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Play Brawl: Why Pitt and West Virginia Must Renew Their Rivalry

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Pitt News File Photo

Pitt News File Photo

By Stephen Caruso / Assistant Sports Editor

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As a junior, I’ve engaged in countless Panther rites of passage — having the Cathedral’s victory lights guide me home, eating at Primanti’s, singing “Sweet Caroline” at football games and promptly leaving after the last verse. Yet one item on my checklist remains unmarked — attending the Backyard Brawl.

The rivalry game used to feature battles between Pitt and West Virginia and was a mainstay of college football for decades. As the 14th-oldest rivalry game in college football, the two teams first squared off in 1895, and played 104 total games over an 116-year span until the duels ended when West Virginia bolted the Big East for the Big 12 in 2012.

The ending came just as the Brawl was heating up again, as Pitt and WVU traded upsets in 2007 and 2009, respectively, with the unranked team topping the ranked team both times. It deserved continuity, not an abrupt ending. Panther and Mountaineer fans alike deserve the rivalry — it has to be revived.

Pitt does have frequent football foes aside from West Virginia, of course, such as Notre Dame, which I had the pleasure of watching Pitt knock off in dramatic fashion in 2013. Pitt added Penn State to future schedules, and new Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi told ESPN’s Brett McMurphy in July that while he’d love to play WVU someday, “our in-state rivalry is bigger than an out-of-state rivalry.”

I understand why Narduzzi wants to focus on Penn State — playing the Nittany Lions has many more implications on recruiting prized in-state prospects. But this is no reason for the Backyard Brawl to fall to the wayside.  My opinion doesn’t carry much weight in Pitt Athletics, and the University probably won’t resurrect the Brawl in the near future, as Pitt filled its last non-conference spot for 2016 with Oklahoma State.

The home-and-home agreement also left Pitt with only one empty spot for a non-conference game in 2017. WVU, part of the Big 12 Conference, plays nine conference games — not eight like Pitt — meaning there is even less room for Pitt in WVU’s future schedules.

But the two programs should not throw a rivalry as vitriolic, as intense and as historic as the Backyard Brawl to the side so easily. A fiery hate still links the teams since their last matchup four years ago. Just last season, WVU fans serenaded ESPN’s “College GameDay” with a sarcastic rendition of “Sweet Caroline” in an unrelated game against Texas Christian University, interspersing the chorus with chants of “Eat Sh*t Pitt.” Delightfully, the Mountaineers lost that game, 31-30.

Even if Narduzzi says Penn State is his focus, he hasn’t left the Mountaineers’ slights undisputed. After WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen commented in an interview with ESPN’s Brett McMurphy that he was “begging to play Pitt,” Narduzzi pithily shot back, “I never beg.”

By claiming to value Penn State more as a rivalry, Narduzzi is increasing the tension, unwilling to give the Mountaineers the response they crave — greant news for any fan, like myself, who wants to see this rivaly renewed.

Narduzzi’s comments seem to imply that the same relationship exists between Pitt and WVU. The Mountaineers can sing as many parodies of “Sweet Caroline” as they want, but what does it matter if we don’t want to play them? While Penn State may be an in-state rival and Notre Dame shares a storied history with Pitt, both schools don’t take Pitt as seriously as Pitt takes them. West Virginia does. The rivalry matters between the two.

It makes sense that Notre Dame and Penn State fans do not take Pitt seriously. Notre Dame has contended for national titles since 2010. Meanwhile, Penn State dealt with the Jerry Sandusky scandal, with sanctions that would have killed other illuminous programs. Instead, Joe Paterno became a martyr, the NCAA lifted sanctions early and the Nittany Lions returned to a bowl game with a dramatic overtime win.

Meanwhile, what has Pitt done since the final Backyard Brawl?

It fired successful head coach Dave Wannstedt after an above-average season. It then fired Wannstedt’s replacement, Mike Haywood, before he coached a single game. Pitt then went through two more head coaches in Todd Graham and Paul Chryst. This is without even mentioning the circumstances of their departures.

Pitt played four straight 6-6 seasons, somehow getting four bowl games and winning only one of them. It became a footnote to Notre Dame’s undefeated season because of kicker Kevin Harper’s missed field goal in double overtime, which also was my first clear memory of Pitt football. And finally, Pitt football suffered one of the most embarrassing losses in college football in recent memory, surrenduring a 25-point lead in 11 minutes to Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl last season.

And this is the team that claims it doesn’t care to play West Virginia?

I can only assume that Narduzzi must know the real opposite of hate isn’t love — it’s indifference.

I shouldn’t expect any less of a veteran of another historic beef. Having been at Michigan State for eight years, Narduzzi has navigated the school’s rivalry with the University of Michigan, as well as other contentious battles with Notre Dame and Nebraska. He has more than enough experience navigating rivalries to add some Mountaineers into the current mix.

So even if Narduzzi meant it when he said that Penn State “is bigger,” there can be no better way to restore Pitt’s most contentious rivalry with the school in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Hell hath no fury like that of a rival scorned.

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Play Brawl: Why Pitt and West Virginia Must Renew Their Rivalry