By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It being what it is, the 104th Backyard Brawl between West Virginia University and Pittsburgh, you’d think that would be enough to get the pot boiling, but this edition is one with more twists and turns than a mountain highway.
Forget for a moment what is at stake, although the winner will remain in contention for a BCS bowl bid with the loser out of the picture. That plus the bragging rights that come with the victory make it an important game.
Add in that Pitt did all it could to break up the Big East Conference by heading for the ACC, forcing WVU to jump to the Big 12, a move that only time can prove right or wrong, and you have yet another hot coal to put on the fire.
But in many ways what is most intriguing is the cross-breeding among the coaches, making this game as intriguing from a personality aspect as it is from a personnel aspect.
It begins with a perceived feud between the head coaches, West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen and Pitt’s Todd Graham, a feud that dates back to their rivalry when Graham was at Tulsa as head coach and Holgorsen offensive coordinator at Houston and Oklahoma State.
Holgorsen became incensed when he felt Graham’s players were faking injuries to slow his tempo, a move in retrospect that he might not have done quite enough as he lost three times, once allowing 70 points.
Holgorsen, however, maintains this plays no part in the game whatsoever.
“It’s completely irrelevant. It’s highly blown out of proportion,” Holgorsen said during his Monday press conference. “There’s coaching rivalries every week.
“With me being in a new conference, it doesn’t exist as much as it had previous stops,” he continued. “Last year in the Big 12 where I was at, I was going up against guys I’d known for a decade. I’ve known Todd Graham for three years.”
And Graham doesn’t sound like he’s ready to turn this into a challenge match.
“We have always been at rival schools,” he said. “He was at Houston and I was at Tulsa. He is a really good football coach. His background is with coach Mike Leach. I have tremendous respect for Coach Leach. We have always been fierce competitors. I have tremendous respect for him as a football coach.”
If you listen to that, he has more respect than Aretha Franklin, and we all know she had R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
“I believe this game is about the 2011 West Virginia Mountaineers against the Pitt Panthers. It is the Backyard Brawl. That is what it should be about,” Graham said. “I believe in sportsmanship. I got into this business because coaches made a difference in my life, so I have a great respect for coaches.
“I am also a fierce competitor, so obviously we compete. Whether it is (Louisville) Coach (Charlie) Strong or Coach Holgorsen or whoever I’m going against, we are competitive. Other than that, I think that is what everyone else makes of it. From my end, there is nothing but respect for Coach Holgorsen, Coach (Jeff) Casteel (WVU defensive coordinator) and the people there.”
This, though, is two coaches trying make a name for themselves at new schools, knowing the other is standing in his way. With Holgorsen’s teams having beaten Graham three times without defeat, rest assured that Graham is gearing up for this one.
It is more, too, for Graham himself is a former WVU assistant, working under Rich Rodriguez when he came to WVU. Rodriguez took him out of high school ball and gave him a job, but Graham left to return to his native Texas.
Now you have Graham on that staff, along with former Rodriguez assistants Tony Gibson, Calvin Magee, Tony Dews and Paul Randolph, while former Mountaineer defensive back Eric Wicks is a graduate assistant.
Magee actually was a candidate to replace Rodriguez when he fled to Michigan and was offensive coordinator in the upset victory over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
This will be a unique experience for them, coming into Mountaineer Field and being on the other side of the field and in the visiting locker room.
“I’ve been through that, too,” said longtime WVU assistant Steve Dunlap, who came in a Syracuse assistant when Rodriguez failed to keep him on his staff. “I was at Syracuse, and I was looking over and thinking, ‘Wait a minute, I’m one of you guys.’ It’s a strange feeling being on the other side, totally strange. You spent your whole life coaching here. It’s the strangest feeling there is, especially when you didn’t want to leave the first time.”
More important, though, is that the WVU defensive coaches are familiar with Graham and Magee on offense, and the others are familiar with Casteel and what he tries to do.
“There is familiarity on both sides of the ball,” Graham admitted. “Coach Holgorsen is very adaptive, just like we are. If you look at what we are doing, it isn’t exactly what we did at Tulsa. If you look at what he is doing, it is not exactly what he did at Oklahoma State or at Houston.
“In fact, what he did at Oklahoma State was different than what he did at Houston. But the core principles of the scheme stay the same. At the end of the day, it is about being able to execute and stop them from executing. That is where the challenge is.”
“It could help. They may overthink it, too,” Holgorsen said. “You only get 20 seconds in between plays, or 25 seconds. ... So you’ve got to get things communicated quick. I encourage ’em to try and pick our signals because that means they’re probably focusing on the wrong things. We’re not going to pick their signals. We’re going to line up and play football.”
In the end, it almost always comes down to the guys who play the game, not those who coach it.
“We are just going to line up and play football,” Holgorsen said. “There are a lot of crossover and games played during the course of the week. If it gave you an advantage, schools would buy coaches to gain an advantage.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.