West Virginia-Pittsburgh: A Six-Pack Of Memories
West Virginia University versus the University of Pittsburgh, the Backyard Brawl. It's as bloodthirsty as college football can get.
Separated by an hour's worth of hardtop ribbon, we all know each other. We know each other well and exist together, but one week out of the year, it's ugly.
Legendary West Virginia football play-by-play man, the late Jack Fleming, got so whipped up during one Backyard Brawl pregame that he screamed into the microphone, "I have to take a Valium!"
Forget anti-anxiety medications. We all want to be hopped up for this one.
Here, in chronological order, are my six favorites:
I was a sophomore psychology student at Marshall University in Huntington, WV, watching the first half of regional ABC coverage from the apartment of my friend Mike.
When you're a psych major at Marshall, the people in the classes are indeed crazy. But, the coeds are really good-looking. One of them, the buxom (definitely) Lynn (I think) tracked me down at Mike's and invited me to watch the second half with her.
In a matter of minutes Lynn and I were perched from the top bunk in her South Hall dorm room, her small black-and-white rabbit-eared television tuned in to the game.
The second most memorable event was WVU quarterback Dan Kendra hitting wideout Randy Swinson with four seconds remaining in the 14-14 deadlock.
Tied for most memorable was West Virginia straight-on kicker Bill McKenzie and his walkoff field goal to win it at 17-14. The fans stormed the turf.
I had high school friends up there. Turning to Lynn, I said, "I would give anything—absolutely anything—to be in Morgantown right now!"
Half-hour later, Mike and I were toasting the victory at his place.
Thankfully, by this time I had given up psychology and random women to become an engineer in love. My pretty wife Cindy the CPA, along with her long legs and brains, joined me at the fall picnic sponsored by my employer Union Carbide, a multinational corporation that no longer exists.
Even though almost all Carbide engineers would have never been caught dead with a degree from West Virginia University, the management thought it would be nice to rig up a large television under the shelter for the ABC national telecast.
One of my cohorts, a Stevens Institute of Technology alum, stood next to the monkey bars, placed two chicken eggs in his hardhat, and rammed the hat onto his head. Everyone laughed. There's your candidate for Valium, I thought.
Cindy saw the egg drippings and suggested we watch the game.
Quarterback Jeff Hostetler had led the visiting Mountaineers to a 13-0 lead over the No. 2 Panthers late in the third. Seeing that score was worth every dollar of tuition, fees, and room and board I paid at West Virginia.
After watching Dan Marino's stirring comeback, however, I wanted a refund.
Down 13-16 with one play remaining, West Virginia's head coach Don Nehlen called for a 52-yard field goal attempt. Kicker Paul Woodside came within inches of sailing it through.
"You'd need a micrometer to measure that one," said the engineer from Purdue.
Things changed dramatically in one short year. A severe recession slammed Carbide hard, forcing the company to lay me off. Unemployment hit 20 percent in West Virginia. As any engineer worth his micrometer would say, there was no molecular motion in that economy.
However, there were reasons to count our blessings. Cindy and I had a) a roof over our heads, paid for with a mortgage, b) a job each, as a stockbroker firm thought it wise to hire me, c) a baby on the way, and d) two standing room tickets to the Backyard Brawl.
Life was good.
We lived in Charleston, a two-and-a-half-hour interstate drive from Morgantown. The tickets came from a raffle our friend Anna sponsored for her college class. Cindy and I piled into her 1976 orange Ford Pinto at 9:30 that morning to drive to the noon game. We were late and could have watched it on CBS' regional coverage, but it's Pittsburgh, man!
Arriving at the stadium just in time and taking our seats on a grassy bank, Cindy was a real trooper, a pregnant and queasy trooper, but nevertheless a trooper. From that grass, we witnessed a remarkable sight. Jeff Hostetler started his Mountaineers from their 10 midway through the fourth and marched them down the field, eating up clock, turf, Panthers, and anything else in his way.
From the Pittsburgh 4, Hoss sent everyone left and took the naked bootleg in for the winning score, the first West Virginia victory over Pitt since I was with ol' what-was-her-name.
Two little Cindys circled our feet, along with Ross' and Anna's daughter and the daughter of Joe and Grace, all buddies from the Carbide days. The investment business had done well for me as clients and media persistently called for my advice. Not a bad situation.
