Rather than Brawl, Pitt and WVU go separate ways over Thanksgiving
By Jerry DiPaola
Published: Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012, 11:22 p.m.
Pitt coach Paul Chryst will get a good night's sleep before his team's final home game Saturday against Rutgers.
Johnny Majors wasn't so lucky near the end of the 1975 season.
The Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia, played in recent years around Thanksgiving, has gone away, perhaps for a year or two, perhaps longer. This season marks the first time in 70 years that the schools won't play in football, with both administrations chasing TV money and perceived stability in other conferences.
West Virginia left the Big East for the Big 12 this season and faces Iowa State today. Pitt will join the ACC next year.
With the disappearance of the rivalry, much of the animosity between the schools has been put on hold. But Majors received an unwelcome taste of it the night of Nov. 7, 1975, in his Morgantown, W.Va., hotel room.
“I don't know of one time in my life when I was awakened after midnight (by a telephone call),” said Majors, now 77 and retired after two stints as Pitt's coach. “But I got a call from a bunch of people drinking in Morgantown.”
Majors doesn't remember what was said, but he's sure it wasn't, “Good luck tomorrow, coach.”
“I went back to sleep, but it took me about an hour,” he said.
Majors also didn't sleep well the next night after 20th-ranked Pitt lost, 17-14, on a late field goal. The winning score was set up by a 15-yard penalty against Pitt assistant Joe Avezzano for arguing a call.
“I almost fired a good football coach that day,” Majors said at the time.
The game meant so much to Mountaineers fans, whose team was a two-touchdown underdog, that they stormed the field, tore down the goalposts and celebrated into the next week, according to John Antonik's book “Backyard Brawl.”
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen likes the buzz created by the rivalry and would vote for its return.
“I was only a part of the Brawl for one year, but it was a pretty festive week for both parties last year (when West Virginia won in Morgantown, 21-20),” he said. “You can tell there's a lot of interest. From an economy standpoint, it was good for the city of Morgantown. I think it should happen again.”
Hopes for resuming the series were renewed last month when the ACC decided its members will play eight conference games. That leaves four slots for Pitt's nonconference games, but West Virginia is committed to play nine in the Big 12.
“We're in pretty good hands with (athletic director) Oliver Luck as far as figuring out what we have to do from a future scheduling standpoint,” Holgorsen said, “but there are many challenges.”
Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said he has had conversations with Luck about resuming the series, but they are a long way from finalizing a contract. Luck, who was a West Virginia quarterback through four Pitt victories from 1978-81, said he hopes the series resumes “at some point in the future.”
“As someone that has actually played in this rivalry, I can honestly speak to how great it is,” he said.
Majors said he always “got a kick out of the game.”
“It was the big-city guys against the hillbillies,” said Majors, who calls himself a hillbilly from Tennessee. “(The boosters) pretty much just hated each other.”
Majors understands the thinking behind the schools taking divergent paths, but he is sorry to see great football rivalries such as Pitt/WVU, Nebraska/Oklahoma and Texas/Texas A&M disappear due to conference realignment.
“It's almost heresy for (those teams) not to be playing,” he said.
The series, which began in 1895 and has included 104 games, was shut down in 1940 when Pitt decided to de-emphasize its football program following the resignation of coach Jock Sutherland in 1938.
“Pitt's administration had designs on Big Ten membership, so it was looking to make room on the schedule for Big Ten opponents,” said Pitt historian Sam Sciullo, who wrote the book “University of Pittsburgh Football Vault.”
“Also, there were mutterings that Pitt officials were upset about guaranteed money it was supposed to receive for going to play a game at Morgantown in 1937.”
The series resumed in 1943 and went uninterrupted until now, with Pitt holding a 61-40-3 edge.
Majors, who was 3-5 against West Virginia, tried to make the games fun for his players, especially in 1973 — his first season at Pitt — when the Mountaineers had won six of the previous eight.
“I played ‘Country Roads' in our locker room for five straight days, and (players) drank Mountain Dew all week for strength,” he said. “They got sick of John Denver and they got sick of Mountain Dew, and we won the game, 35-7.”
Majors said the disappearance of rivalries won't hurt the schools' bottom lines. In fact, the additional largesse gained in the new conference homes is necessary in many cases.
“That's modern-day money talking,” he said. “It's a lot more expensive to run an athletic department these days.”
Staff writer John Harris contributed. Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7997.
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