MORGANTOWN — On West Virginia’s coaching staff, no one knows the Backyard Brawl better than first-year tight ends coach Blaine Stewart.
Stewart, the son of former Mountaineer head coach Bill Stewart, grew up attending games between WVU and its bitter rival Pitt. He started so early, in fact, that he can barely remember his first few Brawls.
“My first one would have been 2000, my dad’s first year (coaching),” Stewart said during a phone interview Thursday afternoon. “But I was so young, I can’t even remember if we beat Pitt or not. I really remember it starting to pick up in 2002. That’s really the first memory I have because we went up to Pittsburgh and beat them. That was a great win and it really catapulted Coach (Rich) Rodriguez’s start to his tenure.”
On Saturday, 23 years after attending his first Backyard Brawl, Stewart will have the opportunity to coach in the storied rivalry when the Mountaineers (1-1) host the Panthers (1-1) for the first time in Morgantown since 2011 (7:30 p.m., ABC). It is also the Mountaineers’ first true home night game since 2016.
“This is going to be an unbelievable opportunity for West Virginia as a whole to show off our fanbase and show our pride and loyalty,” Stewart said. “From my perspective, being the old historian of the program, I would assume this is probably the most-hyped home game since LSU in 2011.”
The Brawl went on ice when the Big East dissolved in 2012, and was finally renewed last season with a record-setting crowd at Acrisure Stadium. That game, a 38-31 Pitt victory, helped open the eyes of current WVU coaches and players to what the rivalry is all about.
“It’s no one’s fault that people new to the program didn’t really understand the magnitude of the game,” Stewart said. “I think last year, with the outcome and the great crowd, it really became evident to everyone. Now, we just want to make sure the new guys understand the intensity. The people who played in it last year, they know from the jump what type of game this is and why it’s important to so many people.”
Stewart, however, knows exactly what to expect on Saturday.
“I just think it’s a great opportunity for people to have the pride in a game that means a lot to people,” he said. “It’s just special for so many reasons and I think when people see the atmosphere Saturday night, it opens people’s eyes a bit that this is a big deal, this is different.”
Growing up in the heyday of the Backyard Brawl, when WVU and Pitt would play annually as members of the Big East, Stewart has a deep understanding of the rivalry and what it means to past generations of WVU fans.
“It means a lot to a lot of people. People want to beat Pitt in this town and, equally so, people in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania want to beat us,” he said. “I just think the history, the familiarity over the entire rivalry shows how important it is. They want to beat Pitt more than they want to win other games. If you beat Pitt, it’s alright what happens other weeks.”
Stewart estimates that he attended nearly every Backyard Brawl from 2000-2010. He was at every game in Morgantown, but missed out on going to Pittsburgh a few times, like in 2006 when middle school basketball tryouts prevented him and his mom from making the drive up I-79.
“I was in sixth grade and I was trying to make the basketball team at St. Francis,” Stewart recalled. “I had practice and just couldn’t get up there in time so that was probably my first memory of responsibility getting in the way of fun. I remember watching it in my basement with my mom. She cooked some food and we watched Pat White and Steve Slaton run all over the place.”
White threw for 204 yards and ran for 220 with four total touchdowns, while Slaton had 215 rushing yards, 130 receiving yards and also scored four times.
“I’ve actually got a picture signed by Pat, Steve and the entire offensive line in my basement,” Stewart said. “That is one of those rare, historical pictures in Mountaineers history so I’m going to hold on to that forever.”
Ironically, even though he wasn’t able to go to the game, watching it with his mother still turned into a cherished memory. Memories of watching the Brawl is something the youngest generation of Mountaineer fans missed out on while the series was dormant for 10 years.
“For young Mountaineer fans, I hope they feel the importance of it and I hope their parents and older people in their lives share memories,” Stewart said. “There are some great memories, a lot of good and a lot of bad.”
The memories Stewart makes on Saturday, good or bad, will be totally unique in his personal history with the rivalry. It will be his first Backyard Brawl not as a fan or as a coach’s son, but as a coach himself standing on the sideline.
“My biggest job is to make sure the players are ready to go,” Stewart said. “I’ve told the guys there are a lot of things going on around this game, but the main thing is the outcome of this game. When everything stops and we finally kick the ball off, there’s one game that important to us right now.”
WVU is 7-6 against Pitt since 2000. The Mountaineers had won three Brawls in a row prior to the Panthers’ victory last year.
“For me, there are a lot of family and a lot of friends coming into town that I’m excited about, but once that thing kicks off, we’ve got to make sure we’re ready to go and handle it between the white lines. Without that, none of this would even be possible,” Stewart said. “I just think in terms of what this is going to be like, it’s going to be an unbelievable opportunity to showcase who we are and who we can be moving forward as a program.”