By Kempton Smith, BGP Contributor and App State Alumnus
This rivalry developed in the early 1980s among the two universities in Appalachia of the Southern Conference. The rivalry fires grew in years when both teams had the talent to vie for a limited number of Division 1-AA playoff berths (1982-1996). But this rivalry grew in other ways too.
The now-famous 1970 plane crash (that no one talked about back then) was seven years before Marshall joined the SoCon. (If this is unfamiliar, look up “We Are Marshall,” the movie.) A team-chartered airplane crashed at the Huntington airport on final approach. No one survived. It was a difficult circumstance for any program to recover from.
Despite the difficulties, Marshall rebuilt. The 1971 team mainly included freshmen, walk-ons and the few scholarship athletes that didn’t make the ill-fated trip.
As an App student in 1978, Marshall was as “the new team” in the Southern Conference. From 1978 to 1981, the fans thought Marshall football was just plain bad. However, in 1981 Marshall earned its first-ever SoCon win against none other than App State in a November game in Boone. App stood as their only W for twelve long months until the Herd defeated VMI. After five years in the SoCon cellar, Marshall emerged as a middle performer and the following year became a real contender.
The struggle for validation is part of what made this rivalry matter.
In Marshall’s 20 SoCon seasons, they won the SoCon outright only twice. Furman dominated with nine conference titles; Appalachian and Chattanooga won 4, and Georgia Southern and Citadel had one. The conference title mattered because the winner received the automatic bid to the playoffs. Runners-up hoped to receive an “at large” bid. From the National Selection Committee. Therefore, perceptions mattered. It is easy to see how closely matched contenders (like Marshall and App) developed a disliking fueled by the coveted playoff selection bids.
“To be a rivalry, the other team has got to win….”
In 1987, App won the SoCon, and Marshall received an at-large bid, leading to a collision that really accelerated the rivalry. Both teams progressed through rounds, creating a semi-final match-up hosted in Boone on Dec 12. App’s first trip to the final was on the line. Marshall pulled the upset in KBS. It was their second-ever win in Boone and only their third win overall.
Another milestone occurred in 1992; App Nation disagreed with National Committee on seeding. The Citadel won the conference championship, and App beat Marshall in the regular season; both App and Marshall had a 5-2 Conference record. All three teams received invitations to the playoffs. Even though two of App’s losses were to ACC teams, Marshall had a better overall record and was awarded a higher seed by the selection committee. Appalachian lost in the first round on the road. Marshall had home-field advantage and went on to win its first of two national championships.
The Rivalry Festers Without Renewal
A significant part of this story is in the 23 years when we only played once.
Marshall moved up from Division 1-AA to 1-A (now called FBS) in 1997 while Appalachian remained in the SoCon. Marshall experienced breakthrough success. No team had ever entered the FBS (or Division I-A) and dominated their conference championships, nor so many bowl games. Marshall fans were rightfully proud of their program.
And then Appalachian moved up.
The media’s attention to Appalachian’s transition success re-kindled the rivalry among the Marshall fanbase. Some perceive the recent sports talk about the Black and Gold took attention from Marshall’s stellar transition. The parity is in the numbers:
|FCS (I-AA) National Championships||2||3|
|FBS W/L Record First 5 Bowl-Eligible Years||1997-2001
|FBS Conference Titles in First 5 Bowl -Eligible Years||4||4|
|FBS Bowl Record||4-1||5-0|
|Best Final AP Season Ranking during first 5 years||10||19|
Last year, COVID rescheduling created an opportunity for App to travel to Marshall. App went into the game ranked 23, left Huntington with a loss and fell out of the AP top 25. The same week, Marshall entered the top 25. It felt like the App State AP ranking was taken from the Men In Black and awarded to the Herd. This most recent “poke” is still fresh in the minds of the Mountaineer faithful.
In addition to 2021, Marshall and Appalachian will play in WV in 2022 and in Boone in 2029.
Football Culture: Parking lot, Stands, Scoreboard
In Boone, we speak of Football Culture: Win the Parking Lot, Win the Stands, Win the Scoreboard.
The two programs are achieving surprisingly similar results today. Marshall is a strong competitor in all three phases, and they are working on the booster growth (the Big Green) to help propel The Thundering Herd forward.
Boosters and Fundraising
The Big Green is over 3,000 members strong, targeting to reach 3,500 members this year. App’s Yosef Club is also about 3,000 contributors, receiving nearly the same in contributions ($4m).
Marshall and Appalachian spend about the exact amounts for Football ($10m).
Enthusiasm for Thundering Herd Football is strong. Game day is more organized and an all-day event for many. A Saturday night 6:00 kickoff will trigger the University to open parking areas for tailgating to start at noon. This year, the University closes off one of the streets adjacent to the football field for “Thunder Street,” a FanFest event. Area sponsors host bands to perform on a stage; food and beer are available to purchase. About an hour before game time, the Marshall band plays for the final 15 minutes.
Marshall’s 2019 average attendance was 23,190, Appalachian’s was 23,806. Instead of the chant of App (wait for it) State, in Edwards Stadium, the chant is “We Are…. Marshall.” They have added fireworks this year and are improving access to food and beverages in their concourses.
As shared earlier, Marshall had a strong transition. Seven consecutive FBS winning seasons. Unfortunately, the following nine years were marginal; 7 of those nine were losing seasons. They bounced back beginning in 2013, with seven of their last eight winners.
2020 started very well. The Thundering Herd won 7 straight between Sept 1 and Nov 30. By then, the Herd’s AP ranking was up to 15. Three consecutive losses in December, however, dropped Marshall from the top 25.
We Are… Boogercats
The students voted in 1958 on whether to officially call the team the Thundering Herd, the Big Green, the Boogercats or the Green Gobblers. The students voted for the Big Green. The media continued to use other nicknames until the administration got involved. Finally, in 1965, the student body voted again with 85% in favor of the Thundering Herd with the green color. This time, it stuck.
Marshall University’s undergraduate count is significantly less than Appalachian’s. Yet academically, Marshall offers schools of Pharmacy and Medicine, making them a producer of higher-level professionals in the eyes of some college academic ranking systems. Marshall is considered a Research and Doctorate University and therefore is ranked in the Doctoral category by the college ranking services.
|Location||Western WV plains||Northwestern NC Mountains|
|Tuition||$8,552 WV / $19,606 Others||$7,410 NC / $22,217 Others|
|% From “In-State”||85%||90%|
The city of Huntington and the Ohio River surround the Marshall campus. Huntington is West Virginia’s second-largest metro area and is home to the nation’s second-largest inland port. This is also coal and steel country.
Marshall’s campus is 160 miles NNE of Boone, 60 miles closer than Georgia State (not Southern), Coastal Carolina, and East Carolina are to Boone (and 100 miles closer than Georgia Southern (not State). The winding mountain roads add almost 100 miles to the most direct trip, making it a similar 5-hour drive between campuses. We do not often compete for the same recruits, nor do our fanbases intersect regularly.
Marshall and Appalachian have all the makings of a great rivalry. While App has the W-L record, it still feels like Marshall took something from us last year. It is time to get it back.