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May 30, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN - Brawl needs place in new landscape

MORGANTOWN — Everything in West Virginia’s move into the Big 12 — including a big increase in frequent flier mileage — screams success.

So why is it gnawing away at the insides?

Somewhere there’s this feeling that the one major void that crops up in this move — and we’re not talking about missing out on the Big East Basketball Championships in Madison Square Garden — is going to leave each football season with an empty feeling.

West Virginia, you see, should play Pitt in the Backyard Brawl every year.

This is not something coming from this little corner of the world. It’s something you, the fans, and players say without hesitation.

Losing in-state opponent Marshall — note the lack of the use of the word rival — is actually something that is being applauded by almost everyone who took a moment to answer a thoroughly unscientific survey conducted on Twitter and Facebook.

A sample of some of the responses to the question whether losing the Marshall game after this year would create a void follows:

• “I won’t miss the Marshall game at all.” — Art Todd

• “Nobody wanted to play Marshall.” — Kevin McConaha

• “Marshall is not a rival. Before you can become a rival you need to at least win a game or two.” — Jason Asbury

• “Marshall isn’t a rival, just an annoyance.” — Tom Begley

That, of course, is just a sampling of the responses.

There was less of a unanimous feeling among others who responded as to Pitt, some believing that the void could be filled by games with Texas and Oklahoma, a worthy point but one that ignores the key part of the Pitt rivalry and that was the interaction of the fans.

Due to geographical differences and a lack of history, these figure to be important games but will not carry the same emotion as the Backyard Brawl. There are no dirty words, for example, that rhyme with Texas or Oklahoma.

I don’t think we all fully appreciate what a rivalry like WVU-Pitt means. It is a focal point for the season, a weekend-long party and a chance to win a football game that has a sociological meaning far beyond conference standings.

Bragging rights are a big thing. This shows in what John Kerstin had to say, “Winning cures all. If they win it’s not going to matter who they’re playing. TX and OK every other year outweighs Pitt and Marshall.”

Does it?

One tweet referred to the way WVU moved on from the Penn State rivalry when the Nittany Lions dropped the game. On the surface, that seems to make sense, but in truth that never really was a rivalry for WVU because it was never the Big Game for Penn State.

They would come in, kick the daylights out of the Mountaineers, and move on.

But Pitt was different and if the fans couldn’t fully grasp what it meant, the players did.

“Can’t believe they’re breaking up one of the biggest rivalries in all of sports. Our first meeting was in 1985. Still owe them for 2007,” former quarterback Jarrett Brown replied.

“It was just exciting knowing every year was another year to have the title of Backyard Brawl kings. #lovedit,” tweeted current center Joey Madsen.

But if you want to know what this game really meant to players, former WVU great tackle Brian Jozwiak put it best in this Facebook message:

“We lose a rivalry that has surpassed the 100-year mark ... the border war ... a game that no matter what the standing, where it was played or the conference affiliation ... it was on!! I got to play in several of those games, including the 1983 10-10 tie, which by the way still sits funny in my gut after these years because it wasn’t a win or a loss ... 3 1/2 hours of battle and nothing to show for it ... those Pitt games were always brutal ... a great rivalry is no longer ... shame on us for letting this game go defunct ... I feel for the players that will never get this experience and for the fans ... they loved this game like no other!!”

If for the fans it was a weekend party, a game for the pride of the school and a chance to spend the next year bragging, for the players it was a holy war, a brutal battle where not losing wasn’t enough, where only a victory would satisfy the soul.

Oliver Luck is giving us Oklahoma and Texas. If he can find a way to work Pitt in, the West Virginia football experience for both fan and player will be unlike any other in college football.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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