When I travel to Pittsburgh this Thursday, it’ll be my 30th Backyard Brawl, by my count.
Of course, I covered the vast majority as a sports writer/columnist, but I’ve got WVU leading the series 16-11 with two ties when I attend.
Memories? Oh, yeah. A bunch.
But perhaps the one I remember the most is one that gets lost in the pile.
Yes, yes, yes, I remember Pitt’s 13-9 upset. I remember how RichRod was stubborn in his playcalling. What I remember the most, however, was turning to a colleague in the pressbox after that game and saying, “Neither team in this series should ever be a 28-point favorite. Ever.”
But the game of which I speak happened way back in 1989, when Pitt visited Morgantown at No. 10 nationally, while WVU was No. 9. It was the only time the teams had entered in the Top 10 in the previous 81 meetings. The Mountaineers, who had played in the national championship the season prior, still had Major Harris and had compiled a 4-0 record, downing Ball State, Maryland, South Carolina and Louisville.
And WVU’s stadium was jacked for the ESPN night game. A whopping 68,938 attended, which was more than Pitt would experience all season, including at Notre Dame. Ron Franklin and Kevin Kiley were on the ESPN call. Chris Fowler was on the sidelines. Waiting to bring you the scores in the studio were Bob Carpenter, Beano Cook and Lee Corso.
I remember looking at West Virginia’s roster and seeing Harris, James Jett, Darrell Whitmore, Steve Grant, Eugene Napoleon, Rico Tyler, Dale Wolfley and Theron Ellis. The Mountaineers had Renaldo Turnbull taken in the first round of the 1990 draft. And Reggie Rembert and Mike Fox in the second. And Basil Proctor and Jack Linn and Lonnie Brockman and, yes, Harris afterward that year.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, had seven players drafted from the team in 1990, including Marc Spindler. They had ESPN’s Louis Riddick on the team, along with Tony Siragusa, Curvin Richards, Henry Tuten and Ricardo McDonald.
It was indeed a heavyweight battle.
One that lived up to its hype.
I call it “The Night I Kept Throwing My Pen In The Air.”
That’s because every time I thought I could stop taking notes on the late-night affair, every time I thought I could put a bow on my story, the story changed.
Until the bow turned into a tie.
Yep. I remember Sept. 30, 1989, the day the teams tied 31-31.
One of the reasons it was so memorable was Pitt was led by a Grafton native in Alex Van Pelt.
It seemed, though, like Van Pelt would be the hero for WVU, his childhood favorite team, for a while. He threw interception after interception. In a New York Times game story, you can read that “In between these touchdowns the Pitt offense had a brief revival as Alex Van Pelt, the redshirt freshman quarterback, finally completed some passes.”
Pitt turnovers led to 17 Mountaineer points on the day. Jett caught a TD 59 yards downfield on the third play from scrimmage. WVU was steamrolling the Panthers.
Rembert had a pair of TDs from Harris. I mean, it looked easy for West Virginia, which went up 31-9. The thing was over, folks.
Except it wasn’t. It was agony for the Mountaineer faithful. It was agony trying to file a story late on deadline.
In the fourth, Pitt had what seemed like a nothing score to make the game 31-15 – especially when the two-point conversion failed.
Hey, it was still a 16-point difference, right?
But then Napoleon fumbled. Van Pelt hit Tuten on a three-step drop, but, again no two-point conversion, so, eh, what the heck? It was still 10 points, 31-21, with but 4:41 remaining. Surely Maj and the boys could close that out.
But Pitt converted an onside kick. My pen flew in the air.
I grabbed it and took a breath as WVU’s Mike Fox dropped the Pitt running back for a loss. Van Pelt completed a pass for 22 yards, but had to burn the Panthers’ last timeout at 4:02.
Safe, right? I can wrap up this story and go downtown for a brew, right?
Uh, no. A screen pass went for 21 yards.
Pittsburgh finally decided to try a 29-yard field, which was good.
Yet the pen flew again. WVU’s Preston Waters was called for roughing the kicker.
Only he didn’t.
Go back and check the replay. Waters was pushed into the kicker. The official made the wrong call and gave Pitt life.
On the first play afterward, Curvin Richards ran into the end zone and an extra point later, WVU’s lead was down to three, 31-28.
Mountaineer fans were stunned. They were trying to leave but were stranded on the hillsides watching.
On the next possession, Harris seemed to seal the game with a 17-yard pass to Aaron Evans, but the Mountaineers were called for an ineligible man downfield. They eventually had to punt.
I tossed my pen for the last time. “I’m going to miss my deadline,” I thought. “Just play the game out.”
With no timeouts remaining, Pitt found more life. Van Pelt to Tuten was big. Panthers coach Mike Gottfried passed on a 50-yard field goal attempt and was rewarded.
Ed Frazier eventually connected on a kick from 42-yards and the game ended in a 31-31 tie.
Of course, WVU’s players and fans were heartbroken, while Pitt players celebrated. My game report was, I’m sure, a mess.
But in retrospect, it was a Backyard Brawl for the ages. It was two very good teams throwing punches until the end. WVU landed most of them early. Pitt landed most late.
No one won. But no one lost.
That, of course, won’t happen on Thursday.
But I will not be surprised if another knock-down drag-out Brawl is in the offing.
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Mitch Vingle covered sports in West Virginia for 38 years. Follow Mitch on Twitter at @MitchVingle and be sure to check out the rest of Wheelhouse Creative’s website for your marketing and advertising needs. If interested, call us at 304-905-6005.