Can HBCU Football Stick in Pittsburgh?

Robert Morris hosts NC A&T on Saturday in a rare trip to the Steel City for HBCUs. Yet, there is potential to make Pittsburgh an HBCU hub.

NC A&T won the only previous meeting with Robert Morris 41-14.
Source: NC A&T Register

This weekend, NC A&T travels to Moon Township, PA for their second meeting against Robert Morris and first road trip there. Those unfamiliar with Western Pennsylvania may not realize that Moon Township is only 12 miles from Pittsburgh. For Aggies fans, it is a chance for a fun trip to one of the Rust Belt’s central cities.

HBCU classics have touched nearly every big city in the United States including odd choices like Ypsilanti and Hartford, but surprisingly they have hardly found a home in Pittsburgh throughout the years.

Two of those games were classics as in 1926 Wilberforce played Lincoln at Forbes Field and in 1970 Morgan State and Grambling moved their rivalry from Yankee Stadium, “The House That Ruth Built”, to Three Rivers Stadium, “The House that Roberto Clemente Built.”

There are no attendance records for the 1926 game, but Wilberforce won thanks to a 50-yard pick-six by “Wu Fang” Ward for the game’s only score in a 7-0 win over Lincoln. In the 1970 Morgan State-Grambling game, a paltry crowd of 14,000 saw Grambling dominate the Bears 38-12 as Frank Lewis scored three touchdowns for the Tigers. The “Renaissance Football Classic”, as it was coined, vanished into the Steel City haze after the poor attendance of its only edition.

Since this classic, there have been a handful of other games between schools in the Pittsburgh metro and HBCUs. In 2007, Pitt hosted Grambling and won 34-10, while Robert Morris and Norfolk State both hosted HBCUs last year, with Robert Morris beating Howard in front of 2,514 fans and Norfolk State beating the Red Flashes in front of 1,234 fans.

Two years before that, Kentucky State upset Robert Morris 13-7 in front of 2,118 fans. At the Division II level, Slippery Rock has hosted HBCUs five times, most recently in 2018 as 5,721 fans showed up to see them play Kentucky State in 2018.

Going forward, Robert Morris and Norfolk State agreed to a home-and-home series in 2025 and 2026, with the Colonials hosting in 2026. Robert Morris can easily turn these games into showcase games for their program. While asking Robert Morris to move their home game against Norfolk State to Heinz Field is ridiculous, having them move the game to Highmark Stadium, home of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, the city’s USL team is way more reasonable.

The stadium seats 5,000 and is one of the most scenic in the country, sitting on the banks of the Monongahela River. Playing one of their HBCU matchups there benefits the fanbases twofold. Playing an HBCU at Pittsburgh’s Highmark Stadium gives Robert Morris fans or fans of any of the FCS Pittsburgh area triumvirate an opportunity for a fun trip to the big city.

Sometimes, all it takes is a change of scenery to a local venue to rejuvenate a fanbase’s interest. Holy Cross is proof of this as their games at Downtown Worcester’s Polar Park have drawn strong crowds the last two seasons. The same can be said if Slippery Rock were to play an HBCU game at Highmark.

For HBCUs, it provides an opportunity for recruitment at a large, mostly untapped city. Aside from classics, HBCUs use games in large cities to recruit prospective students. As part of Howard’s contract with UNLV in 2017, the university’s band appeared at a high school game and the university also set up a table with recruitment materials.

The closest HBCUs to Pittsburgh are Central State and West Virginia State, both around 240 miles away. Aside from these schools, there is little HBCU exposure in the Steel City. Playing these games would give HBCU fans a manageable trip to a big city while connecting with future students of these schools.

If North Carolina A&T fans show up in good numbers at Robert Morris on Saturday, it could open the door to new opportunities for HBCU growth in Pittsburgh. For Robert Morris, it could provide a solid money-making opportunity for a football program at a crossroads due to conference realignment. Saturday’s game is bigger than it seems on paper, it could be the start of new traditions in the Pittsburgh area.