It is the New Coke of college athletics, a concept so illogical it deserves a lifetime of scorn. Administrators took a wildly popular product and eliminated it, force feeding a new item to an audience that responded with a collective "blecch." When conference realignment began its most recent churning two decades ago, traditionally profitable rivalries were sold off like old lamps at a garage sale. On Thursday night, this massive mistake was so evident as a nationally televised audience was reintroduced to the Backyard Brawl.
Every fall for more than a century Pitt played West Virginia in football. Starting on October 6, 1900 the two schools battled annually except for the years during WWII. These two universities are only 70 miles apart, but are separated by a vast ocean of culture. Pitt is sneered at by Mountaineers as the city school, full of arrogant preppy kids whose idea of manual labor is carrying four lattes into the office. Morgantown is derided by Panthers alum as a backwoods wasteland, the quickest way to get there is by vine. The hate is real.
But in the misplaced logic around realignment, 110 years of brawling ended. When they both left the crumbling Big East a decade ago, Pitt jumped to the ACC and WVU headed to the Big 12. Bitterness, jealousy and finger-pointing commenced. Those are the best parts of any true rivalry, but it was also the weakness that shattered tradition. They refused to play one another even though they could. Despite no longer competing in the same conference there were 3-4 open dates they could've used to keep the series going. Instead, the adults acted like children and took the game away from the players and fans.
On Thursday night the fabulous chaos and hate was back on full display as Pitt won a delirious game marked by controversy, big plays and a dramatic ending. Twitter was lit with rollicking reaction to the theater, totally overshadowing the Penn State-Purdue game being played simultaneously. The Nittany Lions dominate the state of Pennsylvania, topping Pitt and WVU for recruits, fundraising and attention in the region. Yet here was a night that America fell in love with the Backyard Brawl, watching a delirious NFL stadium rock with both fan bases as every play mattered far more than a September game against Georgia Tech or Kansas (the conference openers for both).
When Mizzou left the Big 12 for the SEC a decade ago the amazing rivalry with Kansas ended. The Border War was truly bad blood, a clash defined by the same cultural disdain of Pitt-WVU. Jayhawk officials refused to play the Tigers, taking on the pathetic role of vengeful lover, and the rivalry had been dormant ever since. Thankfully, the basketball teams finally played last December and the football series will pick up in '25. But taking away something so special for 10-15 years was foolish.
These types of poor decisions have been made across college athletics for far too long, robbing schools and their fan bases of memorable moments and emotional rivalries. Imagine taking your most popular product off the shelves, refusing to sell it out of spite? These are games that routinely sell out, help recruiting, and generate great theater in an ever-crowded entertainment landscape. The Backyard Brawl is back, they'll play 8 times in the next 11 years. But Thursday reminded us it never should have gone away in the first place.