The “backyard” just became a long distance away. No Interstate can bring it around. No paddle-wheel riverboat can extend its life. No snake-oil salesman nor internet pitchman can keep it alive.
The nicknamed college football series fashionably known as the “Backyard Brawl” is no more. West Virginia University and the University of Pittburgh might as well be as close in proximity as Moscow (not the one in Idaho) and Patagonia at the southernmost tip of South America as the 70-plus miles that now separate the garden city of Morgantown and the gentrified Oakland section of the now-smokeless city of Pittsburgh.
No more. No more.
When WVU agreed to pay the Big East Conference a get-out-town $20 million, the rowdy Panthers of change-coaches-by-the minute Pittsburgh were gone from the Mountaineer football schedule.
There will be no football game between the two respected research institutions in 2012. A series that was begun in 1895 and interrupted only for three years in the early 1940s will not be continued. West Virginia and Pittsburgh had at it in 104 games. The fact that the Panthers own a 61-40-3 advantage might not be broadcast to the dues-paying alumni by the current WVU adminstrators. But recent history favors the Mountaineers, what with their three straight wins and 14-6 record against the Panthers since 1992.
What will Pittsburghers Beano Cook and Dave Wannstedt say? What will columnist Mickey Furfari or leisure-time golfer Bill Stewart say?
Will they storm through the reams of yellowed historical files and see that the first game in the series was actually settled in WVU’s favor in Wheeling. And then the second game had the Mountaineers on top again in Fairmont, a real backyard to old Morgantown. And the third game was held at the WVU Athletic Field in front of what is now Woodburn Hall . . . with WVU showing its superiority with a 6-5 win over the Panthers.
It couldn’t have been called a rivalry because any real rivalry is never so one-sided as West Virginia’s 3-0-0 record in the early going.
Of course the series history was turned on its head when Pittsburgh had winning streaks of 11 games (interrupted only by a tie in 1909) and 15 games (from 1929 through 1946). Oh, that 0-0 tie back in aught nine (1909) was one to remember!
The “brawls” were played at Exposition Park (home of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team), Forbes Field, Pitt Stadium, Three Rivers Stadium, and Heinz Field when held in Pittsburgh. The WVU Athletic Field, Old Mountaineer Field, and Milan Puskar Stadium were the sites when the Mountainners were at home.
No more games were seen in either Wheeling or Fairmont.
Following World War II, West Virginia sent its forces coached by Dud DeGroot, Pappy Lewis, Gene Corum, Jim Carlen, Bobby Bowden, Frank Cignetti, Don Nehlen, Rich Rodriguez, Bill Stewart, and Dana Holgorsen at the northern brawlers.
Beginning in 1943, Pittsburgh countered with its hordes coached by the likes of Clark Shaughnessy, Wes Fesler, Mike Milligan, Len Casanova, Tom Hamilton, Red Dawson, John Michelosen, Dave Hart, Carl DePasqua, Johnny Majors (two different stints), Jackie Sherrill, Serafino “Foge” Fazio, Mike Gottfried, Paul Hackett, Sal Sunseri (one game), Walt Harris, Dave Wannstedt, Michael Haywood (who never actually coached a game), Todd Graham (one season), and as of December 22, 2011, Paul Chryst.
That list may seem like a lot of coaches for the 58-year time period. But you have to understand that expectations are high in football-favored and flavored western Pennsylvania and “Pitt” does have a fabled football history that includes nine national championships, a Heisman trophy winner in Tony Dorsett (Dor-SETT), and a 13-9 win over WVU and Coach Rodriguez on December 1, 2007.
For now, people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line will have to be content to sit in their rocking chairs on their front porches and ruminate on the many hills and valleys the old series produced.
West Virginia won the last meeting, a 21-20 major-bowl saver that Coach Holgorsen and company used to eventually roll into the Orange Bowl as a Big East tri-champion . . . and then roll out of Miami on the smiles brought by a 70-33 win over Clemson.
The country’s college football-showing networks always jumped on the “Brawl Bandwagon” when national coverage was drawn to the WVU-Pittsburgh game. “So close together”, “Recruit the same high school players”, “high school opponents”, “Both sides have had high school teammates that are now on the opposition team”, “ bragging rights for a year”, “They just plain don’t like each other”, and “like nothing better than to spoil the other team’s season”.
It seemed like the appeal of the game had lessened on both sides and in both states as time flew past on its speed of light wings. Both camps sought national prominence instead of only parochial praise. Football shown on cable outlets five nights a week gradually weakened the game’s significance. Beating the other side became a means to get to a larger stage . . . and a possible national championship.
For Pittsburgh or West Virginia University, a win over the other side was not a season-maker or season-breaker. A possible 2-10 season in Morgantown that had wins over Pittsburgh and Marshall would mean little or nothing. A possible 3-9 season in Pittsburgh that had wins over WVU, Miami of Ohio, and Miami of Florida would be akin to having partial season-ticket plans in the left-field upper deck to Pirates games. And the Pirates have endured 19 straight losing seasons.
West Virginia will be in the Big 12 and soon Pittsburgh will be in the Atlantic Coast Conference. West Virginia will be hard-pressed to build another “Backyard Brawl” series when the nearest conference opponent is 1,300 miles away. Pittsburgh’s nearest conference opponents will be in College Park, Maryland and Blacksburg, Virginia.
Finding common feuds between the Panthers and Terrapins and Panthers and Hokies might take a few dozen seasons to work their ways under the skins of each side.
Travel between Morgantown and Lubbock, Austin, Fort Worth, and Waco in Texas won’t be a dream-filled Interstate trek. Travel between Pittsburgh and Miami and Tallahassee in Florida or Clemson, South Carolia will be more than a puddle jump or cruise over the Star City bridge.
The “brawl” — for now — is as extinct as an All-America quarterback from Harman High playing for the Mountaineers . . . or Beano Cook taking an impartial stance when the subjects of Myron Cope, Jack Fleming, or Iron Mike Ditka are brought before him.