PITTSBURGH — From atop “The Bluff,” where Duquesne University’s urban hilltop campus is located, a remarkable view of the Monongahela River and much of the historic South Side of the city unfolds before you.
But what head football coach Jerry Schmitt says he never pictured from his vantage point was having Saturday’s game at Aloha Stadium with Hawaii on his schedule.
“I knew our athletic director, who is very proactive, was looking for a game with a Football Bowl Subdivision team that we feel could potentially help grow our program, and develop our program. I was a bit shocked that (Hawaii) was even a possibility,” Schmitt said. “It had never crossed my mind that it might be a game we would even play and such an obviously exciting game for our program.”
In its quarter century as a Football Championship Subdivision member, the Dukes have played just two previous FBS opponents, and both of them — Buffalo and UMass — were eastern time zone teams.
But Wednesday the Dukes, who bus to several of their Northeast Conference games, begin the 4,660-mile trek to Honolulu, their first game west of the Rockies since 1947.
“I knew the challenge of playing an FBS program was gonna be tough and I knew, also, that the logistics would be a challenge, but that is kinda what we do here,” Schmitt said. “We figure it out and go out and get it done.”
That Duquesne, with an undergraduate enrollment of 5,943, still has a Division I program is notable in an age when small, private urban universities have either dropped the sport altogether or are playing it at a lower NCAA or NAIA level.
But the Dukes, who are off to a 3-1 start this season, have also thrived and are chasing a fifth conference title in eight years, their only loss to UMass in the season opener.
In distant times Duquesne, which opened as Pittsburgh Catholic College of the Holy Ghost 140 years ago next month, played at a high level. The 1936 team beat Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl and the unbeaten (8-0) 1941 team finished eighth in the Associated Press poll.
But hard times brought the reduction of football to a club sport from 1951 to 1968. When football was reinstated as an NCAA sport in 1969, it was at the Division III level.
When Duquesne began offering scholarships in 1993, it was at the “limited FBS” level in a conference that puts the ceiling at 45. FBS teams such as Hawaii may award as many as 85.
A difference-maker for the Dukes was the building of the on-campus Arthur J. Rooney Athletic Field, named for the founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The facility brought football back to campus for the first time since Rooney played quarterback for the Dukes in the 1920s.
Except for the seating capacity (2,200), it is a scaled-down version of a lot of what UH dreams about in terms of a Manoa campus facility of its own. Tucked in amid dormitories and a main campus pedestrian thoroughfare, the field has been used by NFL teams and Notre Dame for workouts.
The Dukes signed a two-game deal to play UH at Aloha Stadium this year and in 2022 that is designed to cover their travel and lodging costs, hoping to realize full recruiting value from the series.
“It is great for recruiting and a great opportunity for our program and everyone involved in it that I never imagined we would have,” Schmitt said.