MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Lester Rowe can still remember the general consensus among his teammates in West Virginia’s locker room after having fruit, tin cans and other debris rain down on them following their highly contested, 48-45 victory over Pitt in ancient Fitzgerald Field House on Jan. 30, 1982.
“Let’s get the hell out of here!” Rowe laughed. “We got off the floor pretty quickly because it got pretty hostile.”
The circumstances surrounding the events that led to the ending of that game will forever be etched in the minds of the participants – Jack Prettyman’s lane violation call made from midcourt on Clyde Vaughan during Steve Beatty’s made free throw with 14 seconds left that wiped out Pitt’s opportunity to take the lead, the double-technical foul called on Pitt’s bench that led to the game’s deciding margin and, of course, the sight of Panther coach Roy Chipman chasing Prettyman all the way into the officials’ locker room at the conclusion of the game.
A cooling off period provided to the coaches before meeting members of the press only gave Chipman more time to get his blood boiling.
“I deserved the technical and he deserved what I said to him,” Chipman growled afterward. “It was a lousy call. It’s not fair. He’s got to live with it. I just hope he’s happy with himself. The damned game is for the kids – let the kids win it or lose it.”
West Virginia-Pitt basketball games have always been intense, flying fish and flying fists more common than finesse in this longtime series, but it never quite reached the level of ferocity that was exhibited in 1982. And it hasn’t since, despite the two schools having frequent NCAA tournament participants and nationally known coaches in Bob Huggins and Jamie Dixon.
The two schools played three times in ‘82 and all three games were hotly contested and emotional affairs. Although West Virginia-Pitt had always played annually just a handful of those games were during years when they were both members of the same conference (including the old Tri-State and the Eastern League days in the 1920s and 1930s).
Then in the fall of 1981, Pitt announced that it was leaving the Eastern 8 to join the Big East Conference, upsetting everyone in the northeast who thought an all-sports conference championed by Penn State’s Joe Paterno was going to become a reality. Those involved in the negotiations believed if Pitt and Penn State could have settled their differences (some petty and some not so petty), all of the other eastern schools, including possibly even Maryland from the ACC, would have fallen in line.
But former Providence coach and Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt and Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel – college roommates at Dartmouth – saw an opportunity to preserve their basketball conference comprised of schools in major northeastern cities by convincing Pitt that they were better off as a football independent and a basketball partner in the Big East instead of playing second fiddle to Penn State in a new all-sports conference. Pitt agreed.
“It was a thing where Pitt saw an opportunity to advance into a conference that could expose some players, and granted the Eastern 8 was still a great conference, but when it came down to seeding for the NCAAs we were always like 13th or 14th – somewhere around there,” recalled Pitt guard Dwayne Wallace. “The thing was (the Eastern 8) was only considered a mid-major conference.”
The fact that competition in the Eastern 8 was sometimes sketchy made basketball’s version of the “Backyard Brawl” more alluring to the fans, and the fact that there were still Western Pa players on both rosters only added to the frenetic atmosphere of the games. At the center of the storm were the two coaches – Pitt’s Roy Chipman and West Virginia’s Gale Catlett.
The late Chipman, although born in Cleveland, was more of a northeasterner who came to Pitt from Lafayette after Panther coach and alumnus Tim Grgurich hastily resigned (and then reconsidered when his players begged him to return) and following Pitt’s very public courtship of Rollie Massimino that ended on a sour note when Massimino decided to remain at Villanova.
Chipman had almost a cartoon-character quality to his appearance, a thick patch of white hair on the top of his head complimenting a prominent gap between his two front teeth that naturally led to chants of “Chipmunk” from the West Virginia student section. Chipman was also a fiery and demonstrative coach on the basketball court who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind in press conferences afterward.
“What you guys saw on the court was very different than what we saw at halftime,” chuckled Wallace, who was one of the Grgurich players Chipman inherited. “But he was a great coach. He was a guy who got the best out of you. There was a difference with his style of coaching and coach Grgurich’s style of coaching, but both coaches got the best out of their players.”
Rowe remembered being recruited by Chipman’s then-young assistant coach Seth Greenberg, now Virginia Tech’s head coach, but he doesn’t remember much about Chipman’s coaching style or his on-court demeanor.
“I watched them play but as far as analyzing what they did over the course of time, I really can’t say because as an 18-year-old player you really don’t pay that much attention,” Rowe said.
