By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
You must sympathize with a Mountaineer nation of fans who had visualized another trip to a BCS bowl when this past football season started, a vision that dissipated long before the regular season’s final game was played and the Mountaineers found out they’d be facing Syracuse, not Pitt, in the Pinstripe Bowl.
If you must shed a tear over that, offer them not to a football team which got what its season deserved, but instead save whatever compassion you have for John Antonik, the director of new media for intercollegiate athletics at West Virginia University, the school which educated him.
And why should Mr. Antonik be so deflated because The Brawl turned into a game against Syracuse, who is one of the Big East team’s whose shadow WVU was trying to escape as it fled to the Big 12?
It turns out that just this year Antonik, a prolific author, recently published his latest book and named it “THE BACKYARD BRAWL: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History.”
His timing, it seemed, was exquisite, for just when it appeared these two old rivals would never meet again, in the first year of their separation they seemed destined to have one final battle royal, one that would sell tickets in Yankee Stadium and copies of Antonik’s book who knows where.
“I had pictures in my mind of loading up the trunk with copies of the book and sitting on a street corner in Pittsburgh, selling autographed copies of it,” Antonik joked.
Of course, maybe he wasn’t joking at all. The book surely would have been a hot item in both West Virginia and Pittsburgh with Christmas and the game arriving almost simultaneously.
It’s really a shame that didn’t happen, for this book is the Bible of the Brawl, the inside story of all that transpired over all those years, the deep lowdown on the greatest moments and the greatest players and coaches, from Mike Ditka to Tony Dorsett in Pittsburgh to Amos Zereoue to Jeff Hostetler to Pat White in West Virginia.
He sold me on the value of the book in his prologue, for as anyone who knows me will tell you, I absolute hate it when college teams — and this includes Bob Huggins’ basketball team — shed their traditional colors to wear black or gray. It is a slap in the face of every fan, of every player, of alumni everywhere.
Antonik, in his prelude tells you exactly what those colors mean to the players, especially since Pitt wears the same school colors as West Virginia — blue and gold.
He wrote of a conversation he had with the Hall of Fame linebacker Darryl Talley of West Virginia about what makes the rivalry so intense and unique.
“It’s just the idea that they have the same colors you’ve got on. That isn’t right. Somebody needs to take those colors off,” Talley said, showing just what a school’s colors should, and usually do, mean to the players, who don’t get a nickel out of the sales of the jerseys the school is trying to create with alternate color schemes.
The intensity of this rivalry was most recently verbalized best in 2003 when Pitt linebacker Scott McKillop told Pittsburgh Tribune-Review sports columnist Joe Starkey “I (expletive) hate West Virginia. I can’t stand the state. I just don’t like the university.”`
And if he didn’t like “West Virginia, the state or the university,” think how they feel down this way since 2007 when the Panthers snatched a national championship opportunity out of the Mountaineers’ grasp with one of the most unbelievable upsets in college football history, beating Rich Rodriguez and his 10-1 team with Pat White at quarterback.
Antonik gives you all the well-known anecdotes in a breezy manner, while also offering little-known, behind-the-scenes information.
One such item was how, after WVU’s amazing 1994 comeback that ended with quarterback Chad Johnston hitting wide receiver Zach Abraham for a 60-yard touchdown with 23 seconds left to give WVU a 47-41 lead and the improbable victory, coach Don Nehlen took off back to Morgantown while both of them, along with receiver Rahsaan Vanterpool, were still giving interviews to the media.
Antonik, himself, drove Vanterpool and Abraham back to campus in his tried and usually true Honda Civic, while Johnston got a lift from his father.
If that was the greatest comeback for WVU, there is just as much insight about the biggest lead blown by the Mountaineers. That was in 1970, when Hall of Fame coach Bobby Bowden let a 35-8 halftime lead get away, Pitt running wild between the tackles against the smaller, quicker Mountaineer defense, then scoring the winning touchdown on a pass to tight end Bill Pilconis.
The next day, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote Pilconis was so open he “enjoying monastic solitude in the end zone.”
WVU coach Bobby Bowden would have liked such solitude as Pilconis enjoyed in his end zone, but fans stood outside the locker room, banging on the door and chanting “Bye-bye, Bobby” or “Come on out, Bobby.”
He wasn’t budging.
“I couldn’t come out,” he said, Antonik tells us. “They would have lynched me”
There is so much more in this volume, that is in bookstores, or online, that it would make a fine Christmas gift for WVU fans who remember what football was like when it wasn’t all about money. Knowing Antonik and his Christmas spirit, he’s liable to hand deliver it to you in time for the holiday.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.