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Pittsburgh vs. West Virginia: The Backyard Brawl

This profile of the Pittsburgh and West Virginia college football rivalry originally appeared in Athlon's 2009 Big East college football magazine. With Pittsburgh headed to the ACC and West Virginia to the Big 12, this year's "Backyard Brawl" could be the last meeting between the two cross-state rivals.

Backyard Brawl — West Virginia and Pitt are too close for kindness

By Michael Bradley

At least he didn’t have to barricade himself inside the locker room as protection against an angry mob. That was the good news. But the aftermath of West Virginia’s 19–15 loss to Pittsburgh in the 2008 renewal of their rivalry still made Mountaineers coach Bill Stewart’s life pretty miserable.

First of all, his team lost to Pitt. Pitt! The Panthers are a mere “65 miles away” from WVU’s Morgantown campus, or “four hills and three creeks,” according to Stewart. The teams have been banging skulls since 1895, only 32 years after West Virginia achieved statehood. For a state with no major professional team, Mountaineer football is everything. And losing to Pitt is worse than a whole collection of jokes about the state’s culture. Add in that Stewart was coaching against the Panthers for the first time as the program’s boss, and you had a pretty unsavory post-game stew.

Losing was bad enough. But what Stewart did afterward, during his post-mortem press conference, was even worse. He complimented Pittsburgh. Said they played hard and all that. Made certain to mention how well Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt had done. Why not give up the recipe for the Country Club Bakery’s pepperoni roll, while you’re at it, Stew? “Oh, boy!” Stewart says now, laughing. “That was a rookie head coaching mistake.”

Stewart wasn’t necessarily wrong for being gracious in defeat. It’s just that he should have held off some. Those West Virginians hate losing to Pitt. “Somebody told me I should have waited two weeks before saying that,” he says. “You would have thought I had said I wanted to be chancellor of Pitt.” Perhaps a fortnight would have been an acceptable cooling-off period, but when it comes to the “Backyard Brawl,” which renews itself for the 102nd time this season, tensions always run high. Closer national scrutiny may be devoted to games like Michigan-Ohio State and USC-Notre Dame, but there are few matchups on the collegiate landscape that match the passions of the Brawl, which thrives on familiarity, proximity, history, enmity and good, old-fashioned class warfare. It’s Pitt’s big-city persona against West Virginia’s country roads. The Panthers’ rich history of national success versus the Mountaineers’ proud regional heritage. 

“We recruit the same kids, and they’re just 75 miles away,” Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt says, proving that the two sides can’t even agree on geography. “The game has so much history to it and so many great finishes and players.”

No one can be quite sure where the term “Backyard Brawl” originated. Noted college football bon vivant (and former Pittsburgh sports information director) Beano Cook credits long-time Pittsburgh Press writer Russ Franke, but even Cook isn’t certain — for perhaps the first time in his life. The designation is quite apt, since it conjures an image of two neighbors slugging it out on a patch of grass bordered by azaleas and perhaps a fence or two, with both winner and loser emerging with bloody noses and torn clothing. “It’s intense,” says former WVU coach Don Nehlen, who went 11–8–2 against Pitt.

Nehlen knows that. When he was hired in Morgantown in 1979 and charged with reversing the school’s mediocre fortunes, he was asked during his interview when he would beat Pitt. All Pitt had done was win a national title three years earlier, produce a Heisman Trophy winner (Tony Dorsett) and win six of seven from the Mountaineers. “I said, ‘We have to figure out how to beat Richmond and Temple first,’” Nehlen says. But Nehlen learned how to do that by putting together a team that played hard, prepared tirelessly and never gave up.

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Before every Pitt game, he would tell the team his story of the Mountaineer trying to climb out of the well. At the top was a Panther with a mallet, and every time the Mountaineer reached the top, that big cat would pound his fingers, and the Mountain man fell back into the well. But he kept climbing back. Finally, after 10 futile tries, the Mountaineer surged out of the hole, surprised the tired Panther and “strangled that son of a bitch,” Nehlen says. In 1983, West Virginia finally got out of the well, triumphing for the first time in seven tries, 24–21. “That was a big win,” Nehlen says.

