The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

November 25, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN - WVU-Pitt way of life for some

MORGANTOWN — Tonight they play the 104th Backyard Brawl at Milan Puskar Stadium.

Two questions dominate the entire scene.

The first is whether West Virginia University or Pittsburgh will win.

A large question, indeed, with huge implications in the Big East race, but of far larger implications is the second question.

Will this be the final Backyard Brawl ever played?

It certainly could be, for West Virginia is heading for the Big 12 Conference next season, Pitt for the ACC sometime within the next three years.

This game that is as much a part of the fiber of West Virginia and Southwestern Pennsylvania as coal and pepperoni rolls here and steel and Iron City beer in Pittsburgh is an endangered species.

Putting the game together as a yearly non-conference battle will be challenging, especially if Pitt goes ahead and renews its rivalry with Penn State as has been rumored.

If the series ends, it will be a regional tragedy, according to Bill Kirelawich and Steve Dunlap, two WVU assistants who go back into the 1970s with the game.

To Kirelawich, it is much more than sporting event. It is even more than tradition.

It is a way of life.

“It’s a throwback to the mines and the cultural heritage of the majority of the kids who have played in the game,” the thoughtful, verbose Kirelawich began. “It has its root in blue-collar, hard-nosed football, the kind the working man appreciated in those days and still appreciates today.”

Truthfully, knowing the culture, the lay of the land and people who founded it and called it theirs, there can be a sense that the style of football now being played at the two schools is a radical departure from what it has always been.

But to have no game at all would create a vacuum that will never be filled.

“The game is a generational thread because it ties the generations of West Virginia football players together,” Kirelawich said. “It’s the one thing Steve Dunlap, David Lockwood and Oliver Luck have in common with today’s player. And it’s something that I don’t have in common, that Jeff Casteel doesn’t have in common, that Ollie Luck’s own kid doesn’t have in common because they never played in the game. Dunlap, Lockwood, Luck, they were in it, in a sense they were made guys.”

Made guys are members of the family, players who took part in the Backyard Brawl.

Dunlap understands what Kirelawich means.

“It’s all about all the past players and the past histories. You don’t get tradition in five or six years. It’s the long haul. There were a lot of players who came before me who we felt responsible to win for. It’s ingrained that it’s a great rivalry,” Dunlap said.

Kirelawich isn’t a native of West Virginia. He isn’t a graduate of WVU, having come from Pennsylvania to play at Salem.

It was there he found out what this Backyard Brawl is all about.

“My first year we beat Pitt, 49-18,” Kirelawich said. “Those billboards with the score on it were plastered all over the state. So, even though I wasn’t born in West Virginia, didn’t go to West Virginia, I became part of West Virginia.”

And, as part of West Virginia, he soon learned just how important the game was to the people.

It was 1979, he was working for coach Frank Cignetti, and the Mountaineers were playing their final game in old Mountaineer Field.

“Heartbreaking,” he said of the 24-17 loss. “People don’t realize it, but in those days Pitt was the Miami, the Oklahoma of college football. They were the cock of the walk in those days.”

People may not realize it, but Dunlap does. Once the all-time leading tackler at WVU, he was charged with having to tackle Tony Dorsett of those great Johnny Majors teams in the mid-1970s, teams that would beat WVU 44-3 and 52-7.

But they couldn’t get the Mountaineers in 1975, one of the great games in the series.

“The top one of all time was that game, 1975,” Dunlap said. “Pitt was about a Top 10 team. (ABC-TV’s) Keith Jackson was here, and in those days it was a big deal to get on TV. Bill McKenzie is still my hero, kicking that field goal at the end of the game.”

It was a crazy game, one in which WVU held Dorsett for quite a while, winning on the most famous field goal in school history, one that set off a celebration to end all celebrations.

“We won the game and I ran out onto the field first,” Dunlap recalled, noting it was not a bright thing to do. “Next thing I know everyone is piled on top of me. I about suffocated at the bottom of the pile. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

Kirelawich remembers a different game.

“Don Nehlen’s first year, Ollie was the quarterback, ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ was the hit movie and they kept playing ‘Coal Miner’s Slaughter,’ and they kicked the devil out of us,” Kirelawich said when asked his least favorite moment in the rivalry.

Losing to Pitt was a painful experience, perhaps because it was built up as so much. Kirelawich recalls how Nehlen handled it.

