And now today, a post script to Sunday’s Syracuse brawl story
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were no two Eastern football programs more alike than Syracuse and West Virginia.
The Orange produced an undefeated regular season in 1987 and needed to get a season-ending victory over West Virginia in the Carrier Dome to do so. Not to be outdone, the very next year it was the Mountaineers who ran the table with a perfect regular season, and once again, it was a season-ending game against Syracuse that sealed the deal.
Don Nehlen and Dick MacPherson were longtime coaching buddies, once working together in high school in Ohio, and they used the same blueprint to build their respective programs – tough, physical defenses, a reliance on the running game and a dynamic quarterback who could run and throw the football. Think about it, Syracuse’s Don McPherson, Marvin Graves or Donovan McNabb could very easily have exchanged uniforms with West Virginia’s Major Harris, Darren Studstill or Jake Kelchner.
That’s how similar the two systems were.
“Every year it seemed like they had a good team, a great quarterback or something, and they won a lot of games,” recalled West Virginia offensive lineman Rich Braham. “It seemed like whoever ran the ball the best won the game. A lot of those games were won in the trenches; we had Major Harris and they had Don McPherson and Marvin Graves and that’s how they played.”
Braham’s teammate Lorenzo Styles knew several of Syracuse’s players from their days playing high school football together in Florida. While West Virginia concentrated mostly in South Florida, the Orange also had recruiting ties in the northern part of the state in the Tampa and Orlando areas as well.
“I played against a lot of their guys in high school, so we always wanted to play well against each other,” Styles recalled.
Berwick, Pa. quarterback Jake Kelchner took a recruiting visit to Syracuse before eventually picking Notre Dame while coming out of high school. Then, two years later Kelchner wound up at WVU.
“The coach who showed me around up there was (Maryland coach) Randy Edsall, of all people,” Kelchner recalled. “Edsall was a pretty nice guy and from my standpoint, MacPherson was a nice guy. I knew (Syracuse wide receiver) Qadry Ismail, because he was only 45 minutes from Berwick, so I went up there and checked things out.”
So did West Virginia defensive back Aaron Beasley.
“They hit Pennsylvania hard,” recalled the Pottstown, Pa., native. “Those were two programs going down the same path. (Syracuse) was one of my choices and I could have gone there.”
Yet some guys like Liverpool, N.Y., native Tom Briggs were passed over by the Orange. He said some of the Syracuse coaches came around and kicked the tires a little bit and took a look underneath the hood before taking a pass on him.
“Growing up in Liverpool, every kid’s dream was to go to Syracuse and play Division I football and I went up there for an unofficial visit and they looked at me on film, but in not so many words it was kind of they didn’t think I could play there or whatever the deal was,” Briggs recalled. “After I took my recruiting trip to West Virginia it was a no-brainer.”
“Once you pick a college, no matter where you go, you are always comparing yourself to who went to the school that maybe you wanted to go to but didn’t get a shot,” added Braham.
At one time in the mid-1990s, Syracuse replaced Penn State as 1A on West Virginia’s football hit list, just a rung below Pitt on the ladder. It remained that way until the Orange began to decline after Paul Pasqualoni’s departure t in 2004.
“Personally, I never had a problem with Syracuse,” said Kelchner. “For a while, I just wished they were better because they really brought down the Big East for a while when we were both still in the league. The better all of those teams were, the better the conference was and you hated to see these guys that could never win and get it together.”
“I really don’t know much about Syracuse anymore because we’re switching gears and watching all of the Big 12 teams play now,” added Braham. “Then, you kind of knew who their players were and they knew who you were so we were always ready to go.”
It was 20 years ago, in 1992, that the rivalry really reached its apex in Morgantown when emotions finally boiled over. Kelchner said he was involved in something similar when he was at Notre Dame and the Irish were facing heated rival USC.
“I was there for the big USC fight out on the field when Rocket (Ismail) got hit during pregame (warm ups),” Kelchner recalled. “But you had a couple guys really throwing down in the Syracuse game where the Notre Dame-USC one, the whole team was going at it, but it wasn’t as violent and everyone was just grabbing helmets. It looked worse than it really was.”
“When you hear Syracuse, you think about the rivalry and you want to beat those guys,” added Studstill. “Back in the day, you wanted to beat Pitt and Syracuse. Those were big games that you can’t lose. We just didn’t like those guys and that’s how it was.”Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.