March 2, 2008
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It was once written in a Pittsburgh newspaper that West Virginia-Pitt basketball games were never over until the fat lady got her lights punched out. The games used to mean so much because the players and coaches on both teams were so closely connected.
How frequent is it that one school’s basketball coach (Pitt’s Buzz Ridl) also happens to be the great uncle of a player from its biggest rival (West Virginia’s Stan Boskovich)?
How many times have you seen a North Carolina-Duke game interrupted because a dead fish was tossed onto the floor? That occurred during a West Virginia-Pitt game in 1970 when guard Wil Robinson had to wait a few extra minutes at the foul line watching Leo Czarnecki clean up a dead fish that landed not too far from where he was standing.
How often does the opposing radio play-by-play man get a cup of urine dumped on his head while he’s on the air? That actually happened to Jack Fleming during an ECAC tournament basketball game in Morgantown in 1975. The culprits? Some Pitt football players put up to it by a couple members of the Golden Panthers booster club.
There have been fistfights and controversies. A 1963 game in Morgantown nearly turned into a free-for-all when West Virginia’s Gale Catlett and Pitt’s Brian Generalovich were ejected for fighting. The way people in Morgantown saw it, the fight began when Generalovich threw an elbow at Catlett in frustration when Catlett stole the basketball from him. Catlett responded by bouncing the ball off of Generalovich’s nose. That’s when the punches started.
Catlett’s coach George King defended his player and quite naturally, Pitt coach Bob Timmons stood up for his guy saying that he only saw Catlett throw the ball in Generalovich’s face.
The fracas happened just eleven days after Pitt thought it had upset West Virginia in Pittsburgh when Dave Roman’s basket gave the Panthers a 69-68 lead at the horn. But during the play teammate Ben Jinks had signaled timeout and the clock stopped with one second left. The two points were removed and another Panther shot at a victory was unsuccessful.
Twenty years later Catlett was in the middle of it again when a game in Pittsburgh was delayed because The Cat refused to play with a shot clock. A signed contract had to be produced at the scorer’s table before the game could finally get started.
Who could ever forget Pitt coach Roy Chipman crying conspiracy and chasing referee Jack Prettyman all the way into the locker room in 1982 after Prettyman’s lane violation call cost Pitt a chance to knock off nationally ranked West Virginia?
Perhaps even more important than the call in Chipman’s mind was the fact that Prettyman lived in Moundsville, West Virginia.
Chipman also got bent out of shape about a comment Gale Catlett had made following West Virginia’s 82-77 victory in Morgantown in 1982 when he referred to Pitt’s program as being “mediocre.”
It was said that Catlett’s mediocre quote remained on the bulletin board in Pitt’s locker room for the entire six years Chipman coached at Pitt.
Moon Township guard Joe Fryz said he still gets the silent treatment from former Panther coach Tim Grgurich after he chose instead to sign with the Mountaineers. That was in 1976. Grgurich had been recruiting Fryz since his sophomore year of high school and it was assumed by everyone in Pittsburgh that Fryz would end up at Pitt just like Moon’s Tom Richards.
“He never talked to me after the day I signed – to this day,” Fryz recalled. “After a couple of games we’d bump into each other as the teams were leaving the floor and he would never say anything to me. Then I saw him about 10 years ago at an NBA game and I said hello to him and he didn’t even acknowledge me.”
That’s just one lasting example of what this rivarly used to mean to its participants.
Thirty years ago the two schools frequently slugged it out to fill their rosters. When Joe Fryz was playing at WVU almost half the team was from Western Pennsylvania.
The top six players on one of the best teams in Pitt history in 1974 all came from Pittsburgh, including Braddock’s Billy Knight, Sewickley’s Keith Starr, South Hills’ Kirk Bruce and Moon’s Richards.
Uniontown guard Wil Robinson was favorite target of Pitt students because he signed with West Virginia instead of Pitt.
“A lot of them were sore because I didn’t stay in Pittsburgh,” Robinson recalled a few years ago. “I belonged to the Kappa Alpha Pi fraternity and we had to go to Pitt because there wasn’t a chapter at WVU. My sister also went to school at Pitt so I knew a lot of people that went there.”
Even West Virginia’s local players that weren’t recruited by Pitt carried a chip on their shoulders because they wanted to prove to them that they could play, too.
Of course there were also many area players that West Virginia lost to Pitt. Longtime former assistant coach Gary McPherson remembers having Billy Knight on a campus visit at the old Field House.
“We thought we had a good shot at getting him,” McPherson remembered.
