It's Pitt Week!
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Well, it's Pitt week! Each year, usually around Thanksgiving, people around here try to tolerate each other for a couple hours during a football game they call the Backyard Brawl. Nobody knows for sure who came up with the name, but the old-timers believe it was Pittsburgh journalist Russ Franke who first coined the phrase sometime in the 1960s.
West Virginians have always looked forward to this game; Pitt, not so much. Penn State is still the No. 1 target in Pitt's gun sights, but those two schools haven't played a football game since 2000, and there are no plans for any more games in the near future.
Therefore, that leaves just West Virginia for Pitt people to hate.
One longtime Panther supporter likes to remind me that Penn State has ALWAYS been the school they want to beat most. West Virginia? That's the school the Pitt people say they don’t want to lose to. Johnny Majors said essentially the same thing back in 2002.
"When I came to Pittsburgh, it didn't take me long to realize that Penn State was awfully big historically," Majors recalled. "But my friends who loved Pitt told me, 'Oh, man, you're going to hate West Virginia.’ So I learned quickly the importance of beating West Virginia. It sounded very exciting to me, and it turned out to be a very exciting rivalry."
Pitt-West Virginia has never been viewed nationally on the same level as some of the more well-known rivalries such as Ohio State-Michigan, Oklahoma-Texas, Alabama-Auburn, Army-Navy, USC-Notre Dame, Oklahoma-Nebraska, etc. etc. - partly because in the past some folks did their best to downplay the game.
But in 2007 that changed. That year was the 100th anniversary of the Backyard Brawl, Fox Sports Pittsburgh produced a one-hour television special on the series (extremely well done, I might add), a commemorative program was created, a 100th anniversary logo was designed and t-shirts were printed.
Pitt gave its lukewarm approval for all of the things being done to promote the 100th anniversary of the game because, well, the Panthers were 28-point underdogs heading into it. The last thing Pitt wanted to do was make a big deal about a butt whipping they were about to take down in Morgantown.
I can still see Pitt’s radio guys standing in the buffet line at the top of the press box quickly loading their plates with cookies and extra food so they could barricade themselves down in the radio booth for the remaining three-to-four hours they were contractually obligated to be there. They said their quick hellos and got out of dodge. Who could blame them?
But their mood changed when Pitt began to take control of the game in the third quarter. And when it was over, Pitt had pulled off a stunning 13-9 upset, knocking West Virginia out of the national championship picture. Those 100th anniversary t-shirts the Pitt folks had once viewed with contempt sold like hotcakes up in Oakland.
Even the Panther coaches got caught up in the excitement, sending out Christmas cards that year with the score of the 2007 West Virginia-Pitt football game printed on them. They also managed to steal several local recruits the Mountaineers were hosting that night, a couple of them even defecting to the Pitt sideline while the game was still going on.
West Virginia's Chris Neild, a freshman in 2007, still can't bring himself to talk about the game. It remains too painful for him to discuss.
For the pre-Baby Boomers, the only thing remotely close to that loss was a 1955 defeat in Pittsburgh when the sixth-rated Mountaineers were about to punch their tickets to New Orleans. West Virginia officials wined and dined the Sugar Bowl folks in Pittsburgh the night before the game expecting to get a bowl bid, but less than 24 hours later, the Sugar Bowl chose instead to extend an invitation to Pitt.
Afterward as Pitt rooters swarmed the field and devoured the two goal posts, one Pittsburgh police officer mistakenly went after an unfortunate WVU fan stuck in the middle of the excitement. When his supervisor told him to let them have it, meaning let the fans have the goal posts, the dumb cop whacked the West Virginia person over the head with his billy club. Talk about the agony of defeat!
Fairmont Times editor Bill Evans, who missed West Virginia's 1952 upset at Pitt to cover another news story, was there in person in '55 to witness the entire scene. Afterward, he wrote that Mountaineer fans driving back to West Virginia made up "the longest funeral procession in the history of mankind."
Had that been written about the Notre Dame-USC or Ohio State-Michigan games, Evans would have become a famous man.
Bobby Bowden was involved in some heated rivalries, particularly during his time at Florida State playing against Miami, but ask him which game was the most unforgettable of his coaching career and he is likely to say his first Backyard Brawl in 1970.
That was the game when he sat on the football and blew a 35-8 halftime lead, losing 36-35. Afterward, Bowden had to be escorted out of Pitt Stadium by state police there to protect him from the crazies standing outside the West Virginia team locker room waiting to have a few words with him.
When Don Nehlen took over a struggling WVU program in 1980 the boosters demanded only one thing from him - beat Pitt. He eventually did in 1983, and finished his 21 years at West Virginia with an 11-8-2 record against the Panthers. Whenever he would assemble his teams at the beginning of each season, Nehlen always made it a point to tell his players the story about the Mountaineer clawing his way out of the well to knock out those big, bad Pitt Panthers. Even today, every single one of his players can recite that story.
Some West Virginia folks, caught up in the euphoria of the program's rise to top of the national polls in 2007 - and emboldened by WVU's back-to-back blowout victories over Pitt the prior two years - started talking about the need to conduct themselves in a tamer, more collegial manner with their Panther brethren. After all, the two schools in 2003 had stood arm-in-arm and attorney-to-attorney when they sued Miami and Boston College for attempting to destroy the Big East Conference (there's nothing quite like a good lawsuit to bring mortal enemies together, isn't there?).
Then the Panthers came down to Morgantown, jumped out of their Trojan horses, and poked our eyeballs out.
So much for Kumbaya.
If you ever get lulled into that line of thinking again, keep in mind these words spoken by Pitt's J.C. Pelusi in 2007: "Beating West Virginia is great. You can't beat them by enough points as far as I am concerned."
Antonik is the author of the book Roll Out the Carpet: 101 Seasons of West Virginia University Basketball now available in bookstores.
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