Maybe it’s the overall “meh” situation of the Big East this year. Maybe it’s the fact that both Pitt and WVU fanbases already have headed for the Big East exits. Maybe it’s just the disappointment both fanbases have had from the expectations heading into the season. But it’s a little bit of a slow start. I expect by Friday, the hate and vitriol will be free-flowing.
Right now, however, it seems the biggest issue is will the Backyard Brawl take place once Pitt and WVU are out of the Big East? So the media bent is starting with some resignation, demands to continue and questions.
Joe Starkey pleads for the Backyard Brawl not to end.
Athletic directors Steve Pederson (Pitt) and Oliver Luck (WVU) owe it to the fans to play every year. I just wonder if the will is there. I’ve spoken with both men. Neither sounded as if he were ready to move the Blue Ridge Mountains to make this happen.
Not that either nixed the idea. They could have gone Kansas-crazy, but did not. Kansas officials tweeted the following after Missouri announced it was bolting the Big 12:
“Missouri forfeits a century-old rivalry. We win.”
That’s the spirit!
No. Both sides are hedging at the moment.
First of all, for all the WVU bluster, there is no guarantee they are getting to the Big 12 next year. So, popping off right away could be a really dumb thing if both schools are still in the Big East in 2012. Then there’s the fact that Oliver Luck has had to dial it back from his early October spouting off implying Pitt might need the Backyard Brawl more than WVU for attendance.
Now you could argue that keeping the Brawl is in WVU’s interest. Not only for the fans, but money. Not only is it nearly guaranteed to get a national broadcast, but with all the travel WVU will have in its future in the Big 12, a game that is literally a short drive away has a lot more appeal and value. In fact, while hardly definitive, it would seem that WVU AD Luck is coming around on the issue.
As fierce as the WVU-Pitt rivalry is – belying a lopsided 61-39-3 edge by the Panthers – the schools are said to be on the same page on whether or not to play on. After all, only the last 20 meetings have been conference games.
“I can tell you that (Pitt Athletic Director) Steve Pederson and I have spoken about it more than once,” West Virginia AD Oliver Luck told me Friday, “and I think our views on it are very similar – which is to say pretty much identical.
“We both have a strong desire to maintain the rivalry. Now, we know we face questions about the next couple, three years, but it’s safe to say we both want to continue playing each other as soon as we can.”
Pitt athletics issued a generic statement to me last week when I asked about the Backyard Brawl future:
“At this juncture, with both institutions set to join new leagues, it would be difficult to predict what opportunities will be available with future non-conference scheduling.”
E.J. Borghetti, Pitt’s fine senior associate AD for media relations, expounded further in a somewhat personal fashion.
“Everyone loves neighborhood rivalries,” Borghetti said. “But the neighborhood, in this case Eastern football, is changing – quickly and dramatically. What is that going to mean for the future of the Backyard Brawl?
“As a kid, I never thought I’d see the day when Pitt and Penn State didn’t play every November. Penn State’s move to the Big Ten had a significant hand in changing that. Certainly there is a desire to keep age-old traditions alive, but ultimately both schools will need to see what opportunities are available once future conference schedules are set.”
Pitt has consistently been much more non-committal about the Backyard Brawl since they announced the move to the ACC.
Beyond that, Pitt will then join the ACC at some point — 2014 at the latest — and there is talk that when that league officially welcomes Pitt and Syracuse to get to 14 teams, it will switch to a nine-game conference schedule (as opposed to eight) and that means there would be room on Pitt’s schedule for only three nonconference games.
If that is the case, according to one person with knowledge of the situation, the Panthers are going to try and schedule two games they consider “winnable home games” — translation: Division I-AA teams or teams from smaller conferences — leaving room for one home-and-home game with a major opponent.
That said, the school would like to maintain its series with Notre Dame.
Both Pitt and West Virginia have said they’d like to try and keep the series alive. But they concede it probably isn’t realistic to think it will be an annual game like it has been since 1943.
