Jim Woodrum sat in his office at the Cam Henderson Center at Marshall University in the summer of 1996, enjoying the quietness that filled the campus. The former associate athletic director was preparing the final logistics of the Thundering Herd’s last season as a member of the Southern Conference before they made their move to the Mid-American Conference in the FBS.
It was just another standard day for Woodrum. Then, the phone rang.
Nearly 90 miles away, Alan Bailey – the former director of marketing at Ohio – sat at his desk waiting for the dial tone to stop and for Woodrum’s voice to answer.
Neither of them knew that their conversation would change one of Ohio’s oldest football rivalries.
Ohio and Marshall met on the field for the first time in 1905, and Ohio’s program, which had existed for barely a decade, suffered a 6-5 loss. The former MAC rivals have a long-winded tradition of sporadically and ceremoniously showing up on each other’s success — see the surprise 2009 matchup in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl — and Ohio leads with a 33-20-6 series record. The two teams will square off again for their 60th meeting Saturday in Huntington, West Virginia.
While the rivalry has had its roots for over a century, there’s a more recent story about one of its main attractions.
Woodrum let the phone ring twice before he picked it up. On the other end, Bailey welcomed Woodrum and Marshall into the MAC a year ahead of schedule. The two talked about how the programs share a strong on-field rivalry, but now that they’ll be in the same conference, they wanted to play for something more besides bragging rights.
“There’s never been an official sort of rivalry or trophy. Why don’t we create something?” Woodrum recalled. “I said, ‘Well, let’s talk about it.’”
Woodrum and the current voice of the Thundering Herd, Steve Cotton, made the hour and 39-minute trip northeast to Athens.
The trio of Woodrum, Cotton and Bailey met a few days after the initial phone call at The Pigskin Bar and Grille. They hunkered at a table for over three hours to discuss ideas about what the trophy should be. At times, the trophy ideas were a little too symbolic of the state of West Virginia. Other times, they leaned too much toward Ohio.
It wasn’t until about the second hour of talks when Woodrum realized what the two states have in common.
“The thing that connects and separates Ohio University from Marshall University is the Ohio River,” Woodrum said. “And we bounced around ideas on what’s symbolic of the Ohio River.”
Once the river became the focal point of the trophy, the ideas became more concise and clearer as to what the teams should play for. Ultimately, the conversation sailed its way toward riverboats.
The Ohio River has a long and storied history of riverboats traveling along the nearly 1,000-mile-long body of water. Hundreds of boat service and parts shops are open to this day in the southern portions of Ohio and northern parts of West Virginia.
Superior Marine Inc., located in South Point, Ohio, is one of them. And that’s where the bell originated.
Dale Manns, owner of Superior Marine Inc. and a long-time Marshall fan, donated a brand-new riverboat bell for the rivalry once he heard Woodrum’s plans for a trophy.
With a bright gold bell mounted onto a plaque decorated with small black plastic plates for engravings of the scores of games, the Battle for the Bell was official.
It’s Nov. 15, 1997. The lights were bright at Joan C. Edwards Stadium on Marshall’s campus. The Bobcats traveled to Marshall for the first installment of the Battle for the Bell but were ousted in a 27-0 performance.
Former Ohio coach Jim Grobe’s triple-option offense couldn’t find success against the new MAC members. The Thundering Herd rang the bell for seven of the next eight years in their short stint in the conference.
Ohio rung the bell just once, a 38-28 victory in 2000 at Peden Stadium, while Marshall was a conference member. The two rivals didn’t meet again for the next five years after Marshall joined Conference USA in 2004.
Some 23 years later, Woodrum sits in a different office on Marshall’s campus, where he still hears students talk about the bell as if it has been around for a century. He hears faculty talk about the excitement that happens in the town of over 47,000 people whenever the two programs face off, and he sees die-hard fans on message boards talk about how the bell has been in Athens for too long.
The teams last played in 2015 when the Bobcats won 21-10. The bell has been in a trophy case on the second floor at Peden Stadium since. The Thundering Herd fans believe it’s time for the bell to “come home.”
Woodrum never wanted credit for his behind-the-scenes role. All he wanted was to give something for the programs and its fans to look forward too.
“80 years from now, I don’t know if that bell will still exist, but some form of the Battle for the Bell trophy will still be out there,” Woodrum said.
Ohio will make another trip to Huntington on Saturday, and the bell will be up for grabs for the 16th time in the 60th meeting between the two schools.
It doesn’t matter, though, whether Ohio or Marshall wins. What matters is that the two are back on the field together with one goal.
Ring the bell.
A previous version of this report incorrectly misspelled Jim Woodrum’s last name. The article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.