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The First Backyard Brawl: 1895’s Clash Was the Humble Birth of A Fierce Rivalry

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By Bob Fulton for WV Sports Now

Back in 1895, two college football teams clashed on the infield of a harness racing track in Morgantown, W.Va., before a smattering of curious spectators. What those fans witnessed was the humble birth of the Backyard Brawl.

Pitt and West Virginia will renew their rivalry tonight at Acrisure Stadium, the 105th installment of a series renowned for its intensity. It all began 127 years ago when the Snakes, as the WVU team was then known, defeated Western University of Pennsylvania—present-day Pitt—by an 8-0 score.

While the Panthers hold a 61-40-3 edge in the series, the Snakes dominated that inaugural matchup.

“The game was a walk-over for West Virginia University and our team showed what has all along been claimed for it, that it is as good as any of them in these parts,” noted the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer. “The score was 10 to 0 [sic]. It could easily have been 40 to 0.”

The Snakes took full advantage of their superior size. Noted the Pittsburg Post, “The W.U.P.’s are a clever set of players, and showed much good work, but the W.V.U. boys were too large for them.” The Pittsburg Press referred to the Snakes as “the West Virginia giants,” citing their average weight: a whopping 180 pounds. Yes, 180. Pitt, en route to a 1-6 season, was simply outmuscled.

Josiah Kelly ran for a touchdown (then worth four points) on WVU’s first possession and John “Chip” Rane added another TD before halftime, prompting the gentlemen in attendance to jubilantly toss hats and canes into the air. No injuries from descending canes were reported.

Injuries on the field, alas, were another matter.

With legalization of the forward pass still 11 years in the future, teams in 1895 relied on brute force to advance the ball. And because players typically disdained padding of any sort, casualties were commonplace.

Despite the carnage, fans flocked to watch these athletic daredevils. The Charleston Bimetalist marveled at the public’s fascination with football in a report on WVU’s victory over Washington & Lee later that season: “A large number of citizens of this territory are very much engrossed in seeing young men shove, kick, scratch, bite, push, tramp upon and otherwise disfigure each other over the possession of a ball and are yelling themselves hoarse over the sight and calling it fun.”

Not even WVU’s new president, James L. Goodknight, could resist the siren call of football, appearing at the Pitt game clad in “the college colors.” He cheered on the Snakes as they staged a suffocating defensive performance.

According to an account in the Morgantown New Dominion, “At no time during the game was the ball in WVU’s territory. Our line was like a stone wall against which the furious attack of WUP beat in vain.”

Fact is, the Snakes’ defense was virtually impenetrable throughout that 1895 season, as coach Harry McCrory’s lads surrendered only 10 points en route to a 5-1 record. Lewis Robb, Henry Leps and Fielding Yost were especially active against Pitt. When play was halted in the abbreviated second half—cut short so the visitors could catch the 3:50 train back to Pittsburgh—WUP had scarcely gained any ground at all.

“The features of the game were Robb and Leps tackling and Yost stealing the ball,” noted the Morgantown Post. “WUP says that he is a born crook.”

Yost, a native of Fairview, W.Va., later won so many games as a coach—198, the bulk of them at Michigan—that he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. For the rest of the 1895 Snakes, the high point in their football careers might well have been an invitation to the executive mansion in Charleston by Gov. William A. MacCorkle, who entertained the team following its season-ending 28-6 victory over Washington & Lee.

Their visit capped a season that featured a school record for wins, increased attendance and plaudits from all corners.

“We have much to be proud of in the team of ’95,” noted the Monticola, the WVU yearbook.

“Eleven better men would be hard to find in the University.”

Not only had the Snakes subdued five foes. They had thrilled their fans—and their president—by winning Round 1 of a rivalry so fierce it would come to be known as the Backyard Brawl.

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