The move to nine conference games for both may do more to to doom the Brawl than anything else. From a cost and conference standpoint, going to 12 makes a lot of sense for the ACC and Big 12. Your schools don’t have to work so hard or pay as much to fill the non-con slate. Plus, 9-game conference slates make the conference TV contract that much more attractive when you can offer more inventory. The Big 12 is also planning on going to a 9-game conference schedule.
At the same time it can be hell on rivalry games outside the conference. The ACC, SEC and Big 10 have stayed with the 8-game schedule to this point. It has allowed the continuation of non-con rivalry games like Clemson-South Carolina, Florida-Florida St., Georgia-GT, and even Michigan-ND. A move by any of those conferences to 9-game schedules puts them into question as yearly events. Admittedly a game like Florida-FSU is mandated by Florida law. Plus all of those are in-state rivalries, where internal pressure tends to be stronger. Though, uh, that is not always the case. Texas and Texas A&M seem happy to see their rivalry game come to an end. Texas in annoyance at the Aggies for leaving, A&M because there’s no way they would admit that they want to keep playing a game when Texas doesn’t.
Only USC has kept its non-con rivalry with Notre Dame despite a 9-game conference schedule.
There is also the theory that Pitt might want to be hedging even more considering the sudden upheaval at Penn State, and how it might effect the non-playing of the Pitt-Penn State rivalry for the long term. Here’s Rod Rutherford talking about both.
Rod Rutherford knows how rivalries end — with a 6-foot-2 Pittsburgh quarterback running into the end zone for the only touchdown in a 12-0 win over Penn State.
That was in 2000, and the Panthers and Nittany Lions haven’t played since. Rutherford, a native of Pittsburgh who was recruited by Pitt and rivals Penn State and West Virginia, will be the last man to score a touchdown in the rivalry at least until 2016, when the teams are scheduled to resume the series with a home-and-home.
Entering that last game, Rutherford and the Panthers had heard the prevailing thought: Penn State coach Joe Paterno was only willing to play Pitt one time in Pittsburgh for every two times in State College. Pitt had too much pride to allow that, and Paterno knew it.
“In our locker room, we felt like it was them that was ending the rivalry,” Rutherford said. “It wasn’t us. They felt like they were better than us.”
Rutherford played Penn State his first two seasons but not his last two. He says the “Backyard Brawl” between Pitt and West Virginia is now the biggest rivalry. Of course, with Pitt leaving the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference and West Virginia leaving for the Big 12, that rivalry could be on the outs, too.
“That’s sad because Penn State is only two and a half hours away, and West Virginia is one and a half,” Rutherford said. “To not play those schools, who all pull from western Pennsylvania, it’s disappointing that you can’t watch a good rivalry now. It’s just sad that college football has turned into this much of a business that people lose sight of the fans and the things that made schools what they are today.”
I wrote about it last month, and my feelings still hold. The Backyard Brawl is a great rivalry game, and we are lucky to be a part of it. So many other fanbases — especially in the East — don’t have a great football rivalry to enjoy. Boston College, Maryland, Rutgers, UConn, USF, Wake Forest and Penn State. Sure, they may claim to hate another team they play fairly regularly, but does it flow evenly? Is there the same hate right back or is it a distant second or further in terms of games they absolutely want to win every year?
Rivalries don’t just come into being with the creation of a trophy or declaration (Land Grant or River City). They aren’t fully formed about after a 10 year run of competitive, high stakes games (Pitt-UConn basketball), it only means it is gestating and has potential. They don’t come about because one fanbase decides they should be the rival.
I have to admit being a little surprised and disappointed that so many WVU and Pitt fans seem so willing — even eager to let go of the Backyard Brawl. So entranced by the possibilities that lie in their respective future conference homes. The shiny, new thing trumping years of hate, animosity and bitterness.
I hate the Hoopies, and take great joy in seeing Pitt beat them. That was the feeling before the Big East and I see no reason that should change because of changing conferences.