The first “big win” came in 1895, when West Virginia’s fledgling program, which had played a total of 10 games to that point (since its 1891 inception), handed Pitt (then Western University of Pennsylvania) an 8–0 defeat in the series opener, keyed by future legendary Michigan coach Fielding H. “Hurry Up” Yost and a passel of professional ringers. The teams played only twice over the next five years, both WVU wins, before commencing what would be an annual meeting interrupted only by a pair of war-era pauses and three respites from 1905-12.

The early days were characterized by Pittsburgh (the school received its current name in 1908) dominance. From 1908-51, the Panthers posted a 30–4–1 mark against the Mountaineers, thanks in large part to the efforts of Hall of Fame coaches Pop Warner (1915-23) and Jock Sutherland (1924-38). West Virginia had many teams that held special spots in the school’s football lore during that time, but the 1928 edition  accomplished something no other WVU team was able to do: It beat a Sutherland-coached Panther squad. Pittsburgh had piled up a 73–0 margin in its first two wins that year, but a four-yard TD pass from Eddie Stumpp to Nelson Lang and some stout fourth quarter defense produced a 9–6 Mountaineer triumph.

During its stretch of domination, from 1929-46, Pitt posted 10 shutouts, including five in a row, and the closest WVU came to its tormentors was 13 points, in 1944 (26–13). But when the streak ended, it did so in wild fashion. The 1947 Mountaineers were a modest 5–4 when they made the short drive to Pitt to meet a dreadful (1–7) pack of Panthers. As fog moved in, West Virginia took charge. The game ended in a frenzy, with fans tearing down goal posts in the gathering gloom, and Pitt registering its only points of a 17–2 loss in the waning moments. Although West Virginia would lose the next four games in the series, the triumph re-established the rivalry on relatively even footing and set the stage for the next several decades of more reasonable competition.

That was a good thing, since the Panthers had become rather impressed with themselves in relation to their rivals. For many Pitt fans, the school’s main rival was Penn State, which throughout the 1960s began to establish itself as the state’s premier program. “There’s no team Pitt likes to beat more than Penn State, and no team it would rather not lose to than West Virginia,” says Sam Sciullo Jr., a second-generation Pitt grad, former sports information employee and author of several books on Pitt athletics. Wannstedt, who graduated from Pitt in ’74, agrees. “That’s a good way to put it.”

Since the Panthers and Nittany Lions no longer play regularly, the rivalry with West Virginia has taken center stage, and its history suggests it is worthy of such attention. There have been several games that define both the schools’ attitudes toward each other and the fans’ approach to the game. For West Virginia, a seminal — and heartbreaking — moment came in 1970, when the 4–1 Mountaineers bolted to a 35–8 halftime advantage behind the big arm of quarterback Mike Sherwood and the offensive wizardry of first-year head coach Bobby Bowden. “Everything we touched went for a TD,” Bowden says. Until the second half. The Panthers went to the power game after intermission and began to pummel the lighter WVU front seven.

The Panthers scored. And scored again. Pitt went for — and converted — several fourth down plays. It took advantage of Bowden’s conservative second-half strategy. “I never sat on the football after that,” he says. And, with 0:55 to play, Panther quarterback Dave Havern connected with tight end Bill Pilconis on a five-yard TD that gave Pitt an unbelievable 36–35 comeback win. Afterward, Bowden holed up in the West Virginia locker room, in order to avoid a throng of angry fans thirsting for his scalp. “That’s the darkest day in my coaching career in 50 years of doing this,” he says.

The inspiration from that win served Wannstedt 37 years later. Pitt entered the 2007 game a decided underdog to the 10–1 Mountaineers, who were poised to advance to the BCS title game with a win. All week, Wannstedt regaled his team with stories of great Panther victories in the rivalry, ending with the ’70 triumph. He showed a highlight reel of the game, and then brought in Havern to speak to the players. Suitably inspired — and aided by a thumb injury to WVU quarterback Pat White — the Panthers pulled off a 13–9 win in Morgantown that stunned the nation and gave Pitt tremendous momentum.

“It gave us some life to go into recruiting,” Wannstedt says. “It gave us some life to go into the offseason program and some enthusiasm for the next season. It gave the coaches something to hang onto psychologically. It was a shot in the arm.”

It was, in short, a typical Backyard Brawl.