Ohio and Marshall share an Appalachian heritage, have green and white as their school colors, and developed a rivalry during 23 years in the Mid-American Conference.
Only 88 miles separate the two universities.
But the schools have taken separate paths in regard to athletics. After leaving the MAC in 1969, Marshall posted the worst record in college football during the ’70s, a decade marred by the 1970 plane crash that killed 37 football players.
The team recovered to post a 114-25 record, Division I football’s best, during the 1990s. The program won two Division I-AA national titles and was the runner-up three times before rejoining Division I-A and the MAC in 1997.
Marshall claimed the conference championship its first four years after rejoining, powered by players such as Randy Moss, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich.
“When you start winning and keep winning, then things get a little bit easier on everything you do from recruiting to everything else,” Ohio coach Frank Solich said.
Meanwhile, Ohio struggled in the ’90s, finishing the decade 34-74-3.
But in 2002, the Thundering Herd was penalized for lack of institutional control. Football players not on scholarship were provided janitorial jobs that paid $25 an hour.
In 2005, the schools changed course again. The Bobcats hired Solich and Marshall jumped to Conference USA, eight seasons after rejoining the MAC. The Bobcats have posted four .500 records since, but the Herd has accomplished the feat just once.
Despite the school’s recent on-field struggles, a former Marshall athletics director said the move to Conference USA was a smart decision because of an increased revenue base for TV contracts.
“Mainly, we looked at it from the standpoint of a television contract,” said Bob Marcum, who served as Marshall’s athletics director from 2002 to 2009 and oversaw the transition from the MAC to Conference USA.
“When you looked at your program and the opportunity for television, it was really over a bigger geographic area than in the Mid-American Conference,” he said.
For football, the MAC covers 822 miles from DeKalb, Ill., to Philadelphia, Pa., and includes schools in six states. The farthest full-member MAC schools are 610 miles apart.
Conference USA has members in nine states and stretches from El Paso, Texas, to Greenville, N.C. — a distance of 1,900 miles.
Nine Conference USA schools are in cities with a metro population of more than 800,000. Only one MAC city, Buffalo, has a metro population of more than 700,000.
For football, the MAC also has Temple in Philadelphia, which has almost 6 million people — a higher figure than the rest of the conference put together.
Conference USA’s breadth presented challenges and opportunities for Marshall.
The program would have to pay more to send its teams to away games, but television packages for football and basketball reached more people in more places than when the Herd played its games in the MAC.
“Our primary asset was football. I think our other sports benefited from the move because it sent more resources into the sports,” Marcum said.
“I think you have to look at the increase in the cost in doing business versus the financial benefits that you receive. At that point in time — and I really don’t know what it is now — the Mid-American Conference television package really was not very lucrative.”
During its eight years in the MAC, Marshall never received a year-end TV check higher than $150,000, Marcum said, a figure dwarfed by the $800,000-plus check it received after its first year in Conference USA.
The current contract between the MAC and ESPN includes coverage of at least 10 midweek appearances. A conference game counts as two appearances.
The MAC schedules two games for Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the conference schedule. One game each day will air on ESPN or ESPN2, and the other is shown on ESPNU.
“We attempt to give ESPN what we call ‘pick ’em’ dates,” said Bob Gennarelli, MAC senior associate commissioner and COO. “We’re the only league in the country where they have a selection process for the midweek games.”
Nationally televised games on ESPN can reach as many as 100 million homes, but other games are broadcast on ESPNU or are shown regionally.
ESPN Regional Television Inc. and the MAC also are in the fourth year of an agreement where the network shows six Saturday games throughout the Midwest. Maximum exposure for the MAC Game of the Week is 24 million households. Ohio does not play in any of these games this year.
For men’s basketball, ESPN guarantees the MAC at least three national appearances as well as four games on ESPNU.
The conference also has an agreement with Sports Time Ohio to show three to five football games a year and between 15 and 25 men’s basketball games. It also covers part of the men’s and women’s conference tournaments.
Conference USA has television deals with CBS Sports Network and Fox Sports Regional Networks. Fox airs a minimum of 20 games a year, and CBS airs at least 12 games.
Between the networks, Conference USA has coverage for 25 men’s and 14 women’s basketball games annually. Fox Sports is available in about
70 million homes, and CBS Sports Network reaches 75 million homes.
“We think, with these two partners, we have a great opportunity to provide exposure,” said Courtney Morrison Archer, assistant commissioner for public affairs for Conference USA. “You should be able to see your favorite team at any time.”
Marcum said some notable football teams require a large audience to agree to play a home-and-home series with smaller programs.
“There were teams around the country that would play (Conference USA schools) one-for-one — and in some cases two-for-one — that would not do that for Mid-American Conference schools,” he said.
Ohio Director of Athletics Jim Schaus was not available to comment on the school’s media exposure or any desire to increase it.
Solich does not focus on other conferences, their television deals or their competitions.
Right now, he is focusing on Ohio’s next opponent: Marshall.
“I think it’s a natural rivalry,” he said. “When you have something like that, it’s usually a good reason to try to keep it going.”
ESPN3.com will televise the game.