West Virginia also tried to sign Curtis Aiken, Darrelle Porter, Eric Mobley and Antoine Jones, who all wound up being Panthers.
Many times high school teammates and rivals were pitted against each other on the court in basketball’s version of the Backyard Brawl. It was often a combustible mixture.
“They were rough games and very rarely were there blowouts,” Fryz said. “It always came down to making plays at the end.”
“In my four years we never beat them up there and they never beat us in Morgantown,” said forward Warren Baker.
Losing Some of its Pizzazz
The games peaked in intensity in the early 1980s when Catlett and Chipman were patrolling the sidelines. Then in 1983 the Panthers joined the Big East and the two teams only played once a year.
When West Virginia joined the Big East in 1996 there were other critical league games to get excited about in addition to the Backyard Brawl. Get too hopped up about a win or too down about a loss and the next thing you know you’re staring at a five-game losing streak.
The well of good local players also dried up. Pitt began going to New York City to stock its roster and West Virginia was also forced to search elsewhere for its players.
By the late-1990s neither school had any local players. In fact, current freshman forward DeJuan Blair is the first city league player to attend Pitt in 20 years. Since joining the Big East, no Pittsburgher has ever led the Panthers in either scoring, rebounding or assists. Blair is finally going to end that streak this year.
Former Mountaineer forward Brent Solheim remembers Catlett having to explain to his team the importance of the Pitt game because no one on the team knew much about the rivalry.
“He would talk about it in the context of the game meaning a lot to the state,” Solheim remembered. “I never hated Pitt. I hated UConn more than anyone.”
The two schools were also pursuing different players, especially when John Beilein was at West Virginia. The only player on Pitt’s current roster the Mountaineers tried to make a serious run at was Harrisburg guard Gilbert Brown, who fit Beilein’s specifications and dimensions as a player and as a shooter.
The series also lost some of its pizzazz more recently because Pitt has simply been much better than West Virginia under Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon. Since 2000, the Panthers have won 11 of 15 games including five straight from 2002 to 2005.
Beilein did a wonderful job resurrecting the Mountaineer basketball program but he never fared well against the physical Panthers going 3-7 in his five seasons in Morgantown. Some felt Beilein’s teams never truly understood the intense, physical nature of the WVU-Pitt game and many fans never warmed to the idea of listening to Beilein complimenting the Panthers after blowout losses.
Several former WVU players could also sense the rivalry losing some of its buzz.
“Watching the games it’s definitely not the same as when we played,” said Fryz. “My senior year Pitt was having a pretty good season and we went up there and weren’t supposed to win and we beat them on Pitt’s home court. I think I stole the ball and made a couple of free throws at the end and that’s how the games used to be played.”
“When I came to West Virginia I knew a lot about Pitt before I even stepped on campus,” Warren Baker added. “No one had to tell me about them.”
On the Comeback
The perception of this longtime series took a recent turn, thanks to of all people football coach Dave Wannstedt, whose underdog Panther team came to Morgantown last December and knocked 28-point favorite West Virginia out of contention for the national championship by beating the Mountaineers 13-9.
Wannstedt had a video of past WVU-Pitt games made for his players to watch before the Backyard Brawl and his team responded with a stunning victory that rates as one of the biggest upsets in the 100-year history of the game.
Earlier this month Pitt students held up 13-9 signs at the Pitt-WVU basketball game the Panthers won 55-54 on a last-second shot by Ronald Ramon. Even women’s basketball coach Agnus Berenato called on Wannstedt to deliver some inspiration to her team. Pitt responded with a 77-75 overtime upset victory over the WVU women last week in what Berenato called “the best win in the history of our program.”
There is an attitude adjustment going on in Morgantown, too. Bob Huggins is back at his alma mater and that alone will serve as a lightning rod for Pitt fans. Huggins has already stirred things up by signing 6-foot-7-inch forward Kevin Jones from Mount Vernon, N.Y., who also considered Pitt. Darryl Bryant, another WVU signee, plays high school basketball in New York City for Oliver Antigua, the brother of Pitt assistant Orlando Antigua.
“I think Huggs is going to be the same way Catlett was with the Pitt fans,” Fryz said. “He knows what the rivalry is because he played in it. The fans remember him playing and I think that will help bring back some of the game’s luster.”
Pitt may still beat West Virginia, but Fryz says with Huggins around the Panthers will no longer physically beat up the Mountaineers on the basketball court.
“Huggs will not let that happen,” Fryz said. “He will take it to them and the team will take it to them. That’s the way that game has got to be played with Pitt.
“And Pitt will play the same way.”
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