The Backyard Brawl
Here is an excerpt from the new book Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History, now available in book stores everywhere. Be sure to get your copy in time for Christmas!
Every Mountaineer fan has a Pitt story. Mine takes place deep within the bowels of Pitt Stadium, at the confluence of dirt and concrete. I have been in my fair share of decrepit football stadiums — old Mountaineer Field being one of them — but Pitt Stadium had a charm and an allure all its own.
From the wooden addition to the press box to the dirt floors leading into the team locker rooms, Pitt Stadium brought new meaning to the phrase “spartan conditions.” But in many ways I really liked that place, the way it was nestled in the middle of the campus with all of the university buildings surrounding it, and how it was the center of activity on fall Saturday afternoons. We seem to lose that when stadiums are moved off campus, or when schools share facilities with professional football teams.
If you were fortunate enough to possess a parking pass in the garage next to Pitt Stadium, entry was a breeze. Just drive up to the top of the hill, hang a right and then make a quick left and you were there. I don’t recall any traffic jams — even the drive up Forbes Avenue was problem-free, but then again, I don’t remember Pitt Stadium ever being entirely full either. Once you parked your car, it was a quick walk across the street, and then you entered the stadium somewhere underneath the press box. Waiting inside were the most depressing accommodations imaginable; Alcatraz seemed more inviting. Looking around, I wondered how in the hell Pitt could have enticed all those great players to go there during the Majors/Sherrill heydays of the late 1970s and early 1980s? But they did.
Subtract several hundred buildings, and the ride leading up to Pittsburgh could very easily have been mistaken for a trip to Morgantown—the topography seemed so similar, remembered WVU running back Artie Owens. “That was an experience in itself, just riding in the bus up there and having all of that time to think about the game,” Owens said. “I can remember that trip going up to Pitt with all of the mountains. And the buses had to get up that big hill and I’m thinking, where is this school at? Is this school in West Virginia or what?”
Roughly 75 miles separate the two schools, but culturally, they seem to be in two entirely different hemispheres. Pitt’s campus landmark is the 42-story Cathedral of Learning — the second tallest university building in the world — an impressive structure built during the Great Depression and located in the heart of Oakland. West Virginia’s campus landmark is the ivy-clad Woodburn Hall, constructed roughly 10 years after the Civil War and sitting regally at the top of a hill above the meandering Monongahela.
Pittsburgh was once a city forged in steel — U.S. Steel, Gulf Oil and other Fortune 500s were headquartered there, but it was the thousands of West Virginians through the years who went underground to dig out the coal that helped fuel the steel industry. And in those mills and in those mines were born some of the toughest football players anywhere. “If you take Pennsylvania and West Virginia and you put them together, there is not a whole lot of difference,” explained hall of fame linebacker Sam Huff. “There were the steel mills in Pennsylvania and the coal mines in West Virginia, and we were basically raised the same way — tough guys.
“The Pittsburgh Steelers [are] now, and always have been, one of the toughest teams in the NFL,” Huff said. “You’re raised tough. If somebody says they are going to whip you then you’ve got to prove it.”
College Hall of Fame linebacker Darryl Talley said the Backyard Brawl was very similar to what he experienced as a kid while growing up in East Cleveland, Ohio, fighting almost every day to keep his lunch money from going to the neighborhood bullies.
“They actually go after a lot of the same kids, and it’s just the idea that they’ve got the same colors you’ve got on,” remarked Talley. “That isn’t right. Somebody needs to take those colors off. I was one of those people who believed in turf wars — I’m going to get you out of my area!”
Typically, the city kids gravitated to Pitt and the country kids went to West Virginia, especially in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when the region was still well-stocked with outstanding football players. Today, Western Pennsylvania produces a mere fraction of the major college players it once did, and the really good ones usually seem to leave the area altogether. But before the decline, local schools such as West Virginia could make a pretty good living off Western PA leftovers. “We always seemed to get most of our Western PA players from those outside areas,” recalled Garrett Ford, a native of Washington, D.C., who played at WVU and later became an assistant coach and school administrator. “We had guys all around the perimeter [of the city].”
