By now every WVU and Marshall fan is aware of Bob Huggins comments earlier this week regarding the WVU-Marshall series. If you did not hear the comments then you can read a great synopsis of the comments from the Smoking Musket's Abpriddy here. Despite all the noise surrounding the comments Huggins clearly articulated several valid points for why WVU should be out of the charity business when it comes to playing Marshall. The matchup is a handout to Marshall University and its supporters who come with open hands each year asking for more. It is time to put an end to the arguments that the game is good for the state, and for Marshall to focus on real ways to improve their lot in the landscape of college athletics.
When supporters of the matchup say "its good for the state" what they really mean is it is good for Marshall University. Under the current circumstances no one can credibly claim the state benefits from the matchup. The fact of the matter is that general interest in the game does not extend past southern West Virginia. By playing WVU Marshall gets extra exposure that they otherwise would not get. Playing in front of 10,000 fans in Charleston is the best Marshall is currently going to do. As Huggins correctly pointed out Marshall isn't getting 10,000 fans to Huntington unless WVU is coming to town. So in the end Marshall gets the benefits of some additional residents seeing them play, and gets some local television love from Root Sports. As to the rest of the state it could be argued that WVU fans living around Charleston benefit, but they generally get to see WVU play at the Civic Center against an opponent other than Marshall anyway so that argument holds no weight.
Marshall fans go even further with the absurd argument that if WVU and Marshall played home and home matchups it would be good for the state because money would stay in West Virginia rather than going out of state. The problem is that argument doesn't make any sense. Wouldn't West Virginia benefit more financially if on a given day WVU and Marshall were each playing home games where fans from other out of state schools were coming into West Virginia and spending their money in the state? In that scenario both WVU and Marshall fans would be spending their money at their respective home games in addition to the money being spent by fans from the two other schools from out of state facing the Mountaineers and the Thundering Herd. As the nation's second poorest state (per Forbes) I think we can all agree the more money coming into West Virginia the better.
The claim that WVU needs excitement around its program, and that some how attendance figures in Charleston bear that out, is missing the forest from the trees. Attendance at WVU games has slipped as the team has struggled over the past few years, but even then WVU is still pulling in an average home attendance (8,575 fans per game) almost equal to the game in Charleston. Not to mention WVU managed to pull in 8,102 fans for its matchup in Charleston against VMI, a figure not far removed from attendance at this year's matchup with Marshall. Playing Marshall only nets WVU an extra one and a half to two thousand fans attending one game a year that is not even played in the Coliseum. The real excitement around the program rises not by playing Marshall, but when WVU plays and wins against a major national program such as Kansas in Morgantown last year (a game that drew 14,038 fans to the Coliseum).
With Marshall being the only beneficiary of the arrangement it obviously breeds a certain amount of contempt from WVU fans particularly when the matchup has been forced upon the Mountaineers by over reaching politicians. The situation is only exacerbated when coaches and administrators like D'Antoni make the type of comments he did.
As most WVU fans, and Bob Huggins, will tell you fear has nothing to do with not wanting to play Marshall, but rather logic has everything to do with it. Why would WVU be "afraid" of a school that has never beaten it in football and one that has won a total of five basketball games against the Mountaineers in the past twenty years (the average margin of victory for the Herd in those 5 games is 4 points)? The obvious answer is they are not.
Losing to Marshall has implications for the Mountaineers dealing largely with having to justify to the selection committee(s) a blemish on their resume in years when Marshall is bad. Those risks of course extend beyond Marshall and to other non Power 5 league schools. The difference though is no one at East Carolina is circling a game against the Mountaineers as the biggest game of the year and as a game that in the minds of their coaches and fans could change the trajectory of their program. VMI isn't going to match Marshall's rabid desire to defeat the Mountaineers. Marshall presents the unique problem of facing a team who will want to beat you worse than any other team you play the rest of the season and having no reason to match that teams intensity or desire. Adding to the trickiness of the matchup is that most WVU players are not from West Virginia and as such have an even lower motivation to get excited for a matchup with Marshall.
Marshall fans like to throw around the idea that as the only FBS/Division I schools in the state that somehow means the teams should play and be rivals. The psychology of Marshall fans goes something like this: We were Division II champions, we moved up to what is now FBS and won MAC championships, and now we have even won a Conference USA Championship if somehow we beat WVU we will surpass them as the premiere program in the state and continue our ascendency upwards!
What Herd supporters don't seem to comprehend is the chasm between WVU's and Marshall's respective positions in the current sports landscape. Take a look at a collection of instate matchups that matter: Alabama-Auburn, Duke-UNC, Texas-Texas A&M (I know they don't play each other anymore but it still works for the purpose of illustration), Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Clemson-South Carolina, UCLA-USC, Kansas-Kansas State, Oregon-Oregon State, etc. What do all of these matchups have in common? They all feature two schools from, if not the same conference, the Power 5 leagues. Alabama is not a rival with UAB, Texas and Houston are not rivalries, Georgia and Georgia Southern are not rivals, Duke is not a rival with East Carolina.
If Marshall and WVU were to resume playing in football Marshall would more than likely eventually win a game, but that wouldn't actually change anything for Marshall. They would get bragging rights, but not a seat at the table. Same with basketball, say Marshall were to win the next five matchups against WVU, nothing changes unless the Herd's overall success changes. In the best case scenario all the wins would mean is a quality win on the resume. At the end of the day Huggins was right to say that Marshall wants a quick fix to success and thinks that comes by playing and beating WVU. When administrators and coaches make comments the nature of which were made by Dan D'Antoni, and Bobby Pruett before him, they are actually selling Marshall and what it should aspire to short. The driving purpose behind Marshall athletics should not be getting WVU to play them, and hoping to beat them. The driving purpose should be improving their athletic programs to the point where they can compete for College Football Playoff spots and NCAA Tournament berths, and those things don't come based strictly on victories over WVU. If you truly want to support Marshall quit believing that playing and beating WVU is important to your long-term success.
Patrick Southern was right when he wrote the games should ultimately be about fun and entertainment, but the WVU/Marshall games have not been fun or entertaining. Lately the game has devolved into an ugly foul plagued affair, and now after this latest war of words there is a bunch of acrimony for nothing. In fact, I cannot think of one fun thing about the matchup.