75 Miles of Backyard: How Conference Realignment Ruined a Storied Rivalry

By: Jon Juracko 

Pitt fifth quarterThe Hatfields and McCoys.  Batman and Joker.  Hulk Hogan and any anti-American 1980’s wrestler.  Good versus Evil.  However you want to analyze it, rivalries tell a story…a wonderful prolific tale of two foes meeting on hollow ground to right all wrongs and further chase destiny.  Destiny and glory aren’t as important as money as college sports has seen too often as of late.

When you grow up in Southwestern Pennsylvania, sports are sort of a big deal but football is the king.  Every young whipper-snapper tosses the rock at recess, hoping when that when they grow up – they will play for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The weekends in the fall are dominated by the prolate spheroid-shaped ball; starting Friday night, high schools from every suburb, farm town and former industry boom town put forth their best gladiators to battle on the gridiron for conference supremacy and a place enshrined in the annals of history.  Saturdays are shared by “Peewee” and college teams, with the superstars of tomorrow getting their chance to prove themselves from community centers to Heinz Field.

I learned the fundamentals of football in a “Peewee” Catholic League.  I remember even that at such a young age, we had rivals…three of them.  For three years, we played as much smash-mouth football as elementary school kids could play…ultimately getting bested by two of the three rivals.  As I recall, one of the rival games had a trophy ceremony, another was for bragging rights and the last one was just to ensure a winning season.  I loved the rival games.  You hit harder.  You run faster.  You wanted the “DUBYA.”  That doesn’t really change at any level of the game.

As a fan of the University of Pittsburgh, I have always loved the Pitt-WVU Backyard Brawl series.  75 or so miles separate these two storied universities but nowadays the distance seems further than that.  After 104 meetings, the two haven’t seen each other since WVU left for the Big 12 Conference.  In my opinion, both teams are lacking that one big game in their schedule.  Despite both teams being new to their respective conferences, they have not found any good rivalries.

Despite what you may read elsewhere, the ACC implied rivalries are soulless.  There isn’t a game on the schedule where the residents of the Oakland community of Pittsburgh are setting couches on fire and the golden light beaming atop of the Cathedral of Learning means so much.  No, not even the game against fellow Big East alums Syracuse or Miami.

Artificial rivalries lack heart, heat and hatred in college football.  The Big East tried to impose a rivalry between Pitt and Cincy (probably thinking it works well with the Pro teams), the River City Rivalry.  It was never bigger than the Backyard Brawl…not even when Cincy held off Pitt at Heinz Field for a Big East championship and BCS berth.  Even if yours truly had to endure one of the longest walks from Heinz Field to the parking lot after that game with all of the smug Bearcat faithful trash-talking, it still does not compete with a real rivalry.

Where I grew up, the kids who follow college sports do so because their parents did one of the following; went to that school, have or still work at that school or dreamed about going there.  Where I grew up, kids sported Pitt, Penn State, WVU, Ohio State or some lesser known college gear.  Most of the kids that grew up there usually decided between those four schools for college ball (not to say that every so often you see that one kid who decides to go to Alabama or Wisconsin).  Because of that, those high school rivalries from those rusty old mill towns were staying fresh on the same turf that their role models found glory.

I look forward to the renewal of the Pitt-Penn State series.  Whether the game is at State College or Pittsburgh, the crowd will be huge and loud.  For Pitt, this series will compare with Notre Dame home games, and for Penn State, when the Buckeyes come to town.  Both schools have branch campuses all over the state, which gives this series so much more heart, heat and hatred.  In my opinion, I want this game to show up every year on the schedule and if at all possible take up the date of the old Backyard Brawl.  That Saturday after Thanksgiving deserves one hell of an awesome game and a “Battle for Pennsylvania” could headline any sports broadcast.

Looking ahead to the 2014 Pitt football season, is a similar schedule with the addition of Delaware, Akron, FIU and Iowa.  If the ACC makes one smart decision, it would be to give Pitt and Louisville a rivalry series.  At least until the next round of conference realignment, this series could give both of these schools a meaningful game.  Bobby Petrino is hands down a great coach (with a shady history).  Paul Chryst is fixing a good football program.  They are both Big East alumni and unlike Syracuse, they aren’t entirely a basketball program school.

In the end, conference realignments will persist every so often.  With them more age old rivals will be forced to store trophies away and change their annual traditions.  I am sure that one day, we’ll see mega-conferences with 20-30 teams, none having a rich history of competition with each other.  None of them having the heart, heat or hatred that has been seen in the Backyard Brawl, the Civil War, the Iron Bowl, the World’s Largest Cocktail Party or the countless other meaningful series that have itched their importance in the history of the game.  I just hope that some bit of tradition can last and that I haven’t seen the last of Pitt and WVU square off.

From: Fifth-Quarter

fifth quarter

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