The Backyard Brawl: Recalling one of college football’s most storied rivalries

By Jack Markowski, Staff Writer

With the Backyard Brawl returning this season between Pitt and West Virginia, college football is getting back one of its most storied and historic rivalries. While Pitt leads the series 61-40-3, both sides have boasted periods of dominance, most recently the Mountaineers in the 2000s. 

The Brawl got its roots in 1895 when WVU and Pitt, then known as the Western University of Pennsylvania, faced off on the gridiron for the first time. The game took place in Morgantown as the Mountaineers went on to win 8-0 before also winning the next two installments in 1898 and 1900. WUP finally reigned victorious in 1901 by a score of 12-0 to earn its first win in the rivalry. 

It didn’t take long for the Panthers to build momentum. They went on to win 10 of 11 games from 1904 to 1921, with the only non-victory being a scoreless tie in 1909

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. 

The 1921 matchup between the two sides was significant not only in the context of the Backyard Brawl, but for the sport in general. The game, which took place at Forbes Field, was the first in college football history to be broadcast over radio. It aired on KDKA, a Pittsburgh-based commercial station. The Panthers won the game 21-13. 

Pitt’s longest winning streak in the Backyard Brawl also happened to come during the first-half of the 20th century. The Panthers tallied 15 straight victories from 1929 through 1946, which included 10 shutouts of the Mountaineers. 

One wrinkle in the history of the Brawl is that up until the early part of the 1960s, Pitt had an overwhelming advantage in terms of hosting games. Either Forbes Field or Pitt Stadium hosted the game from 1919 to 1929, in addition to a stretch from 1935 to 1962, where West Virginia hosted only five games. From 1962 on, the two sides alternated host sites on an annual basis. 

The latter part of the twentieth century featured some of the most tightly contested matchups in Backyard Brawl history. In 1952, West Virginia captured their first ranked win in program history over the No. 18 Panthers by a score of 16-0. Three years later in 1955, No. 17 Pitt exacted revenge by defeating the undefeated No. 6 Mountaineers 26-7. 

The 1970 meeting had one of the biggest comebacks in rivalry history, as Pitt rallied for four touchdowns in the second half after being down 35-8 to win 36-35. 

In 1975, West Virginia kicker Bill McKenzie drilled a 35-yard field goal as time expired to clinch a win over the No. 20 ranked Panthers. 

Senior quarterback Dan Marino led two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter before Mountaineers sophomore kicker Paul Woodside missed a field goal to give No. 2 Pitt the 16-13 win seven years later in 1982

The rivalry moved into a new direction in 1991, when both programs became founding members of football in the Big East Conference. Pitt had become a full-sport member starting in 1982, but West Virginia became a football-only member that year before eventually becoming a full member in 1995. Conference realignment only proved to further strengthen the rivalry between the two programs. 

While the Panthers defeated the Mountaineers during the first year of Big East play, WVU went on a five-game winning streak from 1992 to 1996 that stands as their longest over the course of the Brawl. 

Overall, the Mountaineers sustained that trend while the two schools were conference rivals, besting Pitt with a record of 14-7. 

One of the most infamous games in recent college football history came in 2007 toward the tail end of the Big East days. Heading into the last week of the regular season, West Virginia was ranked No. 2 with a 10-1 record and seemed to be on the fast track toward clinching its spot in the 2008 BCS National Championship. All that stood in its way was a home contest against the reeling 4-7 Panthers who were no longer bowl-eligible and coming off of two straight losses. 

Instead, Pitt shocked the college football world by defeating the Mountaineers 13-9, ending their hopes of securing their first-ever national championship. 

No. 20 WVU was able to get the last laugh, though, defeating the No. 8 Panthers 19-16 in 2009. West Virginia has also won the last three installments of the Brawl, including the most recent one in 2011. 

With West Virginia leaving for the Big 12 in 2012 and Pitt joining the ACC in 2013, the two teams went their separate ways, leaving the rivalry behind. 

However, after a decades-long pause, the Backyard Brawl will be back on Sept. 1, and it appears to be here for the foreseeable future.