Ok, maybe not quite a rehearsal dinner -- but pretty darn close.
At least that's how I describe FanFest -- the annual dog and pony show which takes place at Heinz Field the day after training camp breaks and usually about ten days before the opener -- to those who ask. It is a final dress rehearsel before next Saturday's opener against Bowling Green.
In fact, I sit here in the press box at Heinz Field after having witnessed it and can't think of a better way to get fans excited about their favorite team then to let them watch a light practice, meet the team and sign autographs.
There's also plenty of media coverage, particularly television and radio stations doing their broadcasts from the event, which should help generate a buzz for the team as it continues to move towards one of the most important openers in recent history.
The event is always fairly exciting for the fans and for the Pitt staff -- the line, for instance, to get LeSean McCoy's autograph was roughly the equivalent to how many yards he rushed for last year (1,328 for those counting at home). Ok, maybe not that many, but close it seemed.
But I think the thing which might surprise most is that the event is also exciting for the players, particularly the freshmen, for two reasons -- it marks the end of training camp and it also gives them a chance to go to the stadium, come out of the tunnel with a crowd in attendance and play under the lights.
"This was an opportunity for the freshmen to learn the logistics of where guys are at, it is just unbelievable," Pitt coach Wannstedt said. "A lot of those little things, we don't get second chances come next Saturday. But we got a chance to talk about them and I know this isn't the ideal setting for practice, the mindset is not what it should be, but I thought we got some good work."
Wannstedt said bringing the team down for this event sort of takes the "awe" factor for the freshman out of playing in Heinz Field and he hopes that means next week, they won't have that deer in a headlights look as they run out of the tunnel.
In a strange twist, one player who admitted he was a little too "amped" to be at Heinz last night was kicker Conor Lee, who is one of the most accurate kickers in the nation but missed a number of kicks during field goal drills.
"Conor was kicking 50-yarders warming up, then during the practice he said he was 'so excited' and that's the first time I ever heard that one," Wannstedt said jokingly. "So hopefully this paid off for him and he got all of his excitement out and he'll get a chance to calm down a little bit."
Not surprisingly, one of the highlights of the actual practice was a leaping touchdown reception by freshman sensation Jonathan Baldwin. Nate Byham also had a nice grab for a touchdown as did Aaron Smith.
One other side note from the night -- the often-criticized Heinz Field surface was in immaculate shape and really looked good tonight.