By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It was almost a reflex reaction, what transpired when West Virginia learned it was heading into the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium and that the opponent would be long-time Eastern rival Syracuse.
The reaction that pairing drew forth without thought was one of disappointment, for this a longtime Big East opponent, exactly the kind of thing the Mountaineers were trying to get away from as they started playing Big 12 football.
But the truth be known for West Virginia this is a wonderful pairing to keep the school and the state tied to its roots, for other than Pitt there is no other school in the country that has a richer football history and tie-in with West Virginia than the Orange.
It begins, really, with the greatest coach ever at Syracuse and the man who built them into not only a national champion but into a school where many of the greatest running backs in college football history attended.
That would have been Ben Schwartzwalder, a World War II paratrooper who earned his degree at WVU as the team’s starting center.
That a natural focal point for the rivalry but the depth of talent on both sides, which was deeper than at many other schools, and the intensity all this generated turned Syracuse-West Virginia into one of those series that probably really should never end.
The truth is that Syracuse’s greatest offensive player, the legendary Jim Brown, a fullback, arrived at the same time the Mountaineers’ greatest defensive player, Sam Huff. The two created a rivalry that carried over into the NFL when Brown joined Coach Paul Brown and the Cleveland Browns and Huff joined defensive coordinator Tom Landry with the New York Giants.
Their head-to-head confrontation started in college when Huff was kicking off at West Virginia and Brown running them back. WVU Coach Art Lewis stressed the importance of stopping long returns and do that he ordered Huff to kick anywhere but to Jim Brown.
Pappy Lewis even stressed that he should kick it into the stands if necessary, not expecting there to be anyone planted there who returned the ball like Jim Brown.
Huff saw things slightly differently, arguing that kicking to Brown would give the kicking team a chance to “clobber him good.”
Lewis caved, let Brown kick the ball to him and that was the last anyone saw of Brown as he made a spectacular runback and Syracuse won, 20-13.
Brown and Huff cast different shadows. Huff was a non-stop hitting machine, always running in high gear while Jim Brown was low key, always slow to get up off the pile, looking as though he wouldn’t even get to the line of scrimmage, let alone be able to carry the ball past the line of scrimmage.
But once the play started he become the perfect combination of speed and power. Huff, on the other hand, was a tackling machine who defined play of the modern middle linebacker.
Huff once taunted Brown after a tackle, hurling the phrase at him “You stink!”
That drew no immediate response, Brown waiting one play after he had run 65 yards for a score on the next play, jogging past Huff with the singular response “How do I smell now, Sam?”. Huff later described defending against Brown this way: “All you can do is grab, hold, hang on and wait for help.”
Another time he described Brown this way: “He was smart. He’d psyche you. I would hit him and hit him and he’d get up, pat me on the back and say, ‘That was a nice tackle, big Sam.’”
The rival became personal.
“We played a 4-3 defense and [Giants defensive coordinator] Tom Landry said, 'He's your man’”
He did a good job of it, too, for this was Brown’s assessment of Huff’s assignment: “I always say Sam got famous from tackling me. He was a great player.”
Through the years the Mountaineers needed some pretty good tacklers to keep up with the line of running backs that came through Syracuse including Floyd Little, Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Joe Morris, to say nothing of a quarterback named Donovan McNabb.
And this led to the rivalry running so deeply that it led to a fight that became one of the most famous moments in both schools’ histories, a fight during which WVU has always felt it robbed.
“What was fair about that game?” asked West Virginia’s Mike Collins of WVU’s John Antonik during a story on the incident. “Me getting pummeled by five different guys — all wearing jersey numbers 70 or higher — and getting kicked out of the game; my backup comes in with less than two minutes left in the game and he hasn’t been playing much (to give up the winning touchdown pass) and they get a pass interference call on a fourth down, which was BS.
“Again, what was fair about that game?”
The incidence started when Syracuse quarterback Marvin Graves took off to his own 27-yard-line on an option play that ended with a hard hit by the Mountaineers’ DB Tommy Orr which Graves took exception to, bouncing the ball off the back of Orr’s head.
That led to some jawing and pushing which erupted into a fight when Syracuse assistant coach Kevin Rogers ran over and grabbed Orr by the shoulder pads.
And right in the middle of it (or on the bottom of it) was Collins.
“There were four guys stomping on me and another guy trying to pull my helmet off so they could kick me in the head. About that time, miraculously, a couple of guys from our bench came over and jumped on me right as they were about to pull my helmet off,” Collins remembered.
There was a lot of jawing going on between the players and a little pushing and shoving, but that changed when Syracuse assistant coach Kevin Rogers ran over and grabbed Orr by the shoulder pads.
“That kind of set off a powder keg and I vividly remember him grabbing Tommy and just kind of shaking him,” Tom Briggs recalled to Antonik.
What that officiating crew came up with after the fight still baffles West Virginia players to this day. They determined that an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was necessary for Graves throwing the football at Orr and that two offsetting personal foul penalties should be assessed on both teams for fighting.
Then they delivered the bombshell: three West Virginia defensive players, Collins, Briggs and Leroy Axem, and one Syracuse player, reserve offensive guard Ken Warren, were out of the game.
“Who the hell was he?” laughed Collins. “Obviously, he was one of their better players.”
And now the two teams go at it again, perhaps to write a fitting end to a rivalry that was richer than most.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.