Beat Pitt Week For WVU Raises Anticipation, Excitement
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — This was only the appetizer, so to speak, the antipasto, cheese sticks or potato skins before the main course, this women’s renewal of the Backyard ‘Basketbrawl’ that No. 11 West Virginia won on Thursday night at the Coliseum.
It kicked off a weekend of Pitt vs. West Virginia, a weekend that includes a wrestling battle at the Coliseum on Saturday and the renewal of the men’s basketball rivalry that had lay dormant for five years.
OK, it isn’t a Backyard Brawl, football variety, and until we get that cranked up, the true electricity and excitement and — yes, hatred — will not be fully revved up.
But make no doubt that when these two schools get together, as Keith Jackson would say, “these two teams don’t like each other very much.”
The heat on the field, or court, or mat is enough to set off the fire alarms in the arena or stadium where the event is being held, but this goes further … maybe than any rivalry out there save maybe for Army-Navy whatever football team is playing Notre Dame on a given week.
The idea is that the players understand it and play it out, but it is the fans who live it.
The coaches, that’s something else. They are in their own fraternity, and in most cases — Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin and Xavier’s Chris Mack being this week’s exception — while the game is on so is the heat, but in most cases they like each other.
This was never more evident than Thursday night when Pitt’s diminutive coach Suzie McConnell-Serio entered the Coliseum and hollering across the floor at WVU coach Mike Carey, mockingly, “I don’t like you!”
The two approached each other by the bench, got into a light-hearted argument, then hugged warmly.
Shortly after, they were joined by WVU assistants Lester Rowe and Chester Nichols, McConnell-Serio needling Rowe about maybe gaining weight and Rowe reacting by grabbing for his belt and showing how much room he had.
They then hugged and for the nerly a full half an hour they stood there at the bench, exchanged tall tales and generally laughing more than you ever would imagine a Pitt and West Virginia coach would laugh together.
But the fans, those in West Virginia, for example, they still can’t shake the bitter taste of 13-9 in Morgantown back in 2007 that cost the 28.5-point favored Mountaineers a shot at a national title and drove then-WVU coach Rich Rodriguez to Michigan.
These games with Pitt are not games at all, they are crusades, almost a religious experience.
It expresses itself in so many ways, a fish being thrown out onto the court as Wil Robinson stood at the free throw, an event that has not yet been forgotten by fans of either school — and it happened in 1970.
And then there is the West Virginia rewrite of Neil Diamond’s wonderful song that Pitt adopted as a theme song, “Sweet Caroline.”
While the rivalry goes far back in time, the man at the middle of it all was West Virginia’s golden voiced play-by-play legend Jack Fleming. Fleming was the voice of both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Mountaineers, but he had gone to school at WVU and was a Mountaineer through and through.
Beano Cook, the legendary Pitt p.r. man, television guru and world class character, once told this story to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about Fleming’s upbringing in Morgantown.
“Jack Fleming’s house was above the old stadium,” Cook said. “He told me, when he was a child, Pitt would come out on the field, and he would sit on his mother’s lap. His mother would point down at them. And his mother would say, ‘Son, that’s Pitt. You hate Pitt now. You hate Pitt tomorrow. You hate Pitt until the day you die. After that, you will hate Pitt for eternity.’ “
And, one suspects, he still does, perhaps the only hatred there is heaven … or maybe not for if there is a Mountaineer heaven, that is where Fleming landed.
The intensity of the rivalry probably isn’t as strong today as it was back then. Hell, even those unbiased media folks had their own personal points of view back then.
John Antonik of the WVU sports info staff notes that the media was moved up above the court to get one certain journalistic legend in Morgantown away from being all over the officials when the media was seated courtside at the scorer’s table.
Back when Pitt and WVU were in the Big East and Pitt had moved into the Petersen Events Center, the students encircled the court and have the courtside seats.
They were rowdy enough that Da’Sean Butler recently told Justin Jackson of the Dominion Post that the WVU players didn’t come out early to shoot.
Pitt’s program has been on the downswing of late, since coach Jamie Dixon fled for his alma mater at TCU, and attendance has been sparse but apparently they are expecting a big crowd for WVU on Saturday.
“I understand they increased ticket prices for the game,” WVU Coach Bob Huggins said. “They’ve been trying to get people in, so I’m pretty sure they think they are going to have a heck of a crowd if they raised prices.”