Sometime last spring, Pitt’s Director of Communications Mendy Nestor was sitting in the lobby of the UMPC Sports Performance Complex patiently waiting to round up some Panther football players for media interviews when she unwittingly got dragged into another Backyard Brawl dispute.
A couple of Pitt players were getting on new assistant coach Tony Gibson for his one-time affiliation with Enemy No. 1 – West Virginia, and Nestor could hear them going at it as they walked through the doorway.
Right away, Gibson noticed poor Mendy sitting there minding her own business and he instinctively stuck out his index finger and pointed it in her direction.
“She is too!” said Gibson in a weak attempt to try and deflect some of the abuse he was getting.
“Wait a minute,” Mendy laughed. “Why are you bringing me into this?”
Mendy grew up in Buckhannon, went to West Virginia University where she became one of the athletic department’s top student workers in the Sports Communications Office, and then, after a couple of stops at East Carolina and Auburn, she swapped colors from Old Gold and Blue to whatever shade of blue and yellow the Panthers are sporting this year.
Surprisingly, Mendy Nestor and Tony Gibson are not the only people in the Pitt athletic department who know all of the words to “Country Roads.”
Todd Graham spent two years in Morgantown – a next door neighbor to WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and just four houses up the hill from me. Graham, Pitt’s first year head coach, has seemingly brought Rich Rodriguez’s entire Mountaineer staff with him to Oakland.
Along with Gibson, who works with the Panther DBs, Graham hired executive head coach Paul Randolph to work with the Panther defensive line, assistant head coach Calvin Magee to oversee the offense and the running backs, and Tony Dews to coach the wide receivers. There is Graham’s son Bo, a GA on the staff who played a season for WVU, and then, sit down for this one … video graduate assistant Eric Wicks.
For the love of Jack Fleming, Wicks too?
“Those guys may have to go through our locker room to get out onto the field,” Casteel joked.
Seeing Wicks - one of the key members of West Virginia’s 2007 Fiesta Bowl championship team - sporting a Pitt golf shirt is like looking at Mr. USA himself, Ronald Reagan, in one of those Russian fur hats or worse yet, old J. Edgar prancing around in his basement in one of his mother’s dresses. It’s simply too shocking, too unsettling, to even consider.
Say it isn’t so.
Since we’re smoking out the turncoats, we might as well add Pitt’s Director of Planned Giving Megan Wilson, 15-year football administrator Chris LaSala and Pitt’s in-house IMG rep Rex Hogue to the list. Each owns WVU degrees.
It may be the most former Mountaineers in Pitt's athletic department at one time - ever.
And believe it or not, there are actually some secret Panthers on the WVU athletic staff, namely long-time athletic trainer John Spiker, assistant athletic trainer Brittany Arnold and men’s basketball assistant coach Larry Harrison. Yes, at one time or another they probably mouthed the words to Hail to Pitt!
Spiker made the switch to WVU in the mid-1970s when the Pitt game had much more of an edge to it and he was smart enough to realize right away that making a complete and total flip-flop was probably the easiest (and safest) way for the football players to let him tape their ankles.
“Keep in mind that it wasn’t a direct move,” Spiker says only half-jokingly. “I went from Pitt to Philadelphia to North Carolina to here. I just tried not to tell anybody.”
Spiker immediately pledged his full allegiance to West Virginia University, which also meant a complete and utter rejection of anything Pittsburgh related.
No affinity at all for the former mates, right John?
“No, as a matter of fact, I hope they lose every game they play,” he laughed. “That’s the second score I check after the Mountaineers - to make sure they lose.”
After getting her undergrad degree at WVU, Brittany Arnold broke her mom’s heart by going to Pitt to get a master’s degree in sports medicine. She returned to West Virginia last year and is still undergoing extensive de-programming to make sure she isn’t a Panther double-agent.
