It's the second week of the college football season, and if you're a Mountaineer fan like I am, you've been blessed with a short week before the team is back on the gridiron. This Friday night the West Virginia Mountaineers travel to Huntington to take on the Marshall Thundering Herd. This marks only the second time the ‘Eers have played in Huntington, and this game is easily the season's most talked-about game throughout the Mountain State. Some people think WVU and Marshall have no business playing each other. Those people are wrong.
Both fanbases are totally deranged about this game. Marshall fans hate the Mountaineers. HATE them. WVU fans think that playing the Herd is "beneath" the Mountaineers. Both are equally wrong.
Marshall fans would like to tell you this is a rivalry, but it's not. It's a one-sided grudge match, with the Herd getting the short end of the stick year in and year out. Obviously, this has led to Marshall fans developing a little brother syndrome that has skewed their opinion of the Mountaineers.
More power to them. This reminds me of how WVU fans felt about Penn State during the 1980s. WVU fans thought they had a rivalry with Penn State, but they didn't. They just got their clocks cleaned each year and JoePa and company moved on without a second thought. Meanwhile, blood boiled in Morgantown at the mere mention of the Nittany Lions. When WVU finally got over the hump in '84 and again in '88, it was cause for celebration, but it didn't make the matchup a rivalry. It just made it more interesting.
The WVU-Marshall series will get exponentially more interesting once the Herd wins one. They will, eventually. I don't see it happening this year, but I think that outcome is a lot closer than many Mountaineer fans think.
Mountaineer fans say that WVU gains nothing by playing the Herd. They're wrong, and they underestimate the value that the Marshall game has. WVU fans always say, "If they beat us, they gain everything, if we beat them, we gain nothing!" WVU gains plenty when they schedule the Herd. They gain a decent game with a built-in storyline against FBS-level competition. This game captivates the entire state far more than matchups against UNLV or East Carolina, of which Mountaineer fans could make the same argument but choose not to.
If I thought that Bill Stewart and company would load their schedule with tough non-conference matchups like their September 25th date with the LSU Tigers, I would say they could drop the Herd. But they won't. No college football program schedules twelve tough games, and WVU is no different. A quick perusal of the last few years' schedules show dates with Wofford, Liberty, Coastal Carolina and Villanova. Not exactly murderer's row. So how can playing the Herd be "beneath" the Mountaineers?
Fine. WVU and Marshall can play, but always in Morgantown. Some view that as a compromise. Their logic isn't faulty, either. WVU Football is the biggest draw in the entire state, whether they play in Morgantown, Huntington, Charleston, Wheeling, Grafton or Jane Lew. That's a reality. It's also a reality that Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown is much bigger and far more equipped to handle the crowds than Joan C. Edwards Stadium in Huntington.
That said, those reasons aren't the Mountaineers' actual motivation, which is that they make more money in Morgantown. Marshall balks at the idea of going 2-for-1, since it makes filling their schedule harder and they still get shorted a game. That seems like a valid reason for them to want a home-and-home, and they point to our home-and-home series with fellow Conference USA team East Carolina as proof that it's not "beneath" the Mountaineers. The biggest problem that I have with WVU's refusal to schedule an even series with the Herd is plain and simple: cowardice. If you're at the top of the heap in anything, you're going to have people gunning for you, and college football is no different. The only place WVU is considered an elite program is in Huntington. It's time to man up and play there.
Politics made this happen, and shouldn't politics be kept out of football? This is the only argument that holds any water with me, and that's only because politics make me feel dirty. That said, when I look back at state politics over the last decade, this is one of the few things those hand-shaking baby-kissers got right. I'm offended at calling it the "Friends of Coal Bowl" because I don't think political action committees should be sponsoring sporting events, but I wouldn't have a problem calling it just the "Coal Bowl." If it takes the governor to get this matchup extended, so be it. I have no problem with government intervening where I want it to. It's when it intervenes where I don't that we have problems.
This game needs to happen. In this day and age of convoluted made-for-television matchups, we have a good one sitting in our back yard, but for various reasons no one wants to make it happen. Marshall moved up to Division I (now the FBS, whatever that means) a decade ago, and they've established themselves as a football school, winning conference championships in the MAC and moving up to Conference USA. This game isn't a true rivalry yet, but it could be, and with minimal work from either side. This game represents a fertile breeding ground from which a new rivalry can emerge, something that's rarely seen in today's college football landscape. The geographic proximity, mixed with the passion West Virginia residents feel about their state, their schools and the game of football, make it a slam dunk. There are only two FBS schools in the entire state of West Virginia there's no good reason why they shouldn't be playing every year. Details are just details.