MORGANTOWN — What is a rivalry?
We all think we know, but do we really understand all that elevates a game from ordinary to something that involves pride, emotion and the ability to become a part of what all involved are, be they fans, players, coaches or simply those caught up in it simply by tuning in on television.
It becomes an important question this week because the battle for the Black Diamond Trophy is renewed at noon Saturday on FS1 as West Virginia and Virginia Tech renew their rivalry after a three-year hiatus.
This game’s importance cannot be understated just on its merits this season. Tech is ranked No. 5 in the nation with an upset of North Carolina on its resume and WVU standing at 1-1 while looking at consecutive Top 15 games against Tech and Big 12 rival Oklahoma.
Each team expects to win this game that historically has always ranked just beneath the Backyard Brawl on the Mountaineers’ schedule.
So, what makes a rivalry?
It starts most often with proximity, border states or neighboring schools seeking regional supremacy that carries beyond the football field. Think Ohio State vs. Michigan, Oklahoma vs Texas, Alabama vs. Auburn or Georgia.
It is USC vs. UCLA, Michigan vs Michigan State, Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State.
It then grows from competitive balance, the one thing that kept WVU from ever reaching a true rivalry status with Penn State due to the Nittany Lions’ domination.
It grows through bigger-than-life coaches and players such as Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, Bear Bryant and Pat Dye or Wally Butts, Darrell Royal and Barry Switzer. Toss in an O.J. Simpson, Herschel Walker, Earl Campbell or how many other Heisman Trophy winners and you have the kind of rivalries that cannot be matched in any other sport.
Could any team suffer any more than WVU did when upset by Pitt when a 28.5-point favorite and playing for a spot in the national championship game with Ohio State?
Who else really offers Army vs. Navy, Harvard vs. Yale? Who kidnaps a mule or a goat?
And here, we have turkey legs vs. pepperoni rolls with WVU and Tech.
It isn’t a game. It’s a mission and it involves not schools but people.
The competition is clear, WVU leading, 28-23-1, but what hurts so badly is that the Hokies have won 3 straight and 7 of the last 10.
Neal Brown, the Mountaineer coach, claims he is the wrong person to assess the depth of the rivalry due to the fact that this is his first involvement in it, but he does know one thing.
“By my calculation Virginia Tech has had possession of the Black Diamond Trophy for over 6,000 days now. That’s a long time,” Brown said.
If that doesn’t get his team churned up, nothing will.
Brown believes it is crucial that his team understands what is at stake, not in a football sense, but in a cultural sense.
He has begun instructing them on the magnitude of the rivalry and how it goes far beyond the locker room doors.
“They let us know a little bit ... how important it is to the fans, to the university and to us,” wide receiver Sean Ryan said.
Victimized by the breakup of the Big East, WVU found refuge in the Big 12 to keep itself among the NCAA’s power structure, but lost its annual meetings with such important opponents such as Pitt, Maryland, Syracuse and Tech. While that huge chunk of its history was not erased, it was put into suspended animation. Much of the charm and excitement of WVU football was gone.
Brown turned to former WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, along with others, to relate to himself and his team the importance of this game and this series, that continues next year in Blacksburg.
“Jeff Casteel has been a good contact point for me to learn about the emotions that go into the game,” Brown said.
All of a sudden, great moments in the series were coming to life for his players and for himself.
Picture Michael Vick, in the closing seconds, escaping a West Virginia pass rush, turning on his afterburners down the sideline to set up a last second field goal to win for Virginia Tech and then change jerseys to blue and gold and see Grant Wiley knife through on the goal line, fourth and a foot in Blacksburg to dump Lee Suggs for a loss and save the day.
Picture a Josh Lambert field goal soaring 50 yards for a game-winning goal and the elation of the moment. It was something Brown and now his players were now able to do.
These are legendary moments ... big in any game, bigger than life in a rivalry game.
That’s what we have this week and WVU’s Brown is aware of it.
So, this is one of those games with the proverbial circle around it, a game that has the makings of sticking with anyone who sees until the day they die ... and maybe to the beyond.
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