PITTSBURGH — Finally, thankfully, the Backyard Brawl returned to college football on Thursday night. Fans saw a game to tell their grandkids, but also remembered the emotion, the hate and yes – the rude chants – that go along with this lost rivalry.
Eleven years separated the most recent clash between the schools. This means that neither the players nor the students in the Panther Pit, filled well before kick-off, had ever experienced this before.
Yet you would never know. Pittsburgh rallied for two touchdowns in the final 3:41 to beat the Mountaineers 38-31 to deafening cheers from delirious students and proud Pitt fans. A Pittsburgh sports record 70,622 filled the stadium and yes, most were Pitt fans.
Then players from both sides started pushing and yelling at each other all the way to the West Virginia locker room tunnel – directly across from the student section. Pitt’s players said goodbye as the Mountaineers walked away.
West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons argued with a member of Pitt’s staff before leaving. Williams punctuated the scene by chanting “Eat S— West Virginia” – changing the names of the teams to the secular West Virginia chant, “Eat s— Pitt”.
Then, in the winning locker room, Pitt’s coach Pat Narduzzi spoke to his team about the mistakes made that need to be corrected, but he left the most important statement for last: “You’re 1-0 down in the game. Backyard Brawl!”
It was largely thanks to MJ Devonshire, whose 56-yard pick six with 2:58 remaining put Pitt ahead for good. Devonshire grew up in Pittsburgh, but moved to Kentucky after high school before returning to Pitt. He said afterwards that he grew up with the rivalry, dreaming of playing in a game like this.
To get his players to truly understand the history and hatred that defines this rivalry, Narduzzi brought in Pitt legends to speak to the team. Former manager Dave Wannstedt, who delivered the biggest upset in the history of the rivalry in 2007, addressed the team on Thursday in what Devonshire called, “one of the greatest speeches I have never heard in my life”.
“Coach Wannstedt said: ‘Someone will always be legendary. It could be you. When he said that on Thursday, I thought, “Why not me?” I was excited that it could be me.”
Very good Pitt threesome here pic.twitter.com/o7nlbNOQmW
— Andrea Adelson (@aadelsonESPN) September 1, 2022
The collective joy of seeing these two teams playing again was evident well before kick-off.
Starting at 9 a.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. before kickoff, a small contingent of West Virginia fans gathered in a hotel parking lot to start their day of tailgating, and well, no one was holding back anything. Eleven long years, and the passion, the hate, it burns even more for Pitt than for any other team on his schedule.
“It’s just ingrained in us to hate Pitt,” said Ben Booth, who dropped his kids off at school in Bridgeport, West Virginia, then drove up I-79 to in Pittsburgh. “You hate Pitt your whole life. You hate Pitt after you die. You never stop hating.”
Booth says that’s true even for young kids growing up in West Virginia, who have never experienced a Backyard Brawl for themselves.
“Nothing has changed,” Booth said. “Like the kids in school, in elementary school, in college. They’ve never seen the game and they still hate Pitt in West Virginia. Every time you hear ‘Sweet Caroline’, all the kids know what to do.”
What exactly do they do when they hear the song Pitt is playing in the fourth quarter?
“Eat s— Pitt,” Booth said.
I walked out of my hotel – there are already West Virginia fans stalking… pic.twitter.com/cJXbJNUsbS
— Andrea Adelson (@aadelsonESPN) September 1, 2022
Hours later, in another parking lot, Pitt fans gathered in the same spot they’ve used for the tailgate for more than 20 years. Roslyn Munsch, a 1980 Pitt graduate, called her daughter, Regina, to explain how the generational hatred continues.
“It was transmitted [to] me since I was a kid,” Regina Munsch said. “The 2007 Backyard Brawl felt like the highlight of my childhood and really shaped who I am today.”
“I was born at 8:47, which is 13 minutes to nine, and the score for that game was 13-9.”
“The first lullaby my mom had for me was ‘Hail to Pitt,’ Pitt’s fight song. That legacy is something we need to protect and move forward.”
At the next tailgate, Ben Chase took the whole stage. He had no affiliation with either team, but had always wanted to go to a Backyard Brawl – a game on his long list of 60 games that he is trying to attend in person this season. He drove from Tucson, Arizona, just to be here, and stumbled across this tailgate because he started chatting with the woman in front of him at the port-a-potty line.
He bought his Pitt gear that day.
“It’s the Backyard Brawl,” he said. “It’s the biggest rivalry, so I thought, ‘Why not start big. “”
He lives in his van during his college football long weekend, which will also take him to Charlotte, North Carolina, New Orleans and Atlanta.
“I drove 2,100 miles for this,” he said. “No one you meet today has driven more than me to come here today.”
Two hours before kick-off, the Pitt band performed for their fans outside the stadium. West Virginia fans walking past shouted, “Eat s— Pitt.” An annoyed Pitt fan turned around and said, “No class!”
It continued from there inside the stadium. Students held up signs reading “West Virginia was our school of safety” or “13-9,” the final score of the 2007 game that cost West Virginia a chance to win a national championship.
With each surge, the crowd grew louder and more energetic. And when it was all over, players from Narduzzi and Pitt congratulated their fans for creating an environment they will never forget.
“It was a Backyard Brawl for sure,” Narduzzi said. “Let’s start with the fans in this stadium today. This place was electric.
“That’s why I came back to Pitt, to do things in this type of game,” Devonshire said. “It’s the biggest rivalry in college football. I just did something crazy. For years I can tell my kids about it.”