Buildup to the Brawl: It's the fans who make rivalry great
It's not just the football games that make a rivalry a rivalry, or a bitter one, for that matter; it's the fans
November 29, 2007 10:00 AM
Ian Smith, president of the Oakland Zoo, cheers on the basketball team against Boston Tuesday.
By Chuck Finder and Paul Zeise Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
One represents a big city. The other represents a state and a state of mind.
Yet they share much.
They adorn themselves in varying tones of blue and gold. They adore their backs fleet. They prefer their defenses suffocating. They take a sip of the spirits now and then ... for warming purposes, of course.
And they revel still in the common-man commonality of one of college football America's oldest rivalries that, at 75 miles, is also one of its closest.
Amid all their burning passions toward one another and their burning desires and, though it's rare anymore, their burning couches, the faithful of both universities and football programs focus their attention once every calendar year on a confrontation they've come to affectionately call the Backyard Brawl.
Saturday in Morgantown, they convene for the 100th and, arguably, most directly meaningful: If West Virginia prevails against visiting Pitt Saturday, the Mountaineers are expected to advance to the national-championship game.
As if a Brawl needs any extra emotion.
He is 54 years old, a 35-year union construction worker who helped to build Mountaineer Field.
He is the man who admittedly "dresses up in an outfit and acts kind of stupid" in a gold-painted hard hat, a gold apron emblazoned with "Beast of the East" and a reputation throughout all things Mountaineer.
He is, simply, Big Cat.
"I'm like the Mr. T of West Virginia," explained the middle-aged Morgantown man who prefers anonymity beyond the 301 home games, 52 road games and 17 bowls he has attended. "I didn't get all the fame and money, though."
His visage is widely recognized in parking lots at West Virginia, Pitt and bowl games. This Backyard Brawl will mark his 39th consecutive Pitt-West Virginia game, home and away.
"My mind's kind of going, but the first game I saw at Pitt Stadium was the one where Pitt came back and beat Bobby Bowden," Big Cat said.
That was 1970, and his streak began the year before.
He started out selling hot dogs and programs as a 10-year-old, anything to get into games with his hometown team. As a high-schooler, he started buying tickets. Still does. He just doesn't sit in them, both because he -- like many Mountaineers fans -- prefers to stand and because he hangs with the students.
The organized student section is in the Mountaineer Field top deck, kids wearing gold "Mountaineer Maniacs" T-shirts and, in every sense, backing Big Cat, who stands at the 50-yard line in front of them.
"They sort of adopted me the last six, seven years," said Big Cat, who got that nickname from his days as a bar bouncer.
He harbors no resentment toward Pitt; in fact, admires the program for sticking with a rival -- unlike Penn State with both teams. His only Pitt dislike? Heinz Field security tried to make him sit down last year, but then the entire Mountaineers section stood up to join him, he said.
"I'm a broken-down old man who loves football. If it wasn't for West Virginia football, I don't know where I'd be right now. And the chance for the national championship, I've been waiting my whole life for that. We're out in the middle of nowhere, and nobody respects us. So, it's great that we're doing this well."
Ian Smith isn't sure that his beloved Pitt Panthers have a chance to beat West Virginia Saturday but, as far as he is concerned, Pitt students and fans will always be the winner in this confrontation.
"Look, no matter what, think about how depressing it is that after winning a football game and partying all night, you have to wake up and know you are still living in West Virginia," said Smith, a senior bio-engineering major and president of the Panthers' Petersen Events Center rowdy rooting section known as the Oakland Zoo. "I mean, what could be worse than that?"
Smith was only half-kidding, of course, but as a Grove City resident, he grew up a Pitt fan and never had any question where he was headed to school. And he is quite certain that, if West Virginia didn't have a good football team, the school would have, well, no redeeming qualities.
"You can't even compare the education I am getting to whatever they are selling down there," Smith said. "And most of the kids that I grew up with who went to West Virginia, did so because they couldn't get into Pitt ... or any other respectable school for that matter. And they might get us in football, but we'll get them in basketball, and they know it, so it is a wash."
Smith can be seen at most Pitt home basketball games leading the cheers -- and the jeers -- and encouraging his fellow students to join in on chants. At times, he knows that he and his fellow students can make life miserable for opponents but, he said, that is all part of creating an atmosphere.
"We might chant things at the other teams, but it is all in good fun, and West Virginia fans don't seem to understand that."
Smith won't be at the game in Morgantown -- he said he'll be studying for finals.
Jeremy Hatcher on game Saturdays wears: a fedora with a gold West Virginia kerchief around it; a tired Mountaineers bandana over his scalp; a WVU eye patch; a battered, old blue blazer with gold trim and a WVU patch on the left breast; a gold "Mountaineer Maniacs" T-shirt; gold-trimmed blue pants remarkably similar to slacks a band member would don; and gold-and-blue tennis shoes.
This, ladies and gentleman, is your elected leader.
Hatcher is the Maniacs' executive director.
His Maniacs are a university-organized group, paying $20 dues annually, to guarantee themselves 3,000 upper-deck tickets for every Mountaineer Field home game. Roughly 5,000 students are members. To get those seats, they go online, much akin to Pitt students and the Oakland Zoo. They travel, too.
They also do good works such as raising funds for charity, even competing against Pitt in such efforts.
"It's a holy game, the 100th anniversary," said Hatcher, from Ripley, W.Va., just north of Charleston. "Every Pitt game is a great game. For the past couple of years, it's been a great game -- for WVU.
"We hate Pitt in everything. Whether it's basketball, baseball, soccer, football. We show up and hate Pitt."
Few people have as much insight into the Backyard Brawl as Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt. He has lived through it as a recruit -- both Pitt and West Virginia offered him scholarships, and he ultimately chose the Panthers -- as a player and as a coach.
