CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Another major sports season is passing without a showdown between West Virginia and Marshall universities, the biggest college athletics programs in a small, proud state.
But the two universities cross paths in many other ways — appealing to students, drawing faculty, building academic programs, exerting influence with state government.
About half of West Virginians registered voters see the two schools as rivals and about half do not, according to the latest version of the MetroNews West Virginia Poll.
Specifically, 53 percent said yes, West Virginia University and Marshall University are rivals. Forty-seven percent said they are not.
The West Virginia Poll was conducted between August 14-22 with a sample of 501 registered voters. The overall confidence interval for the survey is +/- 4.4 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.
So, given the margin of error, that’s a pretty even split on the rivalry.
“If you think about WVU and Marshall, they are rivals in many ways. With respect to funding in the state, with respect to student recruitment, with respect to the faculty and staff and with regard to sports,” said pollster Rex Repass, president of Research America Inc., which conducts the West Virginia Poll.
“So I think the state, at least those voters in our sample, 501 individuals, slightly better than half consider WVU and Marshall rivals.”
Looking a little closer at responses, there’s a difference based on geography. West Virginia University sprawls across the hills of Morgantown to the north while Marshall has a relatively compact campus in Huntington to the south.
“You do see some expected differentiation in the data based on where these respondents live,” Repass said. “In the southern part of the state, people much more likely to consider the major division one universities rivals.”
The West Virginia Poll asked whether respondents consider themselves to be sports fans. Of all who participated in the poll, 63 percent consider themselves to be fans while 37 percent do not.
Those who do not consider themselves to be sports fans moved on to a question about public policy.
But those with a stated interest in sports were then asked some questions about whether WVU and Marshall should resume their basketball matchups.
West Virginia University has dominated Marshall in the very few football games the two have played over the years, 12-0. The last football game in 2012, was a 69-34 victory by the Mountaineers.
The basketball history has been more frequent and somewhat more competitive. West Virginia leads the all-time series 34-11.
Despite the lopsided outcomes, Marshall Coach Dan D’Antoni in 2014 suggested WVU was “afraid” to continue playing the Thundering Herd.
WVU Coach Bob Huggins responded by blasting Marshall’s rating percentage index, a system used to rank strength, which was pretty bad for the Thundering Herd at the time. “We’re afraid. Yeah, we’re really afraid,” Huggins said.
So, the last time the two teams played a regular season game was 2015. That was an 86-68 WVU win in Charleston.
The squads tipped off in 2018 in the second round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in San Diego. The Mountaineers won that one, 94-71.
Almost all the West Virginia sports fans who responded to the West Virginia Poll said the series should resume, with 90 percent favoring and 10 percent opposing.
“I know Bob Huggins probably doesn’t want to hear this, but if you talk to a representative sample of West Virginians who happen to be sports fans, there is no question that sports fans would like to see the two major universities play each other in basketball,” Repass said.
“Sports fans in West Virginia would like to see the two major universities play each other every year.”
Poll respondents who oppose an annual matchup moved on to an unrelated question about public policy.
But those who are in favor of resuming the series were asked a question about where to play.
Overwhelmingly, West Virginia sports fans favor a return to the campuses.
Of those, 42 percent said Marshall and WVU should rotate home and home men’s basketball games every year: one in Morgantown followed by the next game in Huntington.
Another 32 percent said the game should rotate between the Charleston, the centrally-located seat of state government, plus the campuses in Huntington and Morgantown.
Another 19 percent said the game should always be in Charleston, as it was for years. And 7 percent were not sure.
Over the years in Charleston, the Mountaineers have dominated 21-5. The Mountaineers have almost always won in Morgantown with a record of 11-1. The Thundering Herd was undefeated at 5-0 in games played in Huntington.
“No question about it,” Repass said. “It creates excitement, creates a lot of economic benefit to the two home university locations. People traveling to the game. People spending money in the markets.
“These are good economic reasons for these universities to be playing each other in basketball every year, but periodically in football.”
Repass is a Marshall graduate and was a member of the 1971 Young Thundering Herd football team. But he says the poll speaks for itself about broad desire for West Virginia University and Marshall resuming their competition.
“I know I’m a Marshall graduate,” he said, “but I’m letting the data speak for itself. The data is clear.”
On another sports topic, respondents are holding back judgment on the creation of a fourth class for high school girls’ and boys’ basketball in West Virginia.
Thirty-one percent said they favor the new class system and 17 percent oppose.
But 52 percent said they are not sure.
“Really the takeaway here, it looks like the majority of people just don’t know,” Repass said.
“Either they don’t care or may not be close enough because they don’t have children that are in sports. If you take out those that aren’t sure, there is a larger percentage that do favor the four class system.”