Twenty years ago H. G. Bissinger wrote of Permian High School football in his bestselling book Friday Night Lights, “Those lights become an addiction if you live in a place like Odessa, the Friday Night fix.”
This coming Friday, Marshall will try to recreate Odessa, Texas, in Huntington, West Virginia. After all, Marshall is small school football, and WVU is a national power coming to town. After opening this season as the sacrificial lamb for the second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes last Thursday, it was clear The Herd will need all the help they can get against the visiting Mountaineers. One would have to think coach Doc Holliday’s plan for upsetting number 22-ranked West Virginia lies in keeping the game as close as possible and hoping emotion and the hometown Thundering Herd crowd can play the role of Marshall’s twelfth and thirteenth man as evening gives way to nightfall.
But Marshall football is far from a Huntington addiction in need of a fix these days. While the program has stayed competitive in both the MAC and Conference USA since making the jump from Division I-AA in 1997, the glory days of star football talents like Byron Leftwich, Eric Kresser, and Randy Moss, who led Marshall to national rankings, conference championships, and bowl wins, are long gone. In their place are regional recruits, undersized high school stars, and an occasional standout searching for immediate playing time.
Prior to the 1997 season, WVU and Marshall had not met since 1923; a game the Mountaineers dominated 81-0. This was nearly as impressive as their previous meeting in 1915, a 92-6 victory in which one can only presume WVU started scoring before they left the locker room. And while Randy Moss’s freakish talents kept the 1997 clash in Morgantown interesting, and Marshall has stayed within striking distance of the Mountaineers in a couple subsequent games along the way, the series has never been particularly competitive.
In fact, Marshall has never beaten WVU on the gridiron. Nine games played sporadically over a century have not yielded a victory. All in all, West Virginia and Marshall are football programs headed in two very different directions. WVU has won nine games or more for five straight seasons and secured bowl victories in four of its last five appearances, including BCS bowl wins over heavily favored Georgia and Oklahoma in back to back years. Marshall last reached a bowl game in 2004, losing to Cincinnati.
At present, the negotiations for the future of this series are ongoing. Begging the question, “Why?” Slated to run out in 2012, WVU and Marshall’s “Friends of Coal Bowl” has quickly become a one sided match up, the failed experiment of an overzealous governor looking to create an in-state rivalry on which to hang his hat. WVU versus Marshall is beginning to lose its luster among those who reside in the mountain state, and never really had any for those outside its borders.
The goal of this game was to create a rivalry, but such a rivalry only occurs when institutions field teams of similar talent. When that does not happen rivalries devolve into “pick a direction” Michigan University vs. Michigan State, games around which the smaller school’s entire football season revolves, but one that’s merely a check the box exercise for the opposing football power. WVU and Pitt will always be the rivalry of choice for the WVU faithful and likewise for the Panthers. Ironically, WVU vs. Marshall only finds itself circled on the calendar of the team that never emerges victorious.
Perhaps that will change this Friday, as pitching a home shutout against Coastal Carolina hardly provided a clue as to exactly how good the Mountaineers will be this year. Or perhaps the “Friday night curse” that has plagued WVU in crucial road losses of seasons past will rear its ugly head again. Or maybe just maybe, the WVU and Marshall football debate will be put to rest for good this November by an election.
Assuming Governor Manchin becomes Senator Manchin, one would have to think he would have much bigger things to worry about than the state of college football in West Virginia. After all, calling Oliver Luck from D.C. to cite the many reasons WVU should continue this fruitless exercise does not have nearly the same impact as summoning him to the governor’s mansion in Charleston.
In all likelihood, WVU and Marshall will reach an agreement and the game will continue to be played, regularly dragging down WVU’s strength of schedule and hurting their BCS rankings for seasons to come. One would even have to imagine that were they to play ninety more times, Marshall might even scratch out a tie every once in awhile.
Then again who knows, this Friday night in Huntington might just be the situation the Thundering Herd have been waiting for…then again, history has always proven otherwise. For now WVU, please make a big deal out of preparing for Marshall. Yes Mountaineer fans, we still need you to go on pretending.
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