“I grew up going to WVU games,” said Arnold, from nearby Fairmont. “My parents have been season ticket holders for 30-plus years so they would take me to football and basketball games. My birthday is in February and the WVU-Pitt games were around that time, so I would always go to the Backyard Brawl for my birthday. When I went up there it was a dagger to my family’s heart, I think.”
Perhaps feeling a little guilty, Arnold would always wear her Mountaineer gear during the week of the WVU-Pitt game, sometimes to her own detriment.
“I wore West Virginia stuff in the Pitt section, which was probably not the best idea,” she admitted.
Megan Wilson, now Wilson-Smulski, is several years removed from earning her undergraduate and master’s degrees at WVU, but she admits there are still awkward moments, particularly when she is out on the road soliciting major gifts for the Pitt program and a potential big donor finds out that she used to cavort with the enemy.
“My first job here at the university was in the Dean’s office in arts and sciences, so I wasn’t interacting with a lot of student-athletes or people who were supporting the athletic department,” said Wilson, a South Hills native. “But when I got to the athletic department and I started making cold calls, or meeting people for the first time, they’ll ask, when did you graduate from Pitt? I’m like, well, actually …
“Of course, some of them will say, well at least you didn’t go to Penn State, too!”
The knot in her stomach the week of the Backyard Brawl today is not quite as profound, but Megan still gets a little uneasy when the Monday of game week rolls around. That’s usually about the time former Panther star basketball player Sam Clancy, now Pitt’s Varsity Club coordinator, comes walking down the hall singing “Country Roads” at the top of his voice – to Wilson, just another reminder where her paycheck is coming from.
“He gives me the most flak,” she says.
Nestor gets plenty of flak, too. The other day she entered the football complex wearing a gold and blue outfit and as she walked past Todd Graham, he noticed the colors she was wearing and commented, “What shade of gold is that, Nestor?”
“It’s Vegas, coach – it’s Vegas,” she laughed, referencing the famous phrase What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas.
Nestor says she has now been away from WVU long enough that it’s much easier for her during games to cast aside her emotions to do her job.
“When I first got here it was just uncomfortable, I think on both sides,” she said. “Talking to my family was uncomfortable and being here was uncomfortable, but now I’m kind of past that. I still follow West Virginia when I can, but the (week of the Backyard Brawl) is just a job for me.”
What is sometimes lost on casual fans is how cordial and cooperative the two athletic staffs at WVU and Pitt really are. Nestor said it was also like that when she worked at Auburn and the Tigers faced arch rivals Alabama and Georgia.
“When I was at Auburn we always said the closest people, athletic department wise, were Alabama and Georgia,” she explained. “We always said it was because they were the only other schools who know what you go through. They feel the same things you do.”
Wilson is not old enough to remember the Pitt-Penn State rivalry so her only point of reference is the Backyard Brawl.
“I can vividly remember driving somewhere to buy a Christmas tree during the holiday and I remember listening to the (WVU-Pitt) game on the radio,” she said. “As far back as I can remember, this game has been played.
“On the Pitt side, I don’t really have the full respect and understanding of the Penn State rivalry that a lot of older people than me have, so the Backyard Brawl has a lot more meaning to me.”
And in perhaps the biggest revelation of all, both sides really do have a mutual, albeit grudging respect for each other.
More importantly, it’s a game both sides look forward to playing each year.
“The reason why we play college football is to have fun,” said Wilson. “And yes, there is apprehension with me when we play this game, but I think it’s such a blast. All my friends who went to WVU have a ball during the game and it’s such a fun thing and I know a lot of people, locally, whether they are a graduate of WVU or Pitt, who look forward to this game.”
In fact, Wilson may come down to Morgantown with some of her WVU friends for Friday’s Backyard Brawl. If she does, she will be wearing something very neutral.
“It will be navy,” she laughed.
Perhaps she may even get the urge to hum “Country Roads” - under her breath, of course.
Backyard Brawl, University of Pittsburgh, West Virginia University
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