Were the stakes higher for a player or a coach?
"I think it is every bit as intense as coach," Wannstedt said. "And two weeks from now, we are going to see their coaches on the road recruiting. We are going to bump into these guys and see them, and, when you are competing with someone in the neighborhood, it adds to it and that was what rivalries are all about."
Wannstedt said the rivalry with West Virginia was always a little chippier than games against other hated rivals such as Notre Dame and Penn State.
"It was a different kind of game because it was closer in proximity -- and I don't want to use the word more physical because a lot of games were physical -- but it was the only game Tony Dorsett was thrown out of in his career, so that sort of sums it up. It always had a little more of an edge to it -- it was different than most."
For the record, Wannstedt is 5-5 in the Backyard Brawl as a player, assistant coach and head coach, but he's 0-2 as a head coach.
Vaughn Rivers grew up a Pitt supporter. "Had to be a hometown fan," he said. But, when it came time for him and childhood buddy Eric Wicks to graduate Perry Traditional Academy five years ago and go to college, the hometown team did not want them. West Virginia did. End of story.
"I couldn't have written it any better," said Rivers, the senior Mountaineers cornerback-returner. "Me and Wicks coming from Pittsburgh. It being our last [regular-season] game. The 100th Backyard Brawl. With a chance to go to the national championship. ... But, if both teams were 0-11, it would still be big."
When Rivers enters as a backup, that gives West Virginia three Pittsburgh area defensive backs -- him, Wicks and Woodland Hills' Ryan Mundy. Pitt, he noticed, claims only one of its top five defensive backs from the state of Pennsylvania, and no closer than Harrisburg at that.
Why didn't Pitt want two Perry kids who wound up key, multi-year contributors for the Mountaineers?
"That's still a question to this day," Rivers said. "It left a chip on my shoulder. It gives us both a lot of motivation."
Dr. Jim Barber is a highly successful plastic surgeon with a practice in Sewickley. He has made plenty of money, but he is sure he could have retired by now had he just made a different choice of professions.
"What I should have done was open a furniture store in Morgantown," Barber said. "I would have made more money selling couches than any major retail operation in the country as much as they burn couches down there. I'm assuming they do that out of boredom."
Barber is a 1971 graduate of Pitt and a big donor, and, while he enjoys the West Virginia rivalry as much as anyone, he is not sure why the Mountaineers' fans take it to such extremes.
He remembers plenty of long days at Mountaineer Field -- not necessarily because Pitt lost, but because of the vile things that he recalls West Virginia fans doing to Pitt players and fans. Some of the more G-rated things would include flattening tires and breaking windshields of cars with Pitt or Pennsylvania license plates, throwing rocks into the Pitt fan section and/or throwing full cans of beer down onto the field at the players.
Still, he enjoys the banter with most West Virginia fans because he knows so many of them and he has had so much fun teasing them.
"The two schools are so close in proximity that anyone who grew up in this area that went to either school probably has a relative or a friend or someone else that they know who went to the other school," Barber said. "It is something to talk about all year. They are the most rabid fans in America -- if you are one of them it is great, but, if you aren't, they are horrible to be around."
Barber said he will be hard-pressed to figure out who to root for if the Mountaineers play Big Ten champ Ohio State.
"I like to see the Big East win, especially against the Big Ten and ACC," Barber said. "But because it is West Virginia, if we are talking about the national championship game ... go Buckeyes!"
Joe Clermond is from Tampa, Fla., so he had no prior knowledge of the Pitt-West Virginia rivalry when he first stepped on Pitt's campus as a freshman in 2003.
But Clermond is a fast learner. Once West Virginia week rolled around, he quickly understood that it was something special.
"Guys were getting all hyped up and blaring the radios in the locker room and just ready to go -- and this was on like Monday of game week," said Clermond, a fifth-year senior defensive end for the Panthers.
"Then, the next year, my true freshman year, the West Virginia game was one of the first I started and there was more trash-talking in that game than in any game I had played in, and I'm from Florida where talking is a part of every game."
Clermond said he has grown to dislike everything about West Virginia, from the little WV on the side of the helmets, to the Mountaineers' mascot and that "obnoxious" John Denver song.
But, like most players, he knows the rivalry is a good one because it is based mostly in respect. He recalls how good it felt to beat West Virginia his freshman season -- and how horrible it has felt to lose to them the past two years.
"The schools are so close, and you see some of those guys in the summer," Clermond said. "So there is a familiarity and a respect with them, but it is sort of like when you are playing against your little brother in basketball or something. He wants so badly to beat you, and you just can't seem to bring yourself to let him beat you because you don't want him to have bragging rights in the house."
First in line for the Connecticut game Saturday at the Mountaineer Field gate marked for Maniacs, 34-year-old student Ray Young was wearing a Steve Slaton No. 10 jersey and a gold-and-blue court jester hat he swore you could buy "right down here at the book exchange. Of course, I'm the only one who bought one."
Isn't he a tad old to be an undergraduate in business and economics? "I got tired of all the dead-end jobs, so I went back to school."
A native of the capital city of Charleston, W.Va., he grew up in an anti-Pitt environment.
He figures Pitt fans feel the same way. Mostly because he took some nephews up to Heinz Field this past summer to look around the place, take a little sports-fan tour. When he got back to his SUV, he said, "some Pitt fans stole my Mountaineer license-plate holder."
Even if the Mountaineers wouldn't win another game, Young said, "as long as they beat Pitt, I'm happy."
Correction/Clarification: (Published Nov. 30, 2007) Oakland Zoo president Ian Smith was not planning to attend the Dec. 2, 2007 game between Pitt and West Virginia in Morgantown. It was originally reported in Nov. 29, 2007 editions that he would be at the game in the Pitt band's drum line.