The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Instense Rivalries in College Football History

The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Instense Rivalries in College Football History

by John Antonik

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781935978824
Publisher: West Virginia University Press
Publication date: 09/01/2012
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 330
Sales rank: 653,180
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

John Antonik is Director of New Media for Intercollegiate Athletics, West Virginia University and author of West Virginia University Football Vault: The History of the Mountaineers and Roll Out the Carpet: 101 Seasons of West Virginia University Basketball.

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The Backyard Brawl

Stories from one of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History

By John Antonik

West Virginia University Press

Copyright © 2012 West Virginia University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-935978-83-1


1943 — 1955


The Long Shadow of Sutherland

In the spring of 1938, West Virginians watched with great interest the University of Pittsburgh's systematic and almost complete dismantlement of its powerhouse football program. During the period from 1929 — 38, Pitt had won 79 of 97 games (with seven ties), captured five mythical national championships, played in four Rose Bowls and produced 17 All-Americans.

The man responsible for this phenomenal success was John Bain "Jock" Sutherland, a Scottish immigrant who worked his way through Oberlin Academy by waiting tables and shoveling snow. Sutherland, who played soccer as a young boy, became interested in American football in 1914 when he was accepted into Pitt's dental school. Sutherland turned into an All-American guard while playing for the famous Glenn "Pop" Warner on Pitt's undefeated teams of 1915, 1916 and 1917. After serving in the Army during World War I, he returned to Pittsburgh to open a dental practice. Unsatisfied with dentistry, Sutherland jumped at the opportunity to coach football at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., and after five successful seasons there (Sutherland's Lafayette teams defeated Pitt twice in 1921 and 1922), he replaced Warner as Pitt's coach in 1924. By 1927, Sutherland had led the Panthers to their first Rose Bowl, where they lost 7-6 to Stanford. By the early 1930s, they were frequently beating the best programs in the country.

Sutherland completely dominated the local college scene during a ten-season period from 1929 — 38, going 7-0 against Penn State, 8-1-1 against Carnegie Tech, 4-1 against Duquesne and 1-0 with three ties against New York City power Fordham. But no eastern school felt the sheer dominance of Pitt football more than West Virginia: The Mountaineers endured seven shutout defeats during the nine-season stretch from 1930 — 38 and only managed to score single touchdowns in blowout losses to the Panthers in 1934 and 1935. Pitt's average margin of victory in that span of games was 24.3 points, and during Sutherland's final three seasons in 1936, 1937 and 1938, Pitt outscored West Virginia by a depressing 93-0 margin. "Wait until next year" was not a phrase even worth uttering if you were a Mountaineer football rooter.

In fact, WVU's 1937 performance against Pitt was universally praised as one of its best by alums, despite the fact that the Mountaineers were blanked, 20-0. That's because West Virginia was only trailing 7-0 heading into the fourth quarter, before a pair of late Panther scores put the game away. But despite the staggering success Pitt enjoyed, all was not well in the Steel City. Sutherland was growing unhappy with the support his football program was receiving from the school, and he disputed with athletic director W. Don Harrison over spending money his players failed to receive after Pitt defeated Washington in the 1937 Rose Bowl. Harrison eventually stepped aside, and James Hagan was named his replacement. The new AD eventually became involved in the initiation of a series of athletic reforms, most notably the implementation of the so-called "Bowman Code," which, among other things, dramatically reduced the number of athletic scholarships Sutherland was allowed to award freshmen. Sutherland, whose contract stipulated a two-year notice if he chose to take another job, coached the Panthers for one more season before submitting his formal letter of resignation in the spring of 1939.

