The sight was eerily familiar: Charlie Weis’ offense moving at will up and down Heinz Field, Pittsburgh’s defense seemingly powerless to stop it.

That’s how the Pitt Panthers’ season began on Saturday night – in much the same fashion that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ ended a year ago.

Eight months ago, Weis was the offensive coordinator for New England as the Patriots beat the Steelers in the AFC Championship. On Saturday, he was breaking more hearts in the ’Burg, this time as Notre Dame’s head coach. The game was not finished in edition for this edition of The Tribune-Democrat.

Things seemed much different just 12 hours earlier, when it looked like Dave Wannstedt might make the mustache the most popular football accessory since Myron Cope’s “Terrible Towel.”

Wannstedt, the Pittsburgh native who took over as Pitt coach in December, has re-energized the Panthers’ fan base. That much was evident before Pitt ever kicked off its nationally televised opener.

It was noticeable Saturday morning, when a large crowd turned out for ESPN’s “GameDay” broadcast across from Heinz Field.

The crowd, which was believed to be larger than the one for the same show two years ago prior to Pitt’s game with Virginia Tech, showcased the way that Pitt fans feel about the local boy made good. Signs that are normally reserved to tout player’s Heisman hopes, instead played on the city’s enthusiasm for the new coach – including one that promoted “Wannstedt for Heisman.” Another asked Pitt to “Win one for Wanny.” One Pitt fan held a Miami Dolphins jersey aloft, with a Ricky Williams head poking out with a simple message – “Thanks Ricky.”

But the majority of the Pitt signs focused on Wannstedt’s most distinguishable physical characteristic – his mustache. From the “Mustache Bash” poster to the Homer Simpson cardboard cutout with an added mustache, the event turned into a Wannstedt welcome-home party.

As good a job as Walt Harris did in turning Pitt around – and Panthers fans should never forget how Harris took the program from a laughingstock to a perennial bowl team – the California coach could never win over the casual fan like Wannstedt has.

Even the most ardent Pitt fans never really warmed to Walt. They appreciated what he did for the school, but he was distant while Wanny seems like everybody’s long lost friend in Pittsburgh.

No less an authority on Pitt football than Mike Ditka said as much.

“You’ve got to have a Pittsburgh guy here,” Ditka said at a pregame press conference. “You don’t need any more California guys, gang. You don’t need them. They come and go like the flies.”

With expectations running so high, anything less than a nine-win season could be a disappointment for Pitt fans.

But for now, the faithful are excited.

“I like this new beginning – it reminds me of when I started here,” said Tony Dorsett, who helped lead the resurgence at Pitt that culminated in the 1976 national title.

The Heisman trophy winner also saw something new in Pitt fans.

“We had a chance to walk around a little bit earlier today and there is a lot of excitement,” Dorsett said before the game. “You can feel the electricity flowing through because it is in the air.”

It was enough to make your mustache stand on end. At least until halftime.

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