lasting effect.

West Virginia Mountaineers leave the Big East for the Big 12 conference and realize they're not in Kansas anymore. They're actually in Kansas St., and that program is pretty damn awesome

After the defections of Colorado, Nebraska and Texas A&M from the Big 12 in recent years, there was talk that WVU could actually dominate the conference in its first season. And truth be told, it sure looked like that would be the case when the Mountaineers got off to a 5-0 start--including back-to-back victories over Baylor (ranked 25th) and Texas (ranked 11th)--and were up to No. 4 in the nation. There was talk of a possible national title.............then Texas Tech came along and handed West Virginia a humiliating 49-14 defeat that sparked a fall from grace, as the Mountaineers would drop five straight games--including home losses to Kansas St. (ranked fourth) and Oklahoma (ranked 12). WVU would finish the season at 7-5 (4-5 in the Big 12). The Mountaineers earned a berth in the Pinstripe Bowl and fittingly lost 38-14 to Syracuse, an old Big East foe.

2012 Pitt Panthers football program: New head coach. Same BBVA Compass Bowl smell

It was probably expected that the Panthers would struggle in 2012, especially after a third coaching regime in as many seasons, but I don't think anyone could have predicted an opening loss to the division II Youngstown St. Penguins in Week 1. However, that's what happened. That, and a beat-down in Cincinnati in Week 2. Surprisingly, however, Pitt would knock off future ACC foe and 13th ranked Virginia Tech in Week 3. The Panthers would also come within a few inches of changing the National Title landscape when kicker Kevin Harper missed a 33 yard field goal against Notre Dame in double-overtime that would have given them the upset win. Instead, the Fighting Irish would go on to win in triple overtime, and Pitt would lose at lowly UConn the following game before finishing off the year by defeating a ranked Rutgers team and then taking care of business in South Florida to improve to 6-6 and become bowl eligible. And the bowl the Panthers were once again eligible for was the BBVA Compass Bowl for a third year in a row.

2012 Pittsburgh Steelers

You can always count on the Pittsburgh Steelers to lift the region up, and give sports fans a reason to hope and dream.........except for this season. The Steelers were totally mediocre in 2012, and as I wrote in my postgame article for Behind The Steel Curtain, they just seemed out of sync the entire year. Despite having the inside track for a postseason berth from about mid-season on, Pittsburgh simply couldn't overcome key injuries, critical mistakes and uneven performances in all three phases and would drop five of seven down the stretch to finish 8-8 and out of the playoffs for the first time in three years.

The Steelers are long in the tooth in many areas, and an 8-8 record could be a pretty common one in subsequent years. Of course, I thought that before, only to be pleasantly surprised by Super Bowl success.

There you have it. The 2012 sports year in review. 2013 couldn't possibly be worse for Pittsburgh sports........or could it?

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