Most of West Virginia’s successes were with those small-town boys from Burgettstown over to Waynesburg, Masontown, Fredericktown, Carmichaels, Charleroi, Vanderbilt, Brownsville, Uniontown, Connellsville and on into Somerset County. The city kids from Baldwin, Whitehall, Duquesne, Clairton, McKeesport, West Mifflin, Wilkinsburg, Swissvale, Shaler, Monroeville, Penn Hills and Aliquippa usually ended up at Pitt — that is, if Penn State didn’t want them first.
“I always thought the best players in Western Pa. always went to Penn State,” said Ford. “The ones that Penn State didn’t really want went to Pitt. Then the ones that Pitt couldn’t get came to Morgantown.”
This Penn State-Pitt-West Virginia food chain existed for decades until the Nittany Lions chose to join the Big Ten for the 1993 season. Pitt and Penn State played every year from 1935—1992, briefly revived the series for four more games from 1997—2000, and are scheduled to resume play for two games beginning in 2016.
West Virginia, too, played Penn State annually until 1992, and for the most part, West Virginians harbored a healthy respect for the Nittanys. Not so with Pitt. There were no “Eat (fill in the blank) Penn State” or “Beat the Hell out of Penn State” shirts. Those were reserved for just one school.
“There was never the passion and . . . I’ll say hatred . . . that was presented [for Pitt] like when I went to West Virginia,” said quarterback Jeff Hostetler, who saw two different sides of the Pitt rivalry while attending both Penn State and West Virginia. “I think a lot of that was the disrespect that West Virginia always felt came from Pitt.”
The Panther fans always like to refer to Penn State as their No. 1 target; West Virginia their No. 1 nuisance — their not-so-subtle way of minimizing the West Virginia rivalry. Another was their reluctance to adopt the phrase “Backyard Brawl,” which didn’t become the game’s officially trademarked slogan until just a few years ago (think of all the money the two schools could have made on licensed apparel through the years).
“Whenever I was coaching [Pitt] we had Penn State,” recalled the late Foge Fazio, who replaced Jackie Sherrill in 1982. “A lot of people thought, well, we’re going to beat West Virginia and there is nothing to worry about there. Let’s worry about Notre Dame and Penn State — not so much the players, but the fans and the boosters sometimes buy into what they read.”
“When I came to Pittsburgh, it didn’t take me long to realize that Penn State was awfully big historically,” Johnny Majors said in 2003. “But my friends who loved Pitt told me, ‘Oh, man, you’re going to hate West Virginia.’”
In the beginning, when Pitt was beating West Virginia like a drum, treating WVU with ambivalence was the best way to handle those nutty hillbillies — or “Hoopies” as Dan Marino used to call them. Just play the game, beat them, and then ignore them as much as possible and eventually they will go back into the hills — was Pitt’s thinking. But eventually, West Virginia started winning some, and later, the Mountaineers began rubbing it in. Soon Pitt’s ambivalence and indifference toward West Virginia was replaced by anger, and then hatred. Today, you can probably add a little envy to the list.
“Beating West Virginia is great,” former Panther center J.C. Pelusi said during a 2007 Fox Sports Pittsburgh TV special commemorating the 100th anniversary of the football series. “You can’t beat them by enough points, as far as I’m concerned. They didn’t like us a whole lot and we didn’t like them a whole lot, and there wasn’t a whole lot of respect.”
“I [expletive] hate West Virginia,” ex-Pitt linebacker Scott McKillop told Pittsburgh sports columnist Joe Starkey in 2011. “I can’t stand the state. I just don’t like that university.”
There you have it — so much for ambivalence.
Pitt’s single greatest football moment of the last 25 years came in Morgantown on December 1, 2007. The Panthers were 28 1/2-point underdogs facing a Mountaineer team in line to go to the BCS national championship game. All West Virginia had to do was beat a mediocre 4-7 Panther team at home and a trip to New Orleans was guaranteed. In fact, many West Virginians had already booked their flights. But a funny thing happened; Pitt won the game. Afterward, Pitt’s coaches were so giddy with delight that they chose to send out Christmas cards to recruits with the final score of 13-9 pasted on the front of them.
So with that stinging loss as a backdrop, I return to my Pitt story. The year was 1994 and I was working as West Virginia’s associate sports information director in the days before Twitter, Facebook and the Internet took over our lives. Back then, being able to set up a group dial on the fax machine was considered a valuable technical skill.