But Catlett did pay attention and he thought the 1-3-1 zone that Chipman used at Pitt was one of the craftiest defenses he ever went up against in more than 30 years of coaching. In fact, it was a zone former West Virginia and current Michigan coach John Beilein borrowed from Chipman and has since popularized.
“He was a pretty good coach,” Catlett said of Chipman. “They talk about Beilein’s 1-3-1, Roy Chipman’s 1-3-1 and (former Temple coach) John Chaney’s zone were two of the best defenses I played against during my coaching career.”
At the time, Catlett had West Virginia’s program a little further along than Pitt’s, his team in 1982 running off a school record 23-game winning streak that had the Mountaineers near the top of the national rankings - almost reaching the top five for the first time since Catlett’s playing days in the early 1960s.
The Pitt players took notice of West Virginia’s ascension in the rankings with a fair amount of envy.
“We had a chip on our shoulders because it seemed like every year West Virginia would be ranked in the top 15 and we were never ranked that highly, and that added a fuel to the fire,” Wallace noted.
Catlett was also someone who didn’t mind throwing a little gasoline on an open flame. After four years on the job at WVU, he willingly became a target for Panther rooters who still believed it was him who started the fight with Brian Genoralovich that led to a bench-clearing brawl and the ejections of both players during a game at West Virginia’s old field house in 1963.
Catlett unabashedly promoted his dislike of the Panthers and quickly developed a lightning-rod status with Pittsburgh fans, players, coaches and media members. His postgame radio shows with Jack Fleming (another well-known Pitt agitator) piped into the Coliseum public address system and his postgame press conferences were usually as interesting as the games. Catlett said it was the late Fred Schaus who first taught him the importance of beating the Panthers.
“When I went there as a freshman, we were behind Pitt at halftime in a freshman game,” Catlett recalled in 2010. “This is a freshman game. Well, Fred Schaus comes into the locker room pointing his finger and he said, ‘I want you to know, we hate these guys! Don’t you ever let these guys beat you!’ Well, we went out and beat them in the second half.
“I didn’t know that much about Pittsburgh because of where I was located in the eastern panhandle,” Catlett said. “I knew more about Maryland and GW and those places, but he injected that. From that point on, I listened carefully and I took it that you had to beat Pittsburgh. That was the big rival at that time and I carried that through the years.”
Catlett also wisely understood that Pittsburgh was the gateway to national recognition for his basketball program since it was the closest major city to West Virginia’s campus, and he usually made sure to give reporters something to write about.
“For some reason the Pitt thing … I just thought we needed the Pittsburgh media to be on our side,” he recalled. “That’s the closest big city to us so if your program is going to get national recognition you can get it out of Pittsburgh. I always wanted to make sure our teams did well against Pitt because you at least had a chance of getting national coverage.”
Following his team’s exciting, 82-77 victory over the Panthers in Morgantown before almost 17,000 spectators that is still a Coliseum attendance record, Catlett gave Pittsburgh reporters the mother of all quotes. Perhaps caught up in the moment, or still feeling bitter about the way Pitt left the Eastern 8, Catlett let his thoughts turn into words when he was asked a question by a Pittsburgh reporter about the continuation of the WVU-Pitt series, the reporter insinuating to the coach that the Panthers may not be able to fit the Mountaineers on their future schedule.
After questioning whether West Virginia really needed Pitt on its schedule to remain relevant in college basketball, Catlett made reference to Pitt’s program being “mediocre.”
It was like dropping a match on dry brush during a windstorm. Oppenheimer and Teller couldn’t make bombs that explosive. The news of Catlett’s mediocre comment reached Chipman almost as soon as it came out of his mouth. Wallace, who has difficulty remembering a lot of the specifics of the three games he played against West Virginia 29 years ago, can clearly recall Catlett’s “mediocre” comment.
“I remember it like it was yesterday, the anger and disbelief amongst the team because we knew that we were a better team than that,” he said. “We weren’t playing our greatest ball at the time, but we knew that we were a better team and we felt like we were coming together.”
It didn’t hurt that Chipman displayed Catlett’s comment prominently on the bulletin board in the team locker room, either.
“I can tell you that statement that was made, he pinned it up on the board and every time we went down to the locker room we would see that article,” Wallace said. “Don’t get me wrong, coach Catlett was a great coach. I say sometimes I wish I had played for him but unfortunately I didn’t. But I always had respect for him and I thought he was a great coach. The thing is, coach Catlett wasn’t out there on the court playing. We had to battle tooth and nail with those guys that he had and it was a great battle.”
