Backyard Brawl Week 2011: One to go on?


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The Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia is annually one of the most intense rivalry games in college football, and the two schools involved, separated by only about 70 miles, have no problem saying it is the most important game on their schedules.

So Friday's game, which this year will be played at Milan Puskar Stadium, would be a big one in any year. But this year, there are so many subplots, side stories and games within the game that it figures to be one of the most interesting, if not competitive, in the long history of the series.

For starters, this is an elimination game. The winner remains alive and in the hunt for the Big East championship while the loser will be left to scramble to lock up a berth to a lesser bowl.

Both teams still need help in the form of a Cincinnati loss (in Pitt's case, two Cincinnati losses), but seeing as the Bearcats lost their starting quarterback for the season and have three games to play, it seems reasonable to expect at least one more loss out of them.

Beyond that, the teams' two first-year coaches in Todd Graham and Dana Holgorsen have a history of not playing nice with each other and haven't really done a good job of hiding the fact that they probably don't send each other Christmas cards.

Brawl No. 104

Game: Pitt (5-5, 3-2) at West Virginia (7-3, 3-2), Mountaineer Field, Morgantown, W.Va.

When: 7 p.m. Friday.

TV: ESPN.

That feud was fueled in 2009 when West Virginia's Holgorsen, then the Houston offensive coordinator, accused Pitt's Graham, then the Tulsa head coach, of having his players fake injuries to slow the Cougars' no-huddle offense. Houston beat Tulsa that day, 46-45, but the confrontation between the two spilled over into quotes in newspaper reports after the game.

The next year, Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State and his Cougars beat Graham's Golden Hurricane, 65-28, and Holgorsen still had his team throwing touchdown passes late in the game.

Both men have been icy to the subject since it became clear last year that they'd be competing in the same league.

Graham also has some history with West Virginia. He was the team's defensive coordinator, though he said his only memories of the Pitt games he was involved in was how hard he worked breaking down film and trying to figure out how to stop Antonio Bryant (2001) and Larry Fitzgerald (2002).

Also add the fact that several Pitt assistants -- defensive backs coach Tony Gibson, tight ends coach Tony Dews and offensive coordinator Calvin Magee -- once were on staff at West Virginia before leaving in 2008 to go to Michigan with the man they worked for, Rich Rodriguez, who is still public enemy No. 1 in most towns and neighborhoods throughout West Virginia.

What's more, in a Jan. 20, 2008, article in the Post-Gazette, Magee charged West Virginia with racism and said he had proof -- the words of an administrator -- that the reason he wasn't named Rodriguez's successor was because he was an African-American.

Magee this week was asked about his first trip back to West Virginia since that messy ending to his brilliant seven-year career as a Mountaineers assistant and made it clear he wasn't interested in talking about the subject.

"I knew it was coming," Magee said with a laugh when he was asked about his first trip back. "It is the next game on our schedule, I spent seven years at the other place, but it is just our next opponent so I'm excited about our next game. We always thought about this Backyard Brawl as one of the best [rivalries], and the rivalry still stands. That is just what it is, the Backyard Brawl."

Future of the brawl

All of that adds spice to an already heated game.

But it all probably takes a backseat to this all-important question: Will it be the last in the series as both teams are leaving the Big East and heading to different conferences -- West Virginia to the Big 12 and Pitt to the Atlantic Coast Conference?

And in the case of the Mountaineers, not only are they leaving, they are not planning on sticking around for the Big East-mandated 27-month waiting period for teams trying to leave.

West Virginia has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to force its way out in hopes of joining the Big 12 next season. The Big East has countersued.

If West Virginia does free itself in time for the 2012 season, the Mountaineers will have to completely revamp their conference schedule for the next two seasons, and that probably means that Pitt, which is already full with nonconference games for the foreseeable future, won't have room for them and vice versa.

Beyond that, Pitt will then join the ACC at some point -- 2014 at the latest -- and there is talk that when that league officially welcomes Pitt and Syracuse to get to 14 teams, it will switch to a nine-game conference schedule (as opposed to eight) and that means there would be room on Pitt's schedule for only three nonconference games.

If that is the case, according to one person with knowledge of the situation, the Panthers are going to try and schedule two games they consider "winnable home games" -- translation: Division I-AA teams or teams from smaller conferences -- leaving room for one home-and-home game with a major opponent.

That said, the school would like to maintain its series with Notre Dame.

Both Pitt and West Virginia have said they'd like to try and keep the series alive. But they concede it probably isn't realistic to think it will be an annual game like it has been since 1943.

Graham said he hopes to continue to play the game because it is such an important part of the history of both schools but allowed it could be a challenge.

"I've mentioned to the players [that this could be the last Backyard Brawl] but hopefully it is not," Graham said. "But we'll see what happens.

"I know this: There is only going to be one 2011 Backyard Brawl and we've got to get focused on it. I've said -- like Penn State, like Notre Dame -- if you win this game, the ball gets painted and gets put into the trophy case. This is a big game and we've talked about the respect we have for rivalry games. That is what is so special about college football."

West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck said he senses mutual interest in continuing the rivalry in conversations with Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson.

"There's a mutual interest, I think, to figure out how to continue this game," Luck said. "I respect the game. He does as well. ... If at the end of the day, you miss a year or two, I'm not sure that's the worst thing in the world. I think there's a willingness on our part, but still a lot of unanswered questions."

Powerful memories

Continued or not, Friday's game, Luck said, could be the last time the game is played over the holiday weekend. "One thing is fairly certain, it'll be difficult to play this game Thanksgiving Friday," he said.

Luck, like many, hates to see the rivalry go away, even if temporarily. He played in the game himself as quarterback for the Mountaineers in the late 1970s and early '80s.

He said the game has many memories for many people involved but his most vivid was probably 1979 when the Panthers beat the Mountaineers, 24-17, in the last game at Old Mountaineer Field.

"That's probably not shared by many folks. That's my memory, one of those images seared in my mind," Luck said. "There was the Billy McKenzie field goal from 1975. Pitt fans, I'm sure, are still celebrating the 2007 game, but I think if you asked 100 people, you'd get 50 different answers."

In recent years, the hype has been more interesting than the games.

Last year, the two met at Heinz Field, and the Mountaineers pounded the Panthers, 35-10, in a game that Pitt's players didn't seem particularly interested in playing. That game marked the end for coach Dave Wannstedt.

Still, West Virginia and Pitt players hope this is the year that will be most memorable for them as they try to return to a BCS bowl -- Pitt for the first time since the 2004 season and West Virginia for the first time since 2006.

Although this could be the last time these teams meet for some time, Luck said there will be nothing out of the ordinary to commemorate this Backyard Brawl because the hope on both sides is that the series isn't finished forever.

"I don't think it's going to be the last game. It might be the last game for a couple years," Luck said. "But I feel confident that some point in the future, Pitt and West Virginia will be playing the Backyard Brawl."


Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com ; Jenn Menendez: jmenendez@post-gazette.com .


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