The markets were definitely not the issue as the 10 of us got together to watch ESPN's telecast of the Mountaineers and the Panthers and their late September date in Morgantown.
Quarterback Major Harris burned the rug off the ground as West Virginia took a 31-0 lead into the third. Most everyone in our house on Rolling Hills was as happy as clams in the mud.
The true colors started to fly, however, as Pittsburgh put together a rally. The ladies kept it to themselves, but Ross and I were visibly shocked while Joe rooted Panther quarterback Alex Van Pelt on. One Pitt touchdown begat another as Pitt's defense stopped Major and his men cold.
Three thoughts resulted from the game: a) how in God's name could a Don Nehlen team give up 31 in a matter of minutes, b) what does one do after Pitt rings up five scores to your none, and c) who will save Joe?
As the game fell apart, I did notice one thing: Megan, our older daughter, the one who was with Jeff Hostetler while in utero, would more often than not put down her My Little Ponies to turn her attention to the television.
Thanksgiving Day, and the Backyard Brawl was bringing up the rear in the holiday's football coverage. Pittsburgh hosted the event at Heinz Field along with ESPN.
Just a few months after the '89 game, the stock and bond business had worn my young health paper-thin. For a living, I sold a few odd things through the 90s and the early part of the 21st century, then finally gained re-entrance to the engineering profession. I was ecstatic to be back.
Through it all, my football fandom writing reached prolific proportions. I penned a novel about a pine-riding wideout at a fictitious state university. I covered the NFL's Pittsburgh for The Football Network and Lindy's. The only way to keep me quiet was to shove a screen and a keyboard in my face.
Cindy and I were empty nesters. That day, Megan the Mountaineer Maniac was with her fiance at his home in New York screaming her head off. Our younger daughter Annie was barely a fan of any ball sport but found it convenient to spend part of her college break with me to escape Black Friday.
The action seesawed as Annie and her friend Meg sat in amazement at my ability to remain relatively quiet. Must have been the Coronas.
Rich Rod directed quarterback Rasheed Marshall to lead a last-minute winning drive. On the final play of that drive, Marshall took off as the receiver. The pass barely missed his fingertips. My beer and I collapsed into the floor. The conversation went something like this:
Annie: "Uh...are you okay, Dad?"
Tim: "Uh, yeah. Yeah."
Meg: "Took it pretty hard, didn't you, Tim?"
Tim: "Always do. It's Pittsburgh."
I never wear school colors to games. That just pisses Megan off. But, Rich Rod called for a Gold Rush as the No. 2 Mountaineers played rude hosts to Pittsburgh's hapless 4-7 Panthers. I bought a gold Polo sweatshirt at Kohl's, pulled it over four other shirts to protect me from the frigid night air, and went to Cindy's firm's tailgate.
Their spot in the lot was just over the fence from the loaded fireworks. When West Virginia wins this game, the 100th edition of the Backyard Brawl, we will go to the BCS national championship game. The rockets will then glare red, on cue.
I met an attorney who was wearing a full wolf's skin for a hat. He said the day had been like Christmas morning. His wife was jumping up and down. Her friends were jumping up and down. Doctors, lawyers, and certified public accountants were all jumping up and down. I turned to one of Cindy's partners. The conversation went something like this:
Tim: "I don't like how this feels."
Partner: "Don't worry."
The law of conservation of energy says energy cannot be created or destroyed. However, Mountaineer Field that night was absolutely metaphysical as the team showed up in their all-gold jerseys and pants. If there had been a roof on Milan Puskar, it would now be orbital.
Then, the game started.
Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt was throwing his crutches. Rich Rod threw the bubble screen. Panthers everywhere celebrated Pat McAfee's two missed chip shots. Rich Rod called the bubble screen several times. Pittsburgh held the ball 14 minutes in the third quarter.
When Rich got the ball back, he ran the bubble screen left, then ran the bubble screen right.
Partners' Wives: "What's that play we keep running?"
Megan: "It's the ****ing bubble screen!"
Partners' Wives: "Well, it's not working."
Neither did the fireworks.
My family and I were walking up Law School Hill to the car after the carnage.
Megan: "What the hell happened, Dad?"
Tim: "Well, we were playing for the national championship. They were playing in the Backyard Brawl. Rivalries rule."
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