Sutherland characterized his situation at Pitt as "intolerable," and despite a last ditch effort by Pitt chancellor John G. Bowman (the man for whom the Bowman Code was named) to reach some accord with his highly successful coach, Sutherland chose to walk away from the college game before the 1939 season. Perhaps the final straw for Sutherland was Pitt's decision in February of that year to place its athletic department under the umbrella of the Big Ten Conference (then known as the Western Conference), with the Panthers pledging to adhere to the rules and regulations of the league in a cooperative agreement that did not, however, include full membership. This occurred following a late 1938 alumni committee study that concluded that the athletic department was in dire need of an "arbitrator between athletes and university representatives." Problems had developed when several freshmen members of the football team threatened to go on strike because of unfulfilled tuition payments and perceived deplorable financial conditions. The committee recommended increasing the power of the athletic director, expanding the faculty committee, and requiring that coaches and athletic department members work together in a more congenial manner. For Sutherland, working in a "more congenial manner" meant looking for another job.

One result of Pitt's internal power struggle was the cessation of the West Virginia football series for a three-year period from 1940 — 42. According to Eddie Beachlerof The Pittsburgh Press, the primary reason Pitt discontinued the series was that the Panthers wanted to make room on their schedule for more Big Ten opponents, starting with Ohio State in 1940. In fact, Pitt continued to covet an elusive invitation for full membership in the Big Ten well into the 1950s, when Michigan State was added to the conference. (Ironically, Nebraska, which would eventually join the Big Ten in 2011, was also frequently mentioned as a possible expansion target in those years.) There were also whispers that Pitt was unhappy with guarantee money that West Virginia had failed to pay the Panthers for their 1937 game in Morgantown. According to David W. Jacobs in the winter 1940 issue of West Virginia University Alumni Magazine, there was a miscommunication between the two schools regarding West Virginia's financial obligations to the Panthers that led the Mountaineers to believe they owed Pitt less money than they actually did. Pitt, which was accumulating deep debt from lost gate revenue as a result of its athletic reforms, thought otherwise.

Pitt also dropped Duquesne, but the Panthers chose to keep Carnegie Tech, Penn State and Fordham on the grid schedule because games against these teams were both competitive and profitable. By 1941, four Big Ten programs — Purdue, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State — were on Pitt's slate, but the Panthers' desire to become a full-fledged member of the Big Ten never gained traction. Further complicating matters was the United States' entry into World War II on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

After the attack, many college football players and coaches were drafted into military service or enlisted on their own, and the government began issuing restrictions on food consumption, raw materials and travel as the economy shifted to a war production mode. In March of 1942, the Japanese seized plantations in the Dutch East Indies that had produced 90 percent of the United States' raw rubber. Shortly afterward, an elaborate color-coded system of gasoline rationing was devised in the U.S., interestingly enough, to help slow the usage of rubber for automobile tires. These restrictions greatly impacted college athletics, and by 1943, many traditional programs chose to discontinue football until the end of the war. Among notable schools electing to shut down football for the '43 season were Tennessee, Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, Florida, Arizona, Arizona State, Stanford and Syracuse. A total of 33 programs opted not to play that year, including eight schools from the Southeastern Conference, six from the Pacific Coast Conference, six from the Southern Conference and four schools from the independent ranks.

Discontinuing football at Pitt and West Virginia was not an option because both athletic programs desperately needed the money — even if the games had to be played with 17-year-old freshmen and 4-Fs, who were ineligible for military service. The de-emphasis program Pitt had initiated in 1938 was putting a big financial strain on the athletic department by the early 1940s. There was a sharp decline in attendance for the Panthers during the 1939 campaign — Charles Bowser's first with the Panthers — when attendance dropped to 27,500 from the 39,000 rate during Sutherland's final season, in 1938. Pitt's top gate attraction in 1939 was against Carnegie Tech, with 51,000 showing up to see the Panthers win the cross-city tussle 6-0. In 1940, Pitt's attendance dipped even further, with the top draws being SMU (37,000), Fordham (33,000) and Penn State (29,000).

The Pittsburgh Press estimated that Pitt had lost nearly $200,000 in ticket revenue during the 1940 season, all the while still owing more than $1.5 million on bonds taken out for the construction of Pitt Stadium in 1923. Compounding matters, Carnegie Tech, which rented Pitt Stadium for its games, was also experiencing a decline in attendance; this further impacted Pitt's bottom line because the Panthers were guaranteed 20 percent of the gate receipts for all Tartan home games.

