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November 22, 2010

This Brawl carries great significance

MORGANTOWN — Considering the road victory over Louisville on Saturday that kept West Virginia’s Big East championship hopes alive, one expected Coach Bill Stewart to be up tempo and free and easy with his home spun Mountaineer musings on Sunday.

Instead, you got anything but the country philosopher who is only too pleased to answer any question, often going far beyond the scope the inquisitor wanted to add additional insight.

Why not?

This is Backyard Brawl week.

The one thing that makes college football what it is is the rivalries that are unmatched in any other sport. Duke and North Carolina may be arch enemies in basketball, but they play too often for it to reach the level of intensity of football rivalries which are played only once a year and get to a school’s home field only once every two years.

There is always a week build up, maybe two, time for old wounds to fester, time for someone on one side or the other to say the wrong thing.

And so it is that Stewart was a bit snippy, a bit uptight as softballs were tossed his way.

He offered one- or two-sentence answers, refusing to talk about the past couple of weeks since his evaluation of his team.

“We have won two and we have two to go. I’m looking forward to Pitt and Pitt only,” was his reply.

It wasn’t much different when he was pressed about his freshman year at WVU when they played Pitt, saying he remembered it “vividly” without offering any of his remembrances.

Rivalries do this to you.

The best, of course, were the rivalries that involved Ohio State and Michigan when Woody Hayes was the Buckeye coach and Bo Schembechler at Michigan. The two were sworn enemies, although many forget that Schembechler played for Hayes at Miami of Ohio and coached for him at Ohio State.

Hayes hated Michigan.

One night on a recruiting trip in the state of Michigan, an assistant noticed that the car he was driving was going to run out of gas. He let Woody, who was dozing in the passenger seat, know that he had to pull over for gas.

Hayes refused, and the assistant drove on.

The assistant, who saw the weather was starting to deteriorate, began to become worried about getting stuck in the middle of nowhere, and once again stressed his desire to pull over and get gas.

“No, dammit! We do not pull in and fill up. And I'll tell you exactly why we don't. It's because I don't buy one damn drop of gas in the state of Michigan!  We'll coast and PUSH this car to the Ohio line before I give this state a nickel of my money!”

The assistant knew he wasn't kidding, and they barely made it across the border and sputtered into the first gas station they found in Ohio.

And so I went.

Michigan-Ohio State, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler.

“We respected one another so damn much. Now that doesn’t mean I didn’t get so mad at him that I wanted to kick him in the, uh, groin,” Hayes once said about Schembechler.

The feeling was mutual.

"There was plenty to criticize about Woody Hayes. His methods were tough, his temper was, at times, unforgivable. And, unless you knew him or played for him, it is hard to explain why you liked being around the guy. But you didn't just like it, you loved it. He was simply fascinating," Schembechler wrote of Hayes in his biography.

Other rivalries were little different. Take Army-Navy, for example, where you can go back into the 19th century to learn the depth of this rivalry.

This is one tale told of the early days:

“Following a reputed incident between a Rear Admiral and a Brigadier General, which nearly led to a duel after the 1893 Navy victory, President [Grover] Cleveland called a Cabinet meeting in late February 1894. When the meeting ended, Secretary of the Navy Hillary A. Herbert, and Secretary of War, Daniel S. Lamont, issued general orders to their respective Academies stating that other teams would be allowed to visit Annapolis and West Point to conduct football games, but the Army and Navy football teams were ‘prohibited in engaging in games elsewhere.’ In other words, Army and Navy were restricted to home games and, consequently, from playing each other. For the next five years, the explosive rivalry was defused.”

Of course, rivalries are not what they used to be. The world is a different place, we have become more sophisticated, their horizons widened by television and the Internet and the rise of professional football.

It had even gotten that way here, until three years ago the Mountaineers stood on the verge of a National Championship game against a four-touchdown underdog Pittsburgh team and somehow lost not only the game, the chance for the national title but also their coach, Rich Rodriguez.

The history of WVU football had changed dramatically as a new flame was lit in the Backyard Brawl.

As it should be, the game carries great significance, WVU needing it to stay in contention in the Big East and to get a taste of revenge on a Pitt team that currently leads the conference race for a BCS bowl bid.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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