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September 7, 2010

WVU-Marshall rivalry lacking bite

MORGANTOWN — It’s getting so you can’t even have a good, old-fashioned fun rivalry any more.

West Virginia and Marshall play their annual Friends of Coal Bowl game this week, but we’re still waiting for someone to say something inflammatory about the other.

But know, you’d think these guys were going to hold their pre-game meals together while piping in background music like James Taylor singing “You’ve Got a Friend”, or Dionne Warwick singing “That’s What Friends Are For” or Andrew Gold doing his 1978 version of “Thank You For Being a Friend”.

It’s things like this that get Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler to roll over in their graves.

Listen up to Bill Stewart, the West Virginia coach, when the idea of this being a blood game, a rivalry game, a battle for the supremacy of the hills of West Virginia comes up.

“It’s game 2,” he said. “I don’t get on that emotional roller coaster.”

What? Think back to Ali-Frazier, to Connors-McEnroe, to Louis-Schmeling.

Imagine Ali saying, “That Joe Frazier, he’s one fine fella. You tell him this, that when we get in the ring, I won’t swing and miss. No, no, I’ll give that big teddy bear a kiss.”

Yet, that’s kind of the reaction you got out of Stewart when it was brought up to him that he’ll be going against his former assistant, Doc Holliday.

“We go back. I hate to tell people, but we go back to the early 1970s, so we’ve known each other almost 40 years. I hired him, he was my associate head coach. He did a great job here. He was a confidante for me. We’re close friends. I wish him nothing but the best,” Stewart said.

Why you almost had to pull this out of him.

“Oh, I want to beat him, I want to beat him to death. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

And Holliday? He spoke on the Conference USA call today, not for long, as no media had a question for him, but here’s what he said about going against the team he had just left.

“I have great respect for WVU, but I’m the head coach at Marshall now. My job is to make sure this team is prepared Friday night,” he said.

Take that, WVU. That should get your blood boiling.

If the Hatfields and McCoys had been that hostile, no one would have heard of them.

So why is not a hot rivalry?

In part, it’s not a hot rivalry because it’s not a conference game for either team. Most really heated rivalries are among conference rivals — Ohio State vs. Michigan, Auburn-Alabama, USC-UCLA, North Carolina-Duke.

In part, too, it has been one-sided, WVU having won all nine meetings over the years.

“We have to win this game at some point. For it to be a rivalry we have got to go win that game,” Holliday admitted during his Saturday press conference after having gone out and been devoured by Ohio State, the nation’s No. 2 team.

Without both teams seemingly having a chance to win, the edge has to come off the game.

Then, too, there isn’t really much history, even though the first game was played back in 1915, the series was soon discontinued and has only recently been renewed.

In truth, WVU really doesn’t want to play the game, but were pushed into by political pressure. It has three more renewals under the current contract and doesn’t like the idea of having to go to Marshall to play this non-conference game on the road. They’d much rather go to Colorado or Auburn or LSU, as they have scheduled lately.

Marshall, with everything to gain and nothing really to lose, wants the game. It drew their biggest crowd last year.

“I think it is a great game for both schools,” Holliday said. “Now that the schedules have gone to 12 games it is harder and harder to schedule games. I think this is a game that needs to be played every year. It is great for the state and it is great for the economy.”

Stewart on Sunday was non-committal about whether or not the game should continue.

It was, again, as if he didn’t want to be drawn into anything that might look like a controversy.

“I’ve never gone down that road,” he said. “My Daddy taught me in New Martinsville, West Virginia, to respect all, fear none.”

He expects Marshall to come at his Mountaineers hard and that they will return in kind.

“It’s a very important game,” he said. “We’ll be emotional. I don’t want them to walk out like a bunch of alter boys. We’re not going to mass.”

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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