Foes and Fans

This Friday's Pitt-West Virginia match-up might be the last football Backyard Brawl for some time – is that really important?

We've already seen several articles and columns mentioning the anticipated status of WVU's oldest football series, with the requisite complaints about the loss of history and tradition, but I have to admit I haven't thought a lot about the pending end of this series, for several reasons. First, I believe WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck when he says he will make every effort to play Pitt in the future. True, it might not be every year, and there's almost assuredly going to be an interruption in the series, but eventually I think West Virginia will play the Panthers again.

Second, it isn't West Virginia's fault that the game isn't going to be played. Pitt made the decision to leave the Big East first, and its move, along with that of Syracuse, forced other schools to look elsewhere. Even if WVU had stayed in the league, however, it's unlikely that the Mountaineers could have kept the Panthers on its schedule every year, but we've known this was coming since mid-September.

Third, and this may come as a surprise to those that know my love of tradition, but I realize that things change. WVU's opponents have certainly morphed over the years, with schools such as Washington & Jefferson and Penn State disappearing from the slate, with other, more modern opponents taking their places. (Don't laugh about the W&J reference – it was West Virginia's first football rival, and it was heated enough that WVU's fight song mentions the Presidents' colors. The game was also the season-ender in every year but two from 1919-1934. If you're going to use the tradition argument, you have to include everything, right?) Sure, I would like for WVU to keep playing Pitt, but I'm not going to be royally upset if it doesn't happen.

Part of this attitude, I would guess, is the fact that I tend to focus more on the near term than the long view. West Virginia needs to beat Pitt to keep its Big East championship hopes alive, and to secure this year's bragging rights for the Mountaineers. Both of those are important, but the former is the item that really matters. There will be plenty of time after the season, and over the summer, to discuss the absence of this game from West Virginia's schedule (and even that's an assumption, given the legal limbo in which WVU's league residency currently resides), so I'll defer some of this examination until that time. Like most coaches, who religiously preach the "one game at a time" and worry about those things you can control" messages, I'm looking forward to game time on Friday – and no further.

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Fan support at games is a constant source of debate on our message boards, and I typically stay out of that fray, because I understand that all sides in the debate have some valid points. Yes, WVU fans have to come from longer distances, on average, than those of many other schools, and that explains some of the empty seats on weeknights. I also know that the current state of the economy keeps others from making the trip, even if they might have access to tickets. And I guess that students have their reasons for not attending as well, although I certainly don't get why student attendance has dropped so much over the years. Whatever the reasons, though, I will say this. Other than "big" games, such as the LSU game this year, West Virginia has not been an intimidating place to play.

I don't say this lightly, because I am not into making snap decisions or judgments. But after listening and paying attention to West Virginia's crowds over the past few years, I don't think there's any room to make any other call – it's just not as loud or intense as it used to be.

Of course, I realize that I open myself up to the "old timer" criticism here, and being the guy who thinks everything was better in the old days. That's not the case – as noted above, I'm not averse to change – but on this one I believe I'm right. From my vantage point on the field and on the court, I hear and see a "wait and see" crowd – that is, one that largely waits for something good to happen to show support. At least, I guess, those people are there, however. Empty seats have outnumbered filled ones in the Coliseum this year, and if the Mountaineers don't rip off seven or eight wins in a row, are they likely to be any more so by the time the Big East season rolls around?

Again, I'm not criticizing those that choose not to attend, or even those that choose not to cheer unless things are going really well. (Although I would like to know why many in attendance don't provide vocal support.) However, I don't think anyone can argue that in-person support over the past couple of years has dropped, and that's not a good thing for the program.

That makes me wonder – what will WVU's fan attendance be like at its bowl game? Obviously, a lot depends on the date and location of the game, and I'm sure that the Big East won't do WVU any favors when it comes slotting time, if the Mountaineers don't rally to earn the BCS bid. Given the trends of the past couple of years, and the attendance at last year's Champs Sports Bowl, what is a reasonable expectation for attendance in the postseason?

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