West Virginia, too, was feeling the squeeze from the Depression, with outstanding debt remaining on Mountaineer Field as well as on the Field House, which housed the basketball team and most of the athletic department. "We intend to field a team and play out a schedule because we feel we have everything to gain and nothing to lose by continuing football," remarked athletic director Roy "Legs" Hawley that summer. "The brand of play may not be up to par because our squad naturally will be composed of young, inexperienced boys, but since most of our opponents will be in the same position the competition should be more or less even."

Earlier that spring, Hawley announced the curtailment of baseball and tennis for the remainder of the year, as well as the cancellation of spring football practice. He also made it clear that football would continue in the fall if he could find enough opponents to make up a workable schedule. At the beginning of June, Hawley had only three confirmed games, against Virginia Tech, Kentucky and Michigan State. A fourth foe was added on June 9 when Syracuse agreed to oppose the Mountaineers in New York, but the schedule underwent a series of additions and deletions as teams decided whether or not they were going to play in 1943. Kentucky and Michigan State backed out first, followed by Syracuse and Virginia Tech. Eventually, Hawley was able to piece together a seven-game slate that included Virginia, Maryland, Carnegie Tech, Penn State, Lehigh and Bethany. Pitt also returned to the Mountaineer schedule when the resumption of the series was officially announced on August 3, 1943. The deal was struck during a spring meeting of athletic directors in New York City when the Mountaineers agreed to replace Duke on Pitt's grid slate to give the Panthers a seventh game. Pitt arranged an eighth opponent when Bethany agreed to play the Panthers in Pittsburgh.

In addition to a reconfigured schedule, Hawley also had to contend with the departure of football coach Bill Kern to the Navy. Kern was required to report to Chapel Hill, N.C., on July 1, 1943, and would not be available again until the end of the war. Kern's first three teams at WVU were solid, though not spectacular, winning four, losing four and tying one in 1940, winning just four of 10 in 1941 and posting a 5-4 mark in 1942. Kern's '40 squad upset a decent Kentucky team 9-7 in Morgantown, and he produced a memorable 24-0 victory over Penn State in 1942. West Virginia's football schedule in 1942 was a dramatic upgrade from the preceding years, with difficult games against Boston College, South Carolina, Fordham, Penn State, Kentucky, Michigan State and Miami, Fla. Until the war interrupted things, Hawley thought the football program had been moving in a positive direction, and to maintain some semblance of continuity, he chose to bring back WVU legend Ira Rodgers to coach the team.

Rodgers was the school's first consensus All-American player in 1919 and later coached the Mountaineers for six seasons from 1925 — 30, with his '25 team posting an 8-1 record and the '28 squad going 8-2 and beating Pitt 9-6 in Pittsburgh. Rodgers later commented that Sutherland's brief words of congratulations after the Mountaineers' victory over Pitt in 1928 was one of the highlights of his life. But Rodgers was unable to duplicate the great success Clarence "Doc" Spears enjoyed on the gridiron before him — he chose to step aside following a .500 campaign in 1930 to devote more of his time to coaching the baseball team and serving as an instructor in the School of Physical Education, though he would continue as the football team's scout.

When Rodgers took over for the second time in 1943, he was inheriting very little in the way of experienced players, as the War Department would not allow air cadets or students enlisted in the military to participate in football. Therefore, in 1942, a squad of 54 players was pared down to approximately 30 when training camp began in late August. Among the handful of veterans remaining were Tony Paulin, Bob Dutton, John Lucente and Ken Fryer — a standout on the '40 team who was back on campus after being discharged from the Army. Rodgers had less than a month to get his team ready to play a warm-up game against West Virginia Tech. However, a week before the scheduled date, the Golden Bears informed West Virginia that the team did not have enough players to play a competitive game, so the contest was nixed. That meant the opener would come against the University of Virginia on October 2 in Charleston. The Mountaineers lost the opener 6-0.