In addition to providing team information to the press, it was my job to pull Mountaineer players out of the locker room for postgame interviews. For Pitt games, that task could sometimes be troublesome after a loss, which is exactly how the ending of this one seemed to be turning out.
After leading throughout — at one point by more than 20 points — West Virginia’s secondary turned Pitt quarterback John Ryan into John Unitas. With a minute and a half left and Pitt trailing 40-33, Ryan marched the Panthers right down the field and into the end zone. Johnny Majors, then in his second go-around coaching the Panthers, decided to go for the two-point conversion instead of kicking the extra point and settling for the tie. West Virginia’s beleaguered defense, which had surrendered large chunks of yardage the entire afternoon, couldn’t defend confined spaces either. The Panthers got the two to take a 41-40 lead with just 38 seconds remaining on the clock.
My difficult job had now become impossible. What player or coach is going to want to come out and talk to reporters after this debacle? That was what I was thinking as I reentered the depths of Pitt Stadium to use the bathroom and collect my thoughts in a brief moment of monastic solitude. “Monastic solitude” was actually a phrase used by a clever Pittsburgh reporter to describe how open Pitt’s Bill Pilconis was when he caught the winning touchdown against West Virginia in 1970, which I guess made him REALLY wide open. That game introduced first-year coach Bobby Bowden to the darker side of Mountaineer Nation — a story you can read about later in this book.
Well, in ’94, another monumental Mountaineer collapse was occurring right in front of our eyes. While splashing some fresh water on my face and then adjusting my tie, I heard a commotion out in the hallway. A uniformed policeman had just kicked a garbage can and uttered a few expletives about Pitt’s crappy defensive backs. What was he talking about, I wondered?
“Excuse me officer, what just happened?”
“The damned kid from West Virginia scored a touchdown!” he growled.
“Yes, the Pitt kid let him run right by him for a touchdown.”
I hurriedly walked outside and discovered, lo and behold, that Zach Abraham had somehow gotten past Pitt’s Denorse Mosley for a 60-yard touchdown. West Virginia was now leading 47-41, and there were only 23 seconds left in the game — not nearly enough time for Pitt to get through WVU’s Swiss cheese D for another score.
How could I have missed this?
For the next 10 minutes, I had to be filled in on one of the most bizarre finishes in Backyard Brawl history. The last three guys out of the locker room were the game’s biggest stars — quarterback Chad Johnston, Abraham, and fellow wide receiver Rahsaan Vanterpool; Abraham and Vanterpool accounted for 385 of West Virginia’s 396 receiving yards that afternoon.
Reporters swarmed all three, asking them in as many different ways as they could how it happened. When their interviews were finished, the narrow parking lot outside the stadium where the team buses were parked was now empty. Not a single one of them was in sight.
Coach Don Nehlen, in his haste to get out of town, had left without his three best players, and it was up to me to make sure they got back to Morgantown in my beat-up Honda Civic. Johnston caught a ride with his parents, leaving Abraham and Vanterpool under my not-so-adult supervision. Abraham sat in the front seat with a box of game programs between his legs while Vanterpool sank into the backseat with a bag of ice wrapped around one knee and his bare foot dangling inches from my face.
Not a single word was spoken the entire way back to Morgantown.
Today, this annual football game is on the verge of extinction, with Pitt announcing in the fall of 2011 its departure from the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference — a month later, West Virginia revealed that it was joining the Big 12. These two longtime adversaries are now charting different courses. Whenever I think of this, I am reminded of something former Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt once said about this series that spans more than a hundred years, thousands of players and dozens of football coaches — some considered among the best in college football history. There is no questioning the fact that Wannstedt has a unique perspective of this game, having played and also coached in it.
“I really think that if you went back, both of these teams are probably closer ability-wise than a lot of people may want to admit,” Wannstedt said in 2009. “I think the talent level, for the most part over the years, has been pretty close.
“Their players know our guys. There are a lot of common denominators there — a lot of common threads, that when this game is over, it’s not that they get on an airplane and fly three hours away and you don’t see and talk about them until next year. This is a game where our players interact with theirs continuously throughout the year.”
At least they did. Whether or not that continues on an annual basis is anyone’s guess. Fortunately, what we do have are a lot of stories. I hope you enjoy them.
Some places where you can order the Backyard Brawl online:
- at WVU Press
- at Amazon.com
- at Barnes & Noble
- at Books-A-Million
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