By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
College football is a lot of things, as anyone who ever watched the old intros to the ABC broadcasts with Keith Jackson can attest to.
It is, at its best, Saturday afternoons and bands and cheerleaders and tailgate parties and great players and greater games, all of it built over the years with ever-building tradition.
But above all of that it is one more thing, the one thing it is losing in its modern form, and that is a game of rivalries.
And that is what’s missing here in West Virginia, where nothing is culturally more important than football.
With Pitt and “The Backyard Brawl” a casualty of realignment and Marshall just never having developed into the bitter instate rivalry it should have, there is something terribly lacking from football at WVU, and it is not something that you create a plan to replace.
Indeed, rivalries grow out of the ages and perhaps peeking into how a couple of them began will give you an idea of why it will be difficult for WVU to come up with one.
Take Army-Navy, which started more than a 123 years ago with a “challenge” and that reached such a heated stage just three years later following a Navy victory when an incident between a rear admiral and brigadier general led to a near duel that resulted in President Cleveland calling a cabinet meeting during which it was decided that Army and Navy could continue playing football, but only at home. That effectively kept them from facing each other, a ban that lasted five years.
Rivalries are part of America and produce far more than just a football game.
The Ohio State alma mater “Carmet Ohio” was written on the train ride home to Columbus following an 86-0 whipping at Michigan in 1902.
The Ohio State-Michigan rivalry also gave us one of our most lasting sports clichés, for after Michigan beat the Buckeyes four times from 1930 to 1933, twice claiming the national championship after the game, a reporter asked the Ohio State coach Francis Schmidt the next year if the Buckeyes could beat the Wolverines in 1934.
“Of course we can win, Michigan puts their pants on one leg at a time just like we do,” he replied.
It stuck as American folklore after the Buckeyes beat the pants of Michigan the next four years, outscoring them, 122-0.
Rivalries, of course, grow in stature as they match great coach against great coach, be it Barry Switzer and Darrell Royal in Oklahoma-Texas, Bear Bryant and Shug Jordan in Alabama-Auburn, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler in Ohio State-Michigan, John McKay and John Robinson at USC-UCLA.
Mostly, though, it grows out of memorable games, be it the famed 1950 “Snow Bowl” battle between Ohio State and Michigan played in one of the worst blizzards ever in Ohio, Nebraska’s narrow victory over Oklahoma in “The Game of the Century” in the 1970s, Notre Dame and Michigan State’s 13-13 tie in a national championship matchup or, dare it be mentioned, Pitt’s stunning upset of Pat White and West Virginia when the Mountaineers were on the verge of playing Ohio State for a national title.
Rivalry games are the heart and soul of college football. The Pitt loss will be talked about 100 years from now, just as will the 2010 Auburn-Alabama game when the Crimson Tide jumped off to a 24-0 lead at home only to see Cam Newton and Auburn erase it and win, 28-27. That game carried Auburn to its first national title in 53 years, to say nothing of leading Harvey Updyke to poison Toomer’s Trees on the Auburn campus.
Such passion is why Beano Cook once termed the Alabama-Auburn rivalry “Gettysburg South.”
Paul Finebaum, the Alabama talk show star, tells a story to explain the passion and how deeply it ran after that upset. Auburn was about to play Oregon for the national championship when a friend of Finebaum’s died.
He was supposed to give one of two eulogies and was nervous about it when the first eulogist was reaching the end of his talk, speaking of their friend’s final moments with his sister.
“She knew it was near the end, and the hospice nurse walked out of the room so she could say goodbye to Bruce,” the man said. “He could barely talk, and she moved in closer. He said, ‘I love you’ and she hugged him and started to move away, but he had two more words, which would be the final words of his life: “Go Ducks.”
This is why WVU must find a way to get Pitt back on its schedule, for you cannot reinvent or create what they had built over more than century of one of sport’s greatest rivalries.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.