By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.