“In those days you had six days with the freshmen in camp before anyone else came in, and Don would start every camp with an indoctrination of those kids,” he said. “He’d put on the locker of every kid a dry well with a Mountaineer at the bottom of the well and a Panther with a hammer at the top of the well and told them how we had to fight and scratch to get out of that well.”

It must have worked. “It wasn’t too long until we were on top and they were down the damn well,” he said.

To Kirelawich, there is no favorite game.

“My favorite game is every game we didn’t lose and my least favorite is every game we didn’t win,” he said. “It’s always good to beat Pitt. I don’t care what our record is, what their record is, whatever. There’s a relevance to the game.

“Those guys might know it, they might not say it, but we know it and the kids know it. There’s no one on this team up at Kennywood today messing around. They are in here busting their butts for a reason.”

And that reason was hammered home in 1994 when WVU beat Pitt, 47-41.

“The game was over,” Kirelawich said. “Pitt had just scored to take the lead and there’s 15 seconds left and I’m sitting on the bench next to Stevie Perkins from down in Fort Lauderdale. He’s down, I’m down, then the next you know Zach Abraham gets behind their fastest guy and it’s a touchdown.”

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

1
Text Only
WVU Sports
  • LINDLEY COLUMN: Better police needed for college teams enticed to cheat

    Cheating has been part of college athletics probably for as long as people have bothered to keep score.

    July 24, 2014

  • HERTZEL COLUMN: O’Toole joins long list of eccentric WVU kickers, punters

    The star of the Big 12’s annual football media day wasn’t a star at all.

    July 24, 2014

  • FURFARI COLUMN: Five major sports topics of interest to area fans

    Tom Hart, a widely known retired Morgantown High School administrator and coach, continues to excel as one of the nation’s top bowlers.

    July 24, 2014

  • WVU, N.C. State to meet in football

    Following a trend of creating non-conference games against regional opponents, West Virginia University has reached agreement with North Carolina State to play a home-and-home football series in 2018 and 2019.
    The Mountaineers are scheduled to play N.C. State in Raleigh on Sept. 15, 2018, and then play host to the Wolfpack on Sept. 14, 2019.

    July 24, 2014

  • HERTZEL COLUMN: ‘Cheating pays’ remark should draw attention

    When Bob Bowlsby, the outspoken commissioner of the Big 12, presented his opening-day picture of the future of college sports in Dallas for the annual media day gathering, his bleak comments were not unexpected.

    July 24, 2014

  • ‘Cheating pays’ remark should draw attention

    When Bob Bowlsby, the outspoken commissioner of the Big 12, presented his opening-day picture of the future of college sports in Dallas for the annual media day gathering, his bleak comments were not unexpected.

    July 23, 2014

  • WVU, N.C. State to meet in football

    Following a trend of creating non-conference games against regional opponents, West Virginia University has reached agreement with North Carolina State to play a home-and-home football series in 2018 and 2019.

    July 23, 2014

  • WVU, Tennessee finalize 2018 meeting

    West Virginia University and Tennessee have finalized their season-opening, Sept. 1, 2018, meeting in Charlotte, N.C., at Bank of America Stadium.
    Both teams will receive $2.5 million for the game and have a chance to earn up to $3.2 million with ticket incentives.
    Each team will buy 12,500 tickets and set aside 2,000 of its allotment for students.
    The game, played on the home field of the Carolina Panthers of the NFL, is being put on by the Charlotte Sports Federation.

    July 23, 2014

  • Holgorsen’s program hits turning point

    You can almost sense, as you watch West Virginia University football coach Dana Holgorsen sit before the gathered Big 12 media contingent answering questions in the Omni Hotel in Arlington, Texas, that he senses his program has reached a turning point.

    July 23, 2014

  • Fleming, Billy.jpg WVU’s Fleming signs contract with Yankees

     Second baseman Billy Fleming of the West Virginia University baseball team has signed a professional contract with the New York Yankees, foregoing his upcoming senior season.
    “Ever since I was a little kid, it’s been my dream to play professional baseball,” Fleming said. “It is still surreal that I get to chase my dream, but I am ready to get after it. I loved my three years at WVU and want to thank all the coaches that made it possible for me to achieve my dream.”

    July 23, 2014 1 Photo

Featured Ads
WVU Sports Highlights
NDN Sports
House Ads
NCAA Breaking News
NCAA Photos