A rivalry in name only
The man doing the talking is a coach. He is talking about is the Big Game:
"Obviously, it's a rival game. It's one of the great rivalries in college football and always has been."
Ooops, I left something out. He said this with all the vocal enthusiasm of a man who is heavily sedated.
The man doing the talking is another coach. He, too, is talking about the Big Game:
"Being (they are) our really main rival on our schedule adds to the excitement of 'The Backyard Brawl.' "
Ooops, I left something out. He said this after being asked to talk about the significance of today's 94th renewal of the West Virginia-Pitt football game in Morgantown, W.Va.
Of course, if this really were a significant rivalry, neither Rich Rodriguez nor Walt Harris would be asked to explain anything, except possibly their philosophies of the no-huddle offense. But this is not a significant rivalry; this is Pitt-West Virginia.
No offense to the great coaches and players who have participated in this series and I do not mean to denigrate any of the many outstanding games the teams have played since 1895. It's just that it has never been a true rivalry in the sense that each team is the team the other most wants to beat.
It's funny, but the sports cliche most closely connected with rivalry games is the one that insists you can "throw out all the records" when these two teams meet. In the case of Pitt-West Virginia, the opposite is true. It is only when the records of the two teams are looked at closely, and the records for both are good, that it comes closest to being an intense rivalry.
You know this is not a true rivalry when the timing of the game prompts debate. This game has never had any set date. Down through the years, it has served as an opening game, a midseason game and an early November game. When Penn State joined the Big Ten Conference, it left Pitt with a void at the end of the season and West Virginia has shifted into that slot the past four years.
"I like where it is," said Harris, who has known no other date for the game in his five-year tenure. "That really makes it big. That really adds to it."
Of course, this is nonsense. A true rivalry game does not need anything added to make it big. For those who care, a rivalry either is or is not big. The outside world might take more interest when both teams are strong and important bowl bids are on the line, but that shouldn't affect the rivalry. In this game, it does.
From Pitt's perspective the reason is West Virginia merely serves as a stand-in for Penn State. Most years, it doesn't fit the part.
For Pitt, Penn State always filled the role of main rival and still does, its absence from the Pitt schedule notwithstanding. Penn State was the perfect villain and remains so. Pitt measures itself against Penn State; Pitt does not measure itself against West Virginia.
The assumption in Pittsburgh is that Pitt is simply superior to anything from the Mountain State and wins and losses in football do not affect that assessment. Pitt is not as sure of its status compared to Penn State and so anything that indicates superiority (most especially football victories) is considered vital.
If this were a real rivalry game, there would not be talk about how few West Virginia students will bother to return to campus on this holiday weekend to watch. They would come back for a real rivalry game, regardless of how good the home team is that particular year. They won't show up for a 3-7 team that lost last weekend at Mountaineer Field to Temple.
They won't show up today. The crowd might well be less than 40,000. Not bad for two teams with sub-.500 records, not good for a rivalry game.
"It's West Virginia," said Walt Harris. "That's all you've got to say."
Unfortunately, many years - including this one - you have to say a whole lot more in order to get people interested. You wouldn't say that of a real rivalry game.