The Times West Virginian

November 20, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Brawl the heart, soul of football

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — It is the quiet before the storm, this Thanksgiving week in a college town.

This past Friday, roads turned into one-way thoroughfares out of town, students by the thousands heading home for the holiday, tests completed, turkey now occupying their minds.

One group of students, however, remained behind. They have the biggest test of the year ahead of them, one that could be their final exam if they fail.

They are West Virginia University’s football players, turning the corner into game week.

The Backyard Brawl is Friday at 7 p.m.

Jeff Braun, the offensive linemen, put it this way on his Twitter: “I hate this week because Morgantown is so dead. ... However, I LOVE this week for one reason ... IT’S PITT.”

Saturday was a day made for scoreboard watching, the Big East championship still being an unsolved puzzle, Cincinnati in control but just barely, coming off a loss and looking at a finish that included two road games without its starting quarterback.

If the Bearcats can pull it off, they deserve the title, and considering that former WVU assistant coach Butch Jones is running the show in Cincy it would not hurt quite as badly as if it were a complete stranger.

This, of course, is the time of year when teams trying to put the finishing touches on a championship season become an endangered species.

Ask Oklahoma State.

The Cowboys looked like they would simply roar into the national championship game, an unstoppable offensive juggernaut. Then they ran into Iowa State late Friday night and the title dreams faded into the night sky in Ames, Iowa, Oklahoma State falling in two overtimes.

In this tangled web that is college football, this game had an interesting backstory here, for WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen, of course, came to WVU from Oklahoma State, where he shaped the unstoppable offense that Iowa State stopped.

Then there was the Cyclone coach Paul Rhoads, a man now quite familiar with ruining national championship dreams, for he was Dave Wannstedt’s offensive coordinator at Pitt when the Panthers derailed Rich Rodriguez’s championship express, 13-9, in Morgantown.

That, of course, ranks as the most bitter loss in WVU football history, coming as a four-touchdown favorite and forever changing the course of the school’s football history, right down to driving Rodriguez from town.

It had to be equally devastating for Oklahoma State, already reeling in the tragedy of a plane crash in Arkansas a day earlier that took the lives of women’s basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna while on a recruiting trip.

Pitt week is the most anticipated week of any season, a time when the entire school, community and state can unite in a friendly border rivalry, one that is filled with passion as none other, yet one where those who handle it correctly can use it for entertainment purposes only.

This could be the last of the Backyard Brawls, a series that dates back to 1895, so far back that Mickey Furfari didn’t even get to cover it. This will be the 104th edition of it, Pitt holding the edge with 61 victories, 39 losses and 3 ties but WVU owning the past two decades by winning 13 of 19.

Just the names alone give one an idea of how rich the history of this rivalry is, each conjuring up an image:

Major Harris and Johnny Majors, Sam Huff and Mike Ditka, Dan Marino and Jeff Hostetler, Tony Dorsett and Patrick White.

Runners and passers, savage defenders, precision quarterbacks ... and now it would appear to be an endangered species, and it is not alone.

The reconfiguration of college football is threatening to take away its heart, soul and history.

What happens to Pitt and Penn State, to Texas and Texas A&M, Nebraska and Oklahoma?

In a sports writer career that has lasted far longer than most marriages, including two of my own, I have been able to be part of some of these, the past 16 Backyard Brawls, the Ohio State-Michigan game when Woody Hayes tore up the sideline marker just feet from me, the Oklahoma-Nebraska Game of the Century in 1971.

In addition, I have attended Army-Navy and Georgia-Georgia Tech and have come to understand that this is really the heart and soul of the college game, the thing that gives it its character and flavor, giving meaning to each season, no matter what the record, no matter what is at stake.

Let us all hope that WVU athletic director Oliver Luck and Pitt AD Steve Pederson can work out a way to continue the Backyard Brawl, for without it football season becomes simply a seasonal business without a heartbeat.

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.