The Pitt program was in a similar transitional stage with well-known coach Clark Shaughnessy taking over after the unsuccessful four-year tenure of Bowser, who chose the U.S. Navy instead of coaching the Panthers to another losing season in '43. Shaughnessy directed outstanding teams at Tulane in the mid-1920s before moving on to the University of Chicago in the 1930s. His 1940 Stanford squad beat Nebraska in the Rose Bowl 21-13 on the way to an undefeated season and a No. 2 national ranking. Shaughnessy then coached Maryland to a 7-2 record in 1942 before taking the Pitt job in 1943, a decision he later regretted. Shaughnessy, who outfitted Pitt in red and white uniforms, was considered an innovative offensive coach who modernized the T formation with the new wrinkle of adding a man in motion. He later served in an advisory capacity for several professional teams, most notably with the Washington Redskins, where he mentored Dudley DeGroot (later West Virginia's coach for two seasons in 1948 — 49) in the finer points of the T while DeGroot coached the fabulous "Slinging" Sammy Baugh. Eventually, when Shaughnessy's Panther teams were losing frequently, Pitt wanted him to sever his ties with the Redskins and devote more of his attention to the Panther program — a very reasonable request. Shaughnessy wouldn't do it, and eventually he returned to Maryland. Of course, Shaughnessy had nothing like Baugh to work with at Pitt, the war and the de-emphasis program having completely gutted what Sutherland had built in the 1930s. Pitt had had three straight losing seasons from 1940 — 42 and was on its way to another one in 1943 following a pair of blowout losses to Notre Dame and Great Lakes to begin the year. Yet despite having a depleted roster, especially by Pitt standards, the Panthers were still superior to West Virginia. The Mountaineers took just 28 players to Pittsburgh for the renewal of the series on October 9. By comparison, Pitt had about 60 civilian players to work with.

Not only were West Virginians excited to be playing Pitt once again, but the game also represented a new opportunity for the Mountaineers to try and end Pitt's long winning streak against them. Trips to Pittsburgh were always a big deal to West Virginians, not only for the entertainment the football games provided, but also for the well-deserved break it gave them from their daily lives. In the years before the highways were paved, the trip from the state's Northern Panhandle to Pittsburgh took the better part of a day. Longtime sportswriter Mickey Furfari remembered breaking his arm as a youngster and his father having to drive him on dirt roads from Morgantown to Pittsburgh to get his arm set. "It took all day to get there," Mickey recalled. When the late Jim Carlen coached West Virginia in the late 1960s, he begged then-governor Arch Moore to improve the state's highway system so he could quit losing Bluefield players to Virginia Tech. In fact, because it took such a long time to drive to Pittsburgh, a good number of West Virginia fans would make an entire weekend of it, trekking up to the Steel City on Thursday afternoon and spending three nights at the William Penn Hotel, which the entire state quickly adopted as the unofficial gathering place for all Pittsburgh events. It was at the William Penn in 1922 that the phrase "West by Gawd Virginia" was conceived.


Excerpted from The Backyard Brawl by John Antonik. Copyright © 2012 West Virginia University Press. Excerpted by permission of West Virginia University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1943-1955: The Rivalry Resumes
1943 - The Long Shadow of Sutherland
1947 - Finally!
1952 - Pappy Makes 'em Happy
1954 - The Power of Positive Thinking
1955 - Pass the Sugar
1957-1965: Wild Times
1957 - West Virginia Survives
1959 - A “Pitt-iful” Performance
1961 - The Garbage Game
1963 - The Battle of the Brothers
1965 - Points Galore
1967-1979: The Birth of the Backyard Brawl
1967 - “Jusk” for Kicks
1970 - Bobby Blows It
1975 - McKenzie Kicks the Hell out of Pitt
1976 - Tony D Gets Tossed
1979 - Farewell, Old Mountaineer Field
1982-1991: A Changing of the Guard
1982 - A Classic Comeback
1983 - "Let's Do It!"
1985 and 1987 - A Tie and a Sigh
1989 - Kissing Your Sister; Clubbing Your Neighbor
1991-2011: The Big East Years
1991 - A Big East Blowout
1994 - E-I-E-I-O, Tractors and Corncob Pipes
1997 - For the Love of Pete
2002 - Collins Steals the Show
2007 - 13-9: Miracle in the Mountains
2009 and 2011 - Down to the Wire
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