The Rivalry That Never Was


This Saturday’s Friends of Coal Bowl marks the last scheduled meeting between West Virginia and Marshall in football for the foreseeable future. Should the heavily favored Mountaineers beat the Thundering Herd; it will be the 12th straight victory for WVU in the series. The series has only been played 12 times total.

Talk about a rivalry.

There is no widely accepted definition of a sports rivalry. While there are as many definitions of sports rivalry as there are teams in the NCAA basketball tournament, there are a few key components that can be used to define these rivalries.

1.) History: West Virginia and Marshall first played in 1911. Since then, the schools have only played 11 times in the 100 years after the initial match-up.We’ll call this a check.

2.) Geography: WVU and Marshall are the only two FBS football programs in the state of West Virginia. They are only a 3:30 hours drive apart making it relatively easy for the schools to meet. Check.

3.) Animosity: Anyone who has ever lived in the state of West Virginia, or who is a member of either fan base, will tell you that these two groups of fans just do not like each other. Having grown up in the Huntington area, I can tell you that Marshall is as much a part of life in that town as the oxygen in the air. People in Huntington build their lives around Marshall athletics.

The same can be said of Mountaineers fans. It seems that everybody in Morgantown is in some way related to or affiliated with the athletic department. Instead of reading their children fairy tales at bedtime, they tell their children stories of the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, the 2005 Louisville game, and of the 1988 Penn State game.

When you have fans as passionate and personally invested in their teams, any talk of their team being inferior to the state’s “other team” is tantamount to refusing Tudor’s Biscuit World (which is phenomenal). Solid animosity, double check.

4.) Competitiveness: This is the criteria that this “rivalry” lacks. Marshall has never beaten West Virginia on the gridiron. More over, the Thundering Herd has only twice lost by single digits: 1911 WVU 17 – MU 15, 2010 WVU 24 – MU 21 in OT.

West Virginia and Marshall discontinued their series after the 1923 season, presumably due to competitive issues. In the first four games of the series, WVU outscored MU by a total of 210 – 21.

The two schools would not play each other for the next 54 years, primarily due to the fact that Marshall was playing at the Division 1-AA level (now FCS) and WVU was playing at the Division 1-A level (now FBS). Yes, teams now conventionally play FCS teams in “rent-a-victim” games. Playing lower level competition was not as acceptable in the pre-BCS era.

Marshall spent the 1990s dominating the Division 1-AA level of competition before moving up to 1-A ball in 1997. Once Marshall decided to play on WVU’s level, the Mountaineers welcomed them to Morgantown for their first taste of big time football. The game was very close, with WVU coming from behind late to win 42-31. Clearly, Marshall was on the rise and WVU was in decline. Was that a factor in why the two teams did not play for the next 8 seasons? Possibly.

Whatever the reasons may be for the two schools not playing one another after the thrilling 1997 game, the two programs would need legislative intervention to renew their series. Former Governor Joe Manchin got the two schools to agree to the present Friends of Coal Bowl series starting with the 2006 season.

Marshall has shown flashes of competitiveness in this recent series. The Herd held leads into halftime in the 2007, 2009, and 2010 games. The Herd had WVU on the ropes in front of their home crowd in the 2010 game, before suffering a monumental collapse.

Last year’s game, although shortened by rain, was true to the series history: WVU was the better team by three scores. This year’s game promises to be no closer, but hopefully less rainy.

All time, West Virginia has beaten Marshall 11 straight times by a combined score of 451 – 129. Competitiveness NOT check.

If Marshall really wants for this series to become a rivalry, they’ll have to at least win one game. Surrendering leads late in games does not make a rivalry. It takes beating a team for 60 minutes (not 53 minutes like in 2010). This year may be their one and only chance to beat the Mountaineers; at least until another West Virginia governor decides to force these teams to get together again.

If Marshall can beat the Mountaineers, at least once, this series has all the other makings of a true rivalry.