Cook, Furfari can measure depth of WVU-Pitt rivalry
November 25, 2007 10:00 AM
Mickey Furfari WVU beat writer.
Program covers of Backyard Brawl through the years.
By Chuck Finder Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
One hundred sixty years combined. That's how long their eyes have been around to watch local college football.
Their eyes, for roughly four score years, have paid close attention to Pitt and West Virginia, their hometown teams and alma maters. Their eyes, despite what any smart aleck says, weren't around to see the 1895 beginning way back when West Virginia and then-named Western University of Pennsylvania first met in Wheeling, and Pitt by any name got WUPped, 8-0. But, man, what their eyes have seen.
Their testimony is personal witness to the past three-fourths of what this week becomes a 100-game border war.
Pitt and West Virginia wage their centennial contest Saturday night at Mountaineer Field, and no academic can summarize and theorize and categorize this history any better than Carroll H. Cook -- you can call him Beano -- and Domenick Furfari -- you can call him Mickey.
Cook, 76, was and is a Pitt man. He worked as the university's sports information director from 1956-66, most notably promoting Panthers athletics to such a degree that he once attempted to pose Dr. Jonas Salk and basketball guard Don Hennon for a poster proclaiming: America's Great Shot-Makers. He took his talents to ABC and CBS in public relations and in an on-air studio analyst's seat, then to the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times as a sports writer, and finally, and most recognizably, to ESPN's omnipresent airwaves.
It is there that he earned the nickname The Pope of College Football. He has a press room named after him in the Petersen Events Center.
Furfari, 84, was and is a West Virginia man. He worked with famed announcer Jack Fleming on the school newspaper. He became such a staple that this long-retired Morgantown Dominion-Post sports editor covers Mountaineers athletics for several state newspapers still, making this his 61st season on the beat. He is a member of the Mountaineers athletic hall of fame. Like famed correspondent Helen Thomas at presidential news conferences, he gets the first question at Mountaineers football pressers.
To these men, Pitt vs. West Virginia is many things: a way of life; a series that has matured into a full-bore, anyone-can-win rivalry; a matter of geography; and a puzzle.
They recently got together over lunch in Greene County, almost the midway point, to talk about it.
"We don't know who came up with the name Backyard Brawl," admitted Cook, a man with an almost photographic memory. "We all think it's Russ Franke of the [departed Pittsburgh] Press."
"Russ was a nice man," Furfari added.
"But it stuck. It stuck," Cook continued. "They all use it. They all promote it as the Backyard Brawl. It wasn't that when I was there. But people don't realize that Pitt is closer to West Virginia in distance than to Penn State."
"You know, Beano, it really hasn't been a rivalry until the last 60 years or so," Furfari added. "Because Pitt was so dominating."
"You're dominating now," Cook said of West Virginia. "[4-2 Rich] Rodriguez holds the upper hand."
In a series where the campuses are separated by just 75 miles, in one of college football's oldest (about No. 21) and nearest (Duke-North Carolina, Cal-Stanford and USC-UCLA are closer) rivalries, Pitt owns a distinct 59-37-3 edge.
West Virginia, however, owns most of the past quarter-century, at 15-7-2, and the past decade and a half, at 11-4.
At least, that's how Beano and Mickey see it.
Excuse Furfari for going all Webster on us.
"I think a definition of 'rivalry' is competition. And there wasn't any. Except for 1920 and 1922 and 1928, there were no more [West Virginia victories] until 1947.
"Until West Virginia became respectable, it was two for one -- two trips to Pittsburgh for one in Morgantown." Shoot, from 1900 to 1929, it was 21 for two.
West Virginia won five of the first six meetings, then Pitt went on something of a roll that lasted, oh, a half-century or so.
"When I was at Pitt," Cook added of a time when the Panthers held a 36-11-1 advantage, "West Virginia was just a game on the schedule." Penn State was the in-state rival, though somehow 21st-century Penn State map makers redrew the lines and turned themselves into a Midwestern-based league member and Pitt into foreign territory. Cook continued, "But at West Virginia, Pitt was always a big thing."
"West Virginia would bring 15,000, 20,000 fans. They wanted to come to Pitt.
"I tell you, The Pittsburgh Press circulation department used to root for West Virginia, because if West Virginia beat Pitt, on Sunday they sold 20,000 extra papers."
Ah, the good old days ... .
Steelers Nation fondly remembers Jack Fleming as the radio soundtrack to a golden era. The thing was he loathed neighboring Pitt.
He was the College Football Hall of Fame voice of the Mountaineers, and his gruff delivery, recognized for generations from panhandle to panhandle, was born to hate all things Panther.
Cook picked up the story while he and Furfari were recalling particularly sarcastic press notes that Cook authored for one Pitt-West Virginia tussle. ("You should have seen some of the releases he wrote," Furfari said with a chortle.) This particular time, Cook penned something about Mountaineers fans getting to drive north on two-lane paved roads, so they didn't have to resort to their habitual single-file motoring. "Uh," Cook grunted, "Jack Fleming got furious.
"Jack Fleming's house was above the old stadium," Cook continued. "He told me, when he was a child, Pitt would come out on the field, and he would sit on his mother's lap. His mother would point down at them. And his mother would say, 'Son, that's Pitt. You hate Pitt now. You hate Pitt tomorrow. You hate Pitt until the day you die. After that, you will hate Pitt for eternity.' "
The roaring '20s and one hotel
West Virginia continually made the trek to Pittsburgh in the early going, mostly to lose.
In 1928, legendary Mountaineers player Ira Errett Rodgers guided his alma mater against legendary coach Jock Sutherland and host Pitt. Rodgers' boys prevailed. Furfari related that it remained the greatest memory of Rodgers' life that the sideline giant afterward shook his hand and offered, "Nice job, Rodge."
