|The Backyard Brawl turns 100, and what a century it's been|
|Written by Admin|
|Wednesday, 28 November 2007 14:16|
To Rhoads, the Backyard Brawl is a perfect nickname for an always-physical, always-meaningful series that will be played for the 100th time Saturday night when Pitt tries to block No. 2 West Virginia's path to the national championship game.
Other rivalries are better known nationally and make a bigger impact on the Top 25 rankings, but the Brawl decides who is the toughest kid on a very small block.
``This rivalry is big and it's important,'' Rhoads said Wednesday. ``This one is mean. This one is physical and these are two teams that like to get after each other for 60 minutes.''
Separated by only 75 miles of interstate highway, the Panthers and Mountaineers often recruit from the same talent pool, with brothers and former high school teammates sometimes landing on opposing sides.
The teams even share the same colors, gold and blue, though in much different shades.
``There's a lot of great stories in this game,'' said Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, a player and a coach in the Backyard Brawl. ``They're recruiting a lot of the same players we are, so the kids know each other. That always brings a rivalry to life, when the kids know each other.''
If Bobby Bowden didn't know much about the Brawl, he learned quickly. With his 1970 Mountaineers manhandling the Panthers 35-8 at halftime in Pitt Stadium, Bowden pulled in the reins, content to sit on a big lead.
Instead, Pitt came surging back for a 36-35 upset victory that rankles West Virginia fans to this day. Some fans were so incensed they beat on West Virginia's locker room door, demanding Bowden come out and explain what happened.
Bowden joked later he wasn't worried so much about being hung in effigy as he was about being hung for real.
Those same fans weren't much happier when West Virginia squandered a 31-9 lead in the final 17 minutes in 1989 and Pitt came back for a 31-31 tie, the last Brawl in which both teams were ranked in the Top 10.
There seem to be 99 quirky stories for the previous 99 Backyard Brawls, an informal nickname that usually appeared in lower case until about 30 years ago.
After all, this rivalry once produced the highest-scoring game in major college football history. The Brawl was decided one year by a walk-on kicker, the next by a Heisman Trophy winner - and, nearly 20 years later, by another walk-on from the same city as the earlier walk-on star.
Talk about fanning a rivalry. Imagine how West Virginia fans felt in 1955 when, with Sugar Bowl representatives on hand to invite the Mountaineers to the New Year's Day game, the bowl reps changed their minds and chose Pitt instead.
While these Mountaineers (10-1, 5-1 in Big East) seemingly have little chance of losing to Pitt (4-7, 2-4), they might want to be a little wary.
In 1954, a mediocre Pitt team that fired its coach during a 4-5 season took West Virginia out of the national title race with a 13-10 upset, the Mountaineers' only loss.
In 1997, underdog Pitt landed a surprise bowl bid by scoring a stirring 41-38 three-overtime comeback win in Morgantown after Pete Gonzalez completed a 20-yard pass on a fourth-and-17 play in overtime.
There's another first in this Backyard Brawl: Dec. 1.
Backyard Brawls have been staged in August, September, October and November, but this will be the first December meeting.
Pitt once led the series 49-22-1, but West Virginia - which played only a handful of home games in the series until 1962 - has been catching up under coaches Don Nehlen and Rich Rodriguez. The Mountaineers are 15-7-2 in the last 24 games and have won 11 of 15.
Pitt's early dominance was largely the result of famed coach Jock Sutherland, who went 14-1 against the Mountaineers. The lone loss came in 1928, when gleeful West Virginia fans followed the Pitt team home and spent all night celebrating at a hotel close to Pitt's campus.
The rivalry has produced approximately 400 NFL players, about two dozen first-round draft picks, a lot of hard feelings and many off-the-wall moments. A public address announcer and some reputed garbage men once played prominent roles in the Brawl.
With West Virginia coming off an 0-8-2 season in 1960, a Pitt player noticed the Mountaineers were heavily recruiting in western Pennsylvania. In an offhanded remark to the Pitt student paper, he said the Mountaineers were rebuilding ``with western Pennsylvania garbage.''
It might be football's first known example of trash talking.
The story wound up on West Virginia's bulletin board, and the motivated Mountaineers upset Pitt 20-6 in Pitt Stadium in 1961. A year later, to prove it wasn't a fluke, West Virginia won again at Pitt, 15-8, during an eight-win season.
Proof perfect that one coach's trash is another coach's treasure.
In 1965, West Virginia's 63-48 win at old Mountaineer Field was the highest-scoring game in major college football until then.
West Virginia's biggest win may have been in 1975. With Bowden soon to leave for Florida State, walk-on kicker Bill McKenzie's last-play field goal gave the Mountaineers an unexpected 17-14 victory. The next season, Pitt bounced back behind Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett to win the national title, but only after a tight 24-16 win over a losing West Virginia team.
McKenzie, a straight-on kicker who had kicked only two other field goals that season, was from Wheeling, W.Va. In an unusual twist, another Wheeling walk-on, wide receiver Zach Abraham, caught a decisive 60-yard TD pass with 16 seconds remaining to give West Virginia a 47-41 win at Pitt Stadium in 1994.
That game featured three touchdowns and as many lead changes in the final 1 minute, 32 seconds, with West Virginia's Chad Johnston throwing for scores of 81 and 60 yards only seconds apart. The game also featured four touchdowns on blocked kicks and interceptions and some barnyard humor.
Pitt Stadium announcer Don Ireland caused a stir by making several hillbilly-type jokes about the Mountaineers. In one announcement, he said, ``The owner of a tractor with the West Virginia license plate number E-I-E-I-O, please report to the parking lot - your lights are on.''
Just another day in college football's biggest Brawl of them all.