Trietley: A look back on Pitt rivalries

By Greg Trietley

The West Virginia men’s basketball team’s 66-48 victory over Pitt Thursday marked the final… The West Virginia men’s basketball team’s 66-48 victory over Pitt Thursday marked the final scheduled Big East contest in Oakland between the two schools. Across all sports, the Panthers and Mountaineers faced each other more than 700 times since the 19th century.

If you’re keeping track, West Virginia has the all-time edge in baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer, tennis and gymnastics. Pitt has bragging rights in wrestling, volleyball and, with the trump card, football.

As West Virginia absconds to the Big 12 and Pitt, eventually, to the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Backyard Brawl’s many incarnations will now either fade in importance or die altogether. But it’s hardly the first time Pitt has lost a rival.

Penn State football, of course, played the Panthers yearly from 1900 to 2000, outside of one Depression-era respite and a five-year break in the 1990s brought on by conference realignment. The basketball rivalry survived until 2005, with the 145th and final game a Pitt blowout win at home in front of an under-capacity crowd.

The schools still meet in smaller sports like volleyball, tennis and gymnastics, but the rivalry largely lies dormant until a football meeting planned for Sept. 10, 2016 at Heinz Field. Save the date.

The City Game against Duquesne spanned both football and basketball in the late 1930s. Pitt severed the football relationship for good in 1939, two weeks after the Dukes beat the Panthers 21-13. The Associated Press story from that day stated the 1940 schedule would still include “Nebraska, Penn State and probably West Virginia,” which was a one-sided rivalry at that point. Pitt had won 11 in a row against the Mountaineers, and the Panthers scheduled a game against Missouri instead in 1940.

The baseball City Game died in 2010 when Duquesne disbanded its baseball program.

The basketball affair with the Dukes, once intense enough to feature fights both on the court and in the stands, waned when the two schools took different conference paths, just like the rivalry with Penn State and soon with West Virginia. Once adversaries in the Eastern 8, in 1982 Duquesne stayed in the newly named Atlantic 10, and Pitt left for the Big East, where it outgrew its crosstown competition.

Notre Dame, an unlikely opponent to back out of a rivalry because of uneven competition, did just that after Pitt won at South Bend, 21-6, in 1937. When the series resumed six years later, the Associated Press story opened, “It took a world war to do it, but Pitt and Notre Dame are renewing one of the gridiron’s most colorful series.”

“It’s a one-year agreement, but may be extended,” Pitt athletic director Jimmy Hagan said in the article, channeling future noncommittal Penn State officials.

Pitt basketball had additional rivals in the 1950s when the school organized the Steel Bowl. A sold-out tournament at the Fitzgerald Field House, the Bowl grew popular thanks to “the Panthers’ decision to run the show as an elimination that would produce a champion rather than merely show off four teams,” according to an article in the Pittsburgh Press in 1953.

Participants varied from year to year but often included Geneva, Westminster, Penn, Penn State, Duquesne and Bradley. Pitt has played Westminster 81 times in its history, more than it has faced Notre Dame or Georgetown.

Westminster basketball now resides in Division III, but it still lays claim to 33 all-time victories over Pitt. The last, though, came in 1969.

In 1953, Pitt and Duquesne ended a 13-year hiatus in their basketball rivalry when they met at the Steel Bowl final. “And now that the long separation between Pitt and the Dukes has been ended, would it be presumptuous to suggest they make it an annual date, rather than depend on the vagaries of a Steel Bowl?” the Pittsburgh Press asked. Within 10 years, the Steel Bowl fizzled, schools like Bradley and Geneva became afterthoughts, and the City Game grew.

Pitt also used to battle Carnegie Tech, later renamed Carnegie Mellon, in both football and basketball. A crowd of 61,000 people watched Tartan football beat the Panthers in 1938.

But eventually the Tartan athletic program withered. By 1940, football coach Eddie Baker openly predicted losses in a newspaper called The Day. “At the beginning of the season I figured we’d win two games,” he said. “We have won one, but right now I can’t see where we’re going to get the other.”

The basketball programs typically played each other once or twice per season through the 1960s in a rivalry fostered by geography. Pitt basketball has more wins against Carnegie Mellon (106) than against any other opponent.

The Panthers thumped the Tartans, 118-84, on Feb. 6, 1971. Two days later, The News-Dispatch reported “Carnegie-Mellon officials suggested the series with Pitt be dropped because they felt they could not compete with the Panthers, and Pitt officials agreed.”

They played one final game that season, a 45-point Pitt road victory, but have only played once since.