"Was that 9-6?" Cook asked.
Indeed it was. "You gotta like this man's mind," Furfari marveled of Cook.
Anyway, back to the 1928 tale as Furfari told it:
"[West Virginia] people who heard the game on KDKA radio went up to Pittsburgh to celebrate. They went up to the old William Penn Hotel. They celebrated until the middle of the night."
All right, we know what you're thinking: It ignited the first furniture fires in Mountaineers history, right?
"No couches burned," Furfari reported proudly.
"It was different then," Cook added. "People were civilized."
And another thing: It was at a William Penn Hotel, post-victory soiree in 1922 when one more piece of lore originated. Right then and there it marked the first occasion that it was publicly called "West By Gawd Virginia."
The 'Garbage' Game
The year was 1961. A Pitt student reporter by the name of Jim O'Brien -- you may know him from his bountiful books today on Pittsburgh sports -- quoted a Pitt player saying unkind things about West Virginia.
"The player said, 'They're rebuilding with garbage,' " Cook recalled.
" 'With Western Pennsylvania garbage,' " Furfari interjected.
Whatever the wording, the Mountaineers' sports information director caught wind of the story while attending a Tuesday media luncheon at Frank Gustine's restaurant to promote the game at Pitt. The visitor went to the student-newspaper offices in the Cathedral of Learning and wove a tale about how his brother's photograph was in the latest edition and could he please get four or five copies.
That marked what is believed to be the first bulletin-board material in Brawl history.
Favored Pitt fell by 20-6 to the visiting "Garbage," which apparently was so incensed that it came back 364 days later and drubbed Pitt again, 15-8.
Talk about a catchy slogan: Refuse to lose.
The best line
The year was 1955. Seventeenth-ranked Pitt toppled sixth-ranked West Virginia by 26-7, though the visiting Mountaineers scored in the waning moments -- after the joyous Pitt fans already had torn down the goalposts. Gracious Pitt officials awarded West Virginia a point-after anyway.
Cook can still hear late Pitt player and coach Steve Petro barking on the sideline, "Don't give 'em anything."
"That was the most important win for Pitt since the Fordham game in 1938," Cook added. "That put Pitt back into the national picture." And it put Pitt in the Sugar Bowl, whose representatives coincidentally came to Pitt Stadium that day to scout West Virginia.
Cook's favorite line was not Petro's bitter statement, was not the five-point odds in West Virginia's favor. Rather, it was something written by reporter-editor Bill Evans from Fairmont, W.Va., about the line of Mountaineers fans motoring back home: "The longest funeral procession in the history of mankind."
The bottom line
The year was 1970. Five years earlier at old Mountaineer Field, the teams broke form and turned the Brawl into fastbreak football with a 63-48 West Virginia victory. The score purveyor of the day, Western Union, figured that had to be a misprint and accused Morgantown stat keepers of being drunk on the job. It was the highest-scoring game in major-college football to that point, and then the Mountaineers rang up 38 and 49 points in defeating Pitt in 1968 and 1969.
So when the Mountaineers took a 35-8 lead on Pitt by the 1970 halftime, Furfari's wife announced to her husband and, inadvertently, the rest of the Pitt Stadium press box, that she was going Downtown to shop.
"She loved to shop," he remembered of the late Elizabeth.
"They all do," interjected Cook, who has never been wed.
"And," Furfari added, "she had the credit cards."
So you can imagine both the physical and fiscal pain felt when Pitt rallied to win, 36-35. It remains the comeback of the Brawl ages.
In the end, angry West Virginia fans shoved their way to the visiting locker-room door, looking for coach Bobby Bowden.
"They were yelling, 'Bobby, come out. Bobby, come out,' " Furfari said. "But he wouldn't come out. They wanted to ... " "Kill him," Cook finished.
Some of the rest
"There's so much history," Furfari said.
In 1963, when Pitt rode a paddle-boat from Star City, W.Va., to the Monongahela River-side old Mountaineer Field, Paul Martha raced 46 yards for the game-winning touchdown over a West Virginia team that included his brother Richie. ( The next week, Pitt lost its only game that season -- to Navy.)
In 1975, in perhaps the most memorable game of the series for both sides, when Bill McKenzie kicked the game-winning field goal on the final play to beat 20th-ranked visiting Pitt, suspended receiver Bernie Kirchner caught the ball in the end zone and promptly ran it up to the student-rich, couch-infamous Sunnyside neighborhood to celebrate. (One last note about that game: A West Virginia graduate assistant somehow worked his way to the field while scouting a Pitt game, and his translation of the Panthers' defensive calls became useful intelligence for the victorious Mountaineers.)
In 1994, Mountaineers coach Don Nehlen so desperately wanted out of Pittsburgh, he accidentally left behind the three stars who helped him win the game: quarterback Chad Johnston, plus receivers Zach Abraham and Rashaan Vanterpool.
Beware the swift kick every generation from years that end in 7. In 1967, Mountaineers kicker Ken Juskowich made five field goals -- almost half of his season total -- in a 15-0 victory. In 1987, Pitt survived a field-goal snoozefest in new Mountaineer Field, 6-3. In 2007 ... ?
The final sermon
"Nobody has fun anymore," The Pope preached. "College football is now a business. The kids go to summer school. Freshmen come early, the spring semester -- the last free time anybody has is your senior year of high school, and a lot of kids miss that now. Football's year-round. And everybody hates everybody. Nobody laughs anymore. Members of the media think that everything they write or say is more important than the Ten Commandments."