Return of Backyard brawl reignites long standing vitriol between Pitt, WVU fans

By Alexander Ganias, Staff Writer

To many around the country, Sept. 1 was just another day. 

But for Pitt fans, Thursday meant the renewal of bad blood between two rivals that sit just 75 miles apart. The representation of labor history between the coal miners of Morgantown and the steelworkers of Pittsburgh. A century-long war with vitriol that’s withstood the test of time.

For the first time in over a decade, it was Brawl Day.

“I’ve been waiting on this matchup for 11 years,” said Chris Samek, a sophomore neuroscience major. “I’m a Pitt fan born and raised, I could not be more excited.”

West Virginia defeated Pitt on Nov. 25, 2011 in Morgantown to close out that year’s regular season, and the 104th edition of the Backyard Brawl. After the Mountaineers won the Big East Conference the next week, they left for the newly-reformed Big 12 and the Brawl went dormant on the football field. But the atmosphere on the way to the North Shore — let alone when you got there — was as potent as if they hadn’t stopped playing since 1895.

Pitt offers a student shuttle service to its home football games, which start three and a half hours before kickoff. By 3:45 p.m., just 15 minutes after opening, the line already extended the entirety of Fifth Avenue between University Place and Thackeray Avenues, and had swung around Bellefield Presbyterian. The line got so long that the city advised students to take public transportation.

At the Steel Plaza light-rail station, the Pittsburgh “T” — which saw its ridership numbers dwindle during the pandemic — was packed to the brim. Various shades of blue and gold packed the train, then flooded out into the North Side station. According to Mountaineer fan Brody Leedom, the animosity hadn’t started yet.

“You look at the colors through the lot and you can’t tell what they are until you walk up to them,” he said. “We got Pitt fans interacting with West Virginia fans and we’re fine until the game starts, then we’re getting rowdy.”

Leedom also made a point of differentiating the Brawl on the gridiron, and the Brawl that fans see on the pitch, the court or any other sport the two teams face off in.

“You’re allowed to hit each other as hard as you want,” he said. “And you know, Pitt has ruined our seasons in the past and you don’t forget that.”

As the teams arrived in their police-escorted convoys, cheers of “LET’S GO PITT” and “EAT S*** PITT” started ringing through the tailgates. Fans from both sides made it clear that the anticipation for this game was through the roof, every lot was sold out and filled with flags, grills and backyard games like cornhole— a stark contrast to Pitt’s previous home opener against UMass.

Samek described how to fans of both sides, the Brawl is unmatched in that category.

“This rivalry goes back over 100 years,” Samek said. “It’s one of the best in the country, and this [atmosphere] is fantastic, more than I could’ve asked for.”

After the last home opener had an attendance of 41,486, the newly-christened Acrisure Stadium saw a sellout crowd that set the record for all Pittsburgh sports. 70,622 people were on hand for a rivalry game that senior defensive lineman Deslin Alexandre wants to keep around.

“So many people are so passionate about the rivalry, when people talk about it I feel it in their voices,” he told ESPN. “I think it’s big for Pittsburgh, it’s big for West Virginia just to have this Backyard Brawl back.”

The crowd was a choral orchestra, getting louder and quieter under the direction of the action on the field. West Virginia first-year tight end C.J. Donaldson called for loud chords of cheers with 125 rushing yards and a score. But at the climax, Pitt redshirt-junior defensive back M.J. Devonshire picked off WVU junior quarterback J.T. Daniels and took it 56 yards to the house. The Pitt fans belted out an ovation in fortississimo for the game-winning touchdown and just a few minutes later, surged once again as time expired on the Panther’s 38-31 victory.

Leedom, like many of the Mountaineer faithful, had high hopes for this game.

“I don’t mind if we lose out the rest of the season,” he said. “ I don’t mind that as long as we beat Pitt.”

They did not beat Pitt, and as horns blared and cheers traveled through Oakland, I-79 found itself packed with West Virginia fans taking the long ride home. The Panthers and Mountaineers will meet again next season in Morgantown, for the 106th edition of the Backyard Brawl.