There was one more grievance the Pitt players had that may have even exceeded Catlett’s mediocre comment – none of the Panther players were named to the all-league team and they believed that was out of retribution for Pitt leaving the conference.
Vaughan and Wallace were clearly two of the top players in the Eastern 8 but both mysteriously failed to even to show up on the all-conference ballots submitted by two of the league’s eight coaches (incidentally, Catlett was not one of them).
“I felt like myself and Clyde Vaughan should have made the all-league team,” said Wallace. “We did make the all-tournament team, but I really think that helped us band together and it was us against them.”
The soon-to-be departure of Pitt from the Eastern 8, the Prettyman call, the existence of Western Pa players on each team, the Catlett mediocre comment, and the snubbing of Panther players by the rest of the conference led to one of the most eagerly anticipated basketball games ever in Pittsburgh when West Virginia and Pitt reached the Eastern 8 championship game on March 6, 1982 at the Civic Arena.
Longtime Pittsburgh sports columnist Ron Cook wrote in 2002 following Catlett’s retirement that the 1982 Eastern 8 championship matchup was “the best college game of my lifetime.”
More than 16,000 fans packed into the Civic Arena to watch the two schools battle it out despite the game airing locally on TCS (back then ESPN didn’t own all of the games when regional distributors still gave TV broadcasts a local flavor).
Pittsburgh TV producer Nelson Goldberg put together what he considered a balanced three-man announcing crew: Bill Hillgrove (Voice of the Pitt Panthers), KDKA television personality John Steigerwald and Jay Jacobs of the Mountaineer Sports Network.
During the broadcast Hillgrove tried to remain neutral, Steigerwald tried to be funny and Jacobs tried to answer Hillgrove’s questions but rarely succeeded, either because he had other things to say or because he didn’t hear the questions. In fact, Steigerwald spent as much time scanning the crowd looking for fights as he did analyzing the basketball game, leaving most of that to Jacobs.
“He told me during one of the breaks that he had no business being on the broadcast,” Jacobs chuckled. “That was John.”
The crowd at the Civic Arena was split 50-50 between Pitt and West Virginia supporters, an eclectic mixture of Jordache jeans, Penny loafers (with the pennies in them), flannel shirts, cowboy hats and enough Jovan musk to make the place smell like one giant John Gotti roast.
The game itself was just as interesting, Pitt taking control midway through the first half when Chipman went to his patented 1-3-1 defense. West Virginia guards Greg Jones, Tony Washam and Quentin Freeman could never figure it out, leading to 21 turnovers, including seven by Jones, voted the Eastern 8’s player of the year.
“They were one of the first people to play that defense who really had the long, lengthy and athletic players to make that work,” recalled Rowe, who later served as an assistant coach on Catlett’s West Virginia staff. “Then they put the point guard on the baseline so you had long, athletic guys who cut off a lot of the passing lanes that you normally didn’t play against so it caused some people a lot of problems.”
Wallace was the guy who played underneath and he said the defense wasn’t very kind to his body.
“If it’s played the correct way it’s tough to get buckets,” he said. “I didn’t enjoy it because I got beat up down there.”
Wallace, who scored 20 points on 6 of 7 shooting, did enjoy the outcome of the game, a 79-72 victory that enabled Pitt to win the league title and advance to the NCAA tournament in its final season in the Eastern 8. West Virginia, too, made the Big Dance with only two regular season losses. Neither team advanced far in the tournament, Pitt getting knocked out in the first round by Pepperdine and West Virginia losing in the second round to Fresno State, but the three games the two teams played that year left an indelible mark on the history of the Backyard Brawl.
“All of the games I encountered with West Virginia and their players are something that will stick with me forever,” said Wallace, now living and working in his native Baltimore.
“If you’ve got guys standing over on the bank throwing rocks and there’s one guy from Pitt and one guy from West Virginia they’re going to try and beat each other,” added Rowe. “If these two schools get together and play a sporting event it’s going to be competitive - that I can tell you.”
There may be more well-known coaches and players involved in Monday night’s ESPN Big Monday showdown - and the games today are mostly nationally televised events - but for shear energy, excitement, emotion and, yes, theatrics, something pretty special is going to have to happen to even come close to topping those three games West Virginia and Pitt played in 1982.
Antonik is the author of the book Roll Out the Carpet: 101 Seasons of West Virginia University Basketball published by WVU Press.