Great moments in Pittsburgh sports history: 1990-2004

The Post-Gazette’s Out of the Archives: Sports is a photographic tour through the city’s rich sports history. From the Penguins’ Stanley Cup championship this past June to the Pirates’ World Series victory in 1909, fans can both learn by peering decades into the past and relive more recent glory by flipping through dozens of vivid images that bring these iconic moments back to life. The Steelers, Penguins and Pirates are featured prominently, but some of the best moments from the college and high school ranks also make the list that shows why Pittsburgh is one of the best sports towns in America. Today, in Part 3 of a five-part series, we look at the top moments from 1990 to 2004. Past: Early days, 1970-1989.

Garden Party | March 15, 2003 | Associated Press

In most conferences, winning the regular-season championship and advancing to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 is cause for satisfaction. The old Big East wasn’t most conferences, though.

Pitt traveled to New York with a bitter taste in its mouth in 2003 despite that breakout season the year before. Yes, it had put the college basketball world on notice, but it came up short on its league’s biggest stage; the Panthers advanced to the 2002 tournament championship but dropped a 74-65 heartbreaker to Connecticut in double overtime.

The rematch at Madison Square Garden the following year was a different story. Jaron Brown hit six of nine 3-point attempts, and Julius Page and Brandin Knight chipped in 16 points each as Pitt blew the Huskies out, 74-56, to win the program’s first tournament title.

More than a decade of big wins followed, but that one stayed near the top of the list as the night Pitt basketball truly arrived.

A new gridiron | March 18, 2001 | Franka Bruns/Post-Gazette

Before it had a name, Heinz Field was referred to as the “new Steelers stadium.”

Through its 17 years, however, it’s been much more than that.

Pitt has set up shop and produced its share of memorable moments. There was the upset win over No. 5 Virginia Tech in 2004. Darrelle Revis’ breathtaking 73-yard punt return touchdown against West Virginia in 2006. The 42-39 win against Penn State in 2016 and an upset of No. 2 Miami this past season.

Prep stars have also thrived there. From Neil Walker to Terrelle Pryor, many of the area’s biggest sports exports of recent vintage have first made their names by winning WPIAL championships in the building.

Add all that to its reputation as one of the most rugged home fields in the NFL, and you have a worthy football sanctuary for a region that has an identity so deeply rooted in the sport.

Field of dreams | April 2001 | Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Three Rivers Stadium was home to a lot of timeless Pirates moments, but baseball wasn’t meant to be played on Astroturf, or in bland concrete castles. It was meant to capture the imagination with games played on lush natural grass and in cathedrals all with their own unique character.

PNC Park provided all of those things and more when it opened officially on April 9, 2001. The Pirates dropped an 8-2 decision that day against the Cincinnati Reds, then went on to lose 100 games in that inaugural season.

The best view in baseball drew a record 2,464,870 fans to the ballpark anyway. Seventeen seasons later, PNC is still regarded as one of the best and most beautiful venues in the game, a silver lining for a fan base that has seen losing baseball there for all but three campaigns.

House comes down | Feb. 11, 2001 | Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Three Rivers Stadium, the building, was nothing special. A product of the cookie-cutter, multi-purpose construction craze of the ‘60 and ‘70s, it looked almost exactly like at least a dozen other buildings around the country when it opened in 1970.

But Three Rivers Stadium, the home of the Pirates and Steelers? It was the setting for a lot of unforgettable moments. The teams combined to win six championships in the stadium’s 30 years, which made the building’s implosion on Feb. 11, 2001 an event of its own.

Tens of thousands of fans packed the best vantage points around the North Shore early that morning. Promptly at 8 a.m., the plunger fell, setting off a chain reaction that demolished the stadium and its decades of proud history in just seconds.

Back-to-back, Part I | June 1, 1992 | Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins didn’t have much trouble getting back to the Stanley Cup final in 1992, but the championship series against the Chicago Blackhawks got off to an inauspicious start. The visitors walked into the Civic Arena and quickly staked themselves to a 4-1 lead in Game 1, stunning fans who’d watched the Penguins win their previous seven playoff games.

That was when Mario Lemieux took over.

After Rick Tocchet scored to pull the Penguins to within two, the captain skated in on Chicago goalie Ed Belfour looking for a shooting angle, and he found an unorthodox one. Standing behind the net to Belfour’s left, Lemieux banked a puck off Belfour’s leg for a miraculous goal that made the score 4-3 and whipped the arena crowd into a frenzy. And he wasn’t done.

After Jaromir Jagr tied the score at 4, Lemieux made sure he ended things before the game could get to overtime.

He buried a fat rebound off a shot by Larry Murphy to put the Penguins ahead for the first time with 13 seconds left. The Blackhawks couldn’t answer in the game or the series. One of the most thrilling victories in franchise history sparked a sweep of Chicago that kept the Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh for a second consecutive summer.

Welcoming Lord Stanley | May 25, 1991 |Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette

Mario Lemieux transformed the Penguins from the moment he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1984. By the time he reached his first Stanley Cup final in 1991, he’d already electrified a city bred to love baseball and football by winning an MVP award and two scoring titles, the latter of which was claimed with a staggering 199 points in 1988-89.

Only a championship could get him to the next level in the pantheon of great Pittsburgh athletes, and did he ever deliver. After missing 50 regular-season games because of back surgery, Lemieux dominated the playoffs, tallying 44 points.

Four came in the championship-clinching 8-0 victory in Game 6 of the Cup final against the Minnesota North Stars. Lemieux scored the Penguins’ second goal, then assisted on three others as his team cruised into claiming the Cup for the first time. For his efforts, Lemieux was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP. And all these years later? Only Wayne Gretzky has scored more in a playoff run.

Be sure to check out the printed edition of “Great Moments in Pittsburgh Sports History” on May 29.