Century-old rivalry ending this season with Kittanning, Ford City meeting one last time
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A 100-year football tradition at the heart of Armstrong County is reaching its end.
Kittanning and Ford City will meet to close out the regular season at Kittanning's David “Red” Ullom Field on Oct. 24, and barring a playoff meeting or unforeseen development, it will be the final meeting of the longtime rivals before they merge into the new Armstrong High School for the 2015-16 school year.
The battle between the schools from the county's two largest boroughs has seen its share of remarkable games and notable players since the first meeting — a 27-0 Kittanning win in 1915.
Since that time, the rivalry has evolved into an annual highlight on both teams' schedule affectionately known as the Backyard Brawl — an homage to the Pitt/West Virginia rivalry only 20 years its elder — and this year's final meeting will draw the curtain on a game that is more an event for the communities than a mere high school football game.
“Change is inevitable, but it's hard to see the rivalry go away,” Kittanning coach and Ford City graduate Frank Fabian said.
“I know both communities always look forward to that game, and I think being the Week 9 game for the last year will make it an exciting game. There's a lot of pride on both sides in their football programs. Hopefully, they'll come together and do well next year, but it's going to be bittersweet.”
Different towns, different worlds
The rivalry between the teams first grew as a reflection of the tensions between the towns themselves.
Kittanning long had a reputation as a white-collar town dating to the 1800s. In addition to being the county seat, it was purported to be home to more millionaires than anywhere in Pennsylvania during the late 19th century.
Ford City, on the other hand, was a blue-collar town founded in 1887 for the workers at Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company's new factory. As industry boomed, the town more than doubled in size from 1900-1930.
“Ford City was a mill town, and Kittanning was white collar. They put factories on the riverfront, and Kittanning had green parks and open space. People from each town rubbed the other's the wrong way, and that carried over into athletics,” Kittanning graduate and longtime coach Harry Beckwith said.
“I don't know if the rivalry is as strong as it once was. Both towns have been decreasing in population, but the one thing they still have between each other is football.”
Historically, the game between Ford City and Kittanning was always played on Armistice Day, the predecessor to modern Veterans Day. Neither team was known as a football power through their first 50 years, either.
Beckwith estimated Kittanning averaged 2.5 wins per year from an undefeated 1929 team until the late 1950s, while Ford City's early athletic achievements centered around their powerhouse basketball program, with football taking a back seat.
A history of streaks
Remarkably, Kittanning will have a chance to tie the all-time series between the schools with a win this year. The Sabers hold a 37-36-1 advantage, but the teams reached that narrow margin through extended spells of dominance for each side.
Kittanning won the first eight games of the series before Ford City got its footing, but the Sabers put together their own long streak with 10 wins and the series' lone tie from 1940 to 1950.
Beckwith had an outstanding run in the rivalry by going unbeaten in his first stint in charge of the Wildcats from 1974 to 1985, but his streak ended after taking over at Ford City, where he posted a 1-1 record against the Wildcats.
The district's first attempt at consolidation ended the rivalry during the 1990s, but since the turn of the century, the teams have played for 12 straight years. Current Ford City coach John Bartolovic started with a 9-1 record against the Wildcats, but Kittanning has won the last two meetings.
Both programs reached their pinnacle within the last 40 years, and it was Beckwith's Kittanning teams that made the first big splash.
The 1975 Wildcats reached the four-team WPIAL playoffs and scored a 32-8 semifinal win over Union, but their title hopes ended with a 13-0 loss to Beth-Center. The next year's team was even better with a 10-0 record and Allegheny Conference title, but a 22-16 loss in the semis to Brentwood ended the season for Kittanning, which won the Allegheny Conference title last season.
“Those teams were really the start of the winning football tradition at Kittanning. That wasn't there when I played and in the years before those teams,” Beckwith said.
Ford City made its first postseason appearance in 1987, also under Beckwith and with junior quarterback Gus Frerotte. Frerotte would go on to play 15 seasons in the NFL to become the most recognizable name from the Kittanning/Ford City rivalry, but his only outing against the Wildcats was a loss that he certainly didn't predict in his senior season of 1988.
“My senior year, I thought we were a pretty good team, and I think I said to the paper that we should beat Kittanning pretty easily. That was my first lesson in what you don't say to the press, especially before a game,” Frerotte said.
“It was a rivalry, for sure. The dads who worked together at the factories talked about it during the day, and it would even be a rivalry in Little League all-stars or things like that. Remembering how it was as a kid, it was probably bigger than in should have been because we were really all the same people from that area.”
Ford City again found success with the arrival of Bartolovic, formerly the coach at Shannock Valley. It took the Sabers a few years to find their way under the new coach, but the team rattled off 11 straight winning seasons from 2001 to 2011, with five conference titles and appearances in the WPIAL semifinals in 2005, '06 and '10.
The final season
The question remaining now is how the teams will handle their schools' final season. Perhaps the model to be followed is that of Monaca, the Beaver County school which merged with Center in 2010 to form Central Valley, a school nearly the projected size of Armstrong High School.
The Indians reached the WPIAL Class A final in 2008, but with substantial graduation losses, it was unknown how strong the team would be in its final year, 2009. The players made sure the final year would be a successful one, as the team worked its way back to the playoffs before falling in its final game to Avonworth.
“The players really played their hearts out and wanted to be recognized as the last team for Monaca. I'd say those last two years brought closure,” said Sam Cercone, coach of those Monaca teams. “The best advice I could give is to try a business-as-usual approach. Everyone knows what's happening, and the kids will be excited to be the last team. Our biggest job as coaches was to make sure the kids remained even-keel.”
Fabian and Bartolovic echoed Cercone's sentiment, but both know it will be easier said than done, especially with the final game against their biggest rival waiting in the regular season finale.
“I didn't really think about it until the last few weeks (of summer). Now people are coming to me about doing things and inviting people back for the last home game,” Bartolovic said. “I said my routine was going to be the same as any other year, but I realize it's not going to be. It's going to be different, but I think the kids will handle it well.”
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