A Different Ballgame
Oliver Luck didn’t really know much about the WVU-Pitt rivalry as a youngster growing up in Cleveland, Ohio in the early 1970s. To him, Ohio State-Michigan was always the big deal.
“It was Woody versus Bo and they were larger than life,” says West Virginia’s director of athletics. “I knew of the other rivalries, but they didn’t seem as much to me. They were TV games far away that I had no personal connection with. Michigan-Ohio State, people talked about it in high school.”
Of course that changed when Luck became a record-setting quarterback at WVU and he learned upon arrival that Pitt is the foulest four-letter word a person can utter in the Mountain State.
“The Tech game was a big deal,” said Luck. “I can remember students from the southern part of the state saying that was more important than anything. That was their deal. If you live in Bluefield, Tech is an hour away and Pittsburgh is five hours away. But (the Pitt game) has always been No. 1 in terms of our rival.”
Luck faced the Panthers four times as a Mountaineer player and lost all four games in 1978, 1979, 1980 and 1981.
“The cycle I was in, Pitt was good,” Luck admitted. “It seemed like every year I was here they were like No. 2 or No. 3 in the nation. Quite honestly, they were just better than us.”
The WVU-Pitt game Luck remembers most vividly was the one that took place at the old stadium in 1979. That was the last game ever played at old Mountaineer Field.
“I always wondered if it was scheduled that way on purpose because the game, in my era, was always in the middle of the year,” Luck said. “What I really remember was the talent on Pitt’s defense. It seemed like every one of Pitt’s guys on that defense I ran up against in the NFL. We probably played as well as we could have played that day, but they were just so much better than us.”
Growing up in a big city, Luck didn’t fully appreciate the big city-small city nature of the rivalry, but he did realize quickly the closeness of the two schools and some of the cultural differences between them – which has only added to the game’s intensity.
“There were a lot of Western Pennsylvania players on the team and you would run into a lot of people with Pitt connections,” Luck recalled. “It seemed like everybody knew somebody from Pitt.”
Back when Luck played in the Backyard Brawl, the circumstances surrounding the game were much different. West Virginia coaches knew the easiest path to national publicity for their program was through Pittsburgh – the closest metropolitan area to Morgantown – and they understood a good performance against the Panthers could earn them immediate national recognition.
Today, West Virginia doesn’t necessarily need a good performance against Pitt to gain national exposure. Partly, that is because WVU has now become a national program, as evidenced by its move to the Big 12 Conference, and some of it, according to Luck, is because so many games are on television today.
“I think college football has changed,” Luck explained. “Every game is on TV, even if it’s only shown in 13 percent of the country like our Cincinnati game was. The point is no one is underexposed any more. Some teams are overexposed. It’s a different ballgame now.”
The WVU-Pitt game is also about to become a different ballgame.
Earlier this fall, the Panthers opted to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, putting in jeopardy a football series with West Virginia that first began when Grover Cleveland occupied the White House. In fact, the longest interruption in the series occurred in the early 1940s when Pitt was seeking membership in the Big Ten Conference. At the time, the Backyard Brawl (although it wasn’t called that back then) was not very competitive, Pitt winning the games by wide margins.
The Panthers eventually dropped WVU after the ’39 season in an effort to schedule more Big Ten teams, but when they realized the Big Ten didn’t want them – and travel restrictions during the war made it impractical to schedule intersectional games of much greater distances – Pitt once again began scheduling West Virginia in 1943.
The two schools have been playing ever since.
Today, as conference realignment continues to alter the landscape of college sports, several key traditional rivalries are now in jeopardy, including the Backyard Brawl. Perhaps no region in the country has seen its long-time football rivalries evaporate more than the Northeast. In this part of the country, only the WVU-Pitt and Army-Navy games are still in existence.
Can you name Syracuse’s biggest rival, or Maryland’s? Who is Penn State’s big rival now? And Boston College, who is BC's red-letter game? Notre Dame? How often do they play?
Luck fully understands this.
“The hope is, despite all of this realignment stuff, that you don’t lose these key games,” he said. “Pitt-Penn State, how long has it been since they’ve played?
“I don’t think there is a game we have, whether it’s Maryland, Marshall, Florida State, Michigan State down the road, or East Carolina – none of those opponents come close to the meaning of the Pitt-West Virginia game to our fan base, and that’s ultimately who we serve, our fan base.”
Luck believes the folks at Pitt share similar feelings. Pitt, like West Virginia, is still sorting through things as it prepares to move to another conference.
“I think there is a willingness on both sides to try and figure out how to keep the series going, but reality may dictate for a year, or two or three, it won’t take place,” he said.
As for Luck’s current to-do list, preserving the WVU-Pitt football series remains very high on it.
“There are still some unknowns about our immediate future and Pitt’s immediate future,” Luck said. “We’re going into a situation that’s going to be a little different – nine conference games - and how many of those teams in the Big 12 are in the Top 25 right now? Pitt’s going into a new situation, but I think they are only going to have eight conference games.
“There is a lot in flux right now, but the important point that I stressed to (Pitt athletic director) Steve Pederson, and he expressed to me, is the willingness is there. There are just unknowns that may logistically cause some challenges for us.”
Hopefully those unknowns and challenges can be worked out – and quickly – for the sake of West Virginia and Pitt fans, as well as college football fans in general.
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