College football, maybe moreso than any other sport, is defined by its rivalries. The rivalries are what make us fans feel alive and what bring the unique passion of college football to the forefront. If all college football was just the playing of four quarters of pigskin and two teams shaking hands and going home, it would not be as popular as it is. The vitriol, the hatred and the animosity that comes from the rivalries are the lifeblood of college athletics and the West Virginia Mountaineers and Pittsburgh Panthers have one of the best in the sport - aptly named “The Backyard Brawl”.
If you are reading this and currently attend one of the two universities set to play on Thursday, you may barely remember the Brawl. The players in the games likely have almost no idea of the history of the rivalry - the last time these two teams played was 2011 - Dana Holgorsen, now the head coach at the University of Houston, was the Mountaineers coach and Todd Graham, currently unemployed, was the head coach for the Panthers. Neither Neal Brown nor Pat Narduzzi were involved. The current freshman were 6 or 7 at the time.
The Brawl started in 1895 when Pitt was then named the Western University of Pennsylvania was held in Wheeling, West Virginia. Touchdowns only counted for four points so the Mountaineers won 8-0. The rivalry was born this day when controversy ensued.
Pitt player John Rugh caught a West Virginia punt behind the goal. West Virginia argued they should get credit for a touchdown, while Pitt argued it should be a touchback. After heated discussion, the teams reportedly decided to credit it as a safety, which would make the score 6-0. However, Morgantown newspapers declared the final score to be 10-0 and Pittsburgh newspapers declared it as 6-0. Now, both schools list the final score in their record books as 8-0.
In 1921, the Mountaineers and Panthers played in the first college football game ever to be broadcast on the radio. Announced by Harold W. Arlin on KDKA (Arlin would announce the first ever baseball, tennis and boxing matches as well), Pitt won the game 21-13 and had a mini winning streak going, having won their 10th game in 11 meetings against the Mountaineers.
From 1919 through 1939, the two schools played each other each season, and Pitt took home all but three games during that stretch. This coincided with the Panthers most dominant run in program history, as they won five national championships under head coaches Pop Warner and Jock Sutherland during that time frame.
Did you know that the Panthers and Mountaineers played at Forbes Field at times during the 1920s? From 1904 until 1929, the game was played in Pittsburgh all but one time, a 0-0 tie in 1909 when the game was played in Morgantown. From 1930 through 1962 (33 years and 30 games - a slight pause due to WWII), the Mountaineers only hosted the Panthers 9 times.
In 1952, the Mountaineers won their first game against a ranked team when they beat the 18th ranked Panthers 16-0. In 1955, the Panthers got their revenge when they beat a 7-0 WVU squad and kept them from going to the Sugar Bowl.
In 1961, the Mountaineers beat the Panthers 20-6. West Virginia was winless the year before, going 0-8-2 and Panthers end John Kuprok said “Sure, they’re rebuilding, but just like I told you last year, they’re rebuilding with Western Pennsylvania garbage”. The 1962 victory was called “the Garbage Game”.
Pitt’s come-from-behind victory in 1970 forced then coach Bobby Bowden to keep his players in the locker room for an extra hour as irate fans could not believe the team blew a 35-8 halftime lead. Pitt’s victory is credited with switching to a Power-I scheme.
In 1975, the unranked Mountaineers once again beat a ranked Pitt team 17-14 when walk-on kicker Bill McKenzie kicked a field goal in the last seconds. The Panthers would then rattle off 7 straight wins from 1976-1982.
In 1983, future Super Bowl winning quarterback Jeff Hostetler would engineer a 90-yard drive in the final minutes to give then head coach Don Nehlen his first Brawl victory. Nehlen would finish his career 11-8-2 against the Panthers, including a record of 9-2-1 from 1988-1999.
One of Nehlen’s most memorable games during that stretch has to be 1994, the highest scoring affair in the rivalries history, when West Virginia won 47-41.
Upsets are bound to happen in rivalry games and in 1997, Pitt secured a 41-38 win that pushed the Panthers to 6-5 and made them bowl eligible for the first time in eight years. 2007 was another upset. (If you’re a Pitt fan you know about this game, if you’re a WVU fan, we’ll just skip it for now).
The last time these two teams played, 2011, West Virginia used a defensive onslaught in the final minutes to completely unravel the Pitt offense as the Mountaineers held onto a 21-20 lead and never let go.
No Backyard Brawl is complete unless the Panthers play their iconic theme “Sweet Caroline”. Mountaineer fans like to remind Pittsburgh of the forgotten lyrics to their theme song.