MORGANTOWN, W. Va — A lot has changed since Feb. 20, 1904.
In one week, Theodore Roosevelt would be sworn in for his second term as the President of the United States. The electrical plug was yet to be patented, and the Haydn Quartet dominated pop culture as one of the leading recording groups in the nation.
Another bit of history was brewing in Morgantown, West Virginia on that day. John Purinton’s West Virginia University men’s basketball team hosted the Western University of Pennsylvania for its first-ever informal competition, triumphing over its northern neighbor 15-12 at the WVU Armory. Robert Cole led WVU with 13 of the team’s points, 11 of which came from the free throw line.
20 presidential administrations later, the world is a different place. Music recordings have gone from vinyl discs to cassette tapes, to compact discs and digital streaming, and even back to vinyl records. Electrical sockets are not just commonplace but a social necessity and Harvey Hubbell’s patent is over 100 years expired.
The Western University of Pennsylvania is now known as the University of Pittsburgh, and it has squared off with West Virginia 188 times on the basketball court, 100 of which have ended in WVU’s favor. Luckily, both teams have found new ways to score points as they prepare to face one another for the 189th time at 7 p.m. ET on Friday in Pittsburgh.
The Backyard Brawl, as the bitter rivalry has been dubbed, recently lost some steam as the two schools left the Big East Conference for new competition. The series was renewed in 2018 as WVU and Pitt met for the first time in six seasons, but the animosity and stakes were much different than they were before.
“When I played here, it really was a big-time rivalry,” said WVU coach Bob Huggins, who played for the Mountaineers from 1974 to 1977. “That’s when they were throwing carp on the floor, and [there were] fights in the stands. I mean, it was big time.”
While the fan experience might not be as perilous as it once was, the competition has been just as bitter since Huggins took the helm at WVU. The Hall of Fame coach has faced Pitt 15 times and has taken eight of those meetings.
The series has tilted especially toward the Mountaineers recently as they’ve won five straight Backyard Brawls, including all four since the resumption in 2018.
Like the Brawls of recent years, this year’s will mostly feature players that have no prior experience in the rivalry. Just three Mountaineers — Emmitt Matthews Jr., Kedrian Johnson and Kobe Johnson — have participated in a Backyard Brawl.
“I would rather have guys that have played there before, but we’ve got guys that have played in some really hard places, too….You know, we bring [Iowa transfer] Joe [Toussaint] off the bench, who has played in virtually every big arena in the Big Ten,” Huggins said. “They’ve been there before, those guys have been there before. I don’t think playing at Pitt is going to be any different for them than playing in the Big Ten.”
The same goes for the Panthers; only John Hugley IV, Nate Santos and William Jeffress have recorded minutes against WVU. Santos is the lone player of that trio currently available for Friday’s game. Jeffress will be out and Hugley, who led Pitt’s scoring effort in 2021, is doubtful as they both recover from injuries (Huggins believes Hugley will play.).
As much as the Backyard Brawl’s history means to the fanbases, Huggins is keeping his team’s focus on Friday night’s game only. He says he hasn’t spent any time talking about the rivalry.
Pitt coach Jeff Capel has done a similar job with his young Panther team.
“I’m not trying to get into them about the rivalry or the history of it or anything like that,” Capel said. “We’re talking about just the things that we have to do to control what we can control and to be as prepared as we possibly can be. That’s it.”
West Virginia and Pitt battle at the Panthers’ Petersen Events Center at 7 p.m. ET. The game will be shown on ACCNX and ESPN+.