Let’s Go Brawling
WVU and Pitt return to the backyard to rekindle a century-old rivalry.
West Virginia has always had a complicated relationship with Pittsburgh.
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About an hour before tipoff, Greg Boniti was sitting civilly in the stands next to his son Evan, 16. The elder Boniti proudly wore a WVU jacket. Meanwhile, Evan sported a white T-shirt that read “Pitt Basketball.”
“He’s killing his father,” Greg said.
After all, dad earned two degrees from WVU – a bachelor’s in petroleum engineering in 1993 and an MBA in 2000. But his Mountaineer loyalty predates his time in college.
“It started for me growing up and going to games at Old Mountaineer Field,” he said.
The Bonitis live in Weirton, a bedroom community of Pittsburgh. As the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia suffered a decline in manufacturing in the 1900s, particularly Weirton's steel industry, many residents have taken up to commuting 30 minutes to an hour to Pittsburgh for work. Those residents’ relationship with the Steel City may be a bit more complicated than other West Virginians. Their closer proximity and exposure to Pitt has the Boniti son considering Pitt for college over WVU.
Evan is a fan of Pitt basketball and he and his father have watched high school ballers in the Northern Panhandle-area blossom into key parts of both WVU and Pitt teams.
If Evan does wind up at Pitt, that’ll make for a lifetime of interesting father-son outings and conversations.
“Both are fine schools, wherever he chooses to go,” Greg said. “But I’m really glad they brought back the Backyard Brawl. We will never have another rival like Pitt. Not in the Big 12. It’s the location and the history. It’s more than 100 years.”
What home court advantage?
To the unbiased observer, the crowd atmosphere at Petersen Events Center may have seemed like a bizarro world.
It’s Pitt’s territory, home to the Pitt Panthers basketball program and nestled in the Oakland neighborhood of the city.
There were several moments during Saturday’s game when “Let’s Go Mountaineers” and a certain chant that would never be approved for officially licensed WVU merchandise would drown out the arena.
The crowd breakdown was 50-50, and that’s a conservative estimate.
Those tuning into the game on ESPN2 probably wondered, “Why are the home fans cheering for the other team?”
Students like Nick Flannery and Ben Safer helped contribute to that display of Mountaineer power.
Flannery and Safer made the trip from Morgantown to root on their school. They even made a few stops on the way, including a downtown Pittsburgh bar where they engaged in “Let’s Go” chants with others.
As they entered the concourse of the Petersen Events Center, they continued their “Let’s Go” chanting, which was met fiercely with a “Mountaineers!” response.
“We’re big basketball fans, so when we saw the Backyard Brawl was coming back, we jumped on it,” said Flannery, a mechanical engineering student who wore a #BeatPitt shirt.
Flannery is not even from West Virginia.
He’s from New Castle, Pa., about an hour north of Pittsburgh. Yet his allegiances are in line with WVU, his father’s alma mater. Flannery catches some flak from hometown friends, but he’s keen to dish it back.
His friend, Safer, a mining engineering student, has an inherent reason to vilify Pitt. He’s from Cleveland.
“It’s a carryover feeling from the Browns-Steelers rivalry,” he said. “I already hate Pittsburgh.”
Friends and Foes
With a comfortable 18-point halftime lead, WVU fans had every reason to taunt their Pitt counterparts.
“Do you guys really want to start playing us again?” Chucky Whitefield said to his friend and fellow Pittsburgh resident Shawn Tillis.
Their presence was yet another rare yin and yang combo at the arena. Whitefield had a Backyard Brawl T-shirt on (and a Pittsburgh Penguins cap) while Tillis showed his Panther pride in a blue hoodie.
“There's still a lot of game left, man,” Tillis shot back at Whitefield.
He was right.
The Panthers trimmed the lead to make it a one possession game midway through the second half, but the Mountaineers held on.
Despite the outcome, Whitefield and Tillis will remain friends, and they’re both happy to see the return of the Backyard Brawl, just so they can hate on each other.
“It’s like how every superhero needs a villain,” Tillis said. “Rivalry is healthy. At the end of the day, it’s just a game, but we can all have fun with it and look forward to the next fight.”