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Wade Gilley: Football put national spotlight on Marshall

Jul. 05, 2013 @ 11:54 PM

I have seen news accounts of the recent financial debate at Marshall University and the discussion of athletic funding. While I fully understand the tough financial times ahead, I continue to believe that a well-managed and successful athletic program has been and is still important to the university and to Huntington.

While I have little insight into the current budget/finance challenges facing Marshall University (and other institutions), I do know that a highly successful football program turned a national spotlight on a very good and rising academic institution in the 1990s. The football program under two excellent coaches, Jim Donnan and Bobby Pruett, dramatically raised the profile of the university, which led to a growing academic recognition, increased enrollments and large private gifts.

I also remember being invited to a national meeting of 20 university presidents and 20 Fortune 500 corporate CEOS in the late 1990s and hearing many positive remarks about Marshall. In fact, Father Malloy, the president of Notre Dame at that time, approached me at a reception and said, "Wade, some of us were just talking about the success of your football program and we were wondering just how it happened." There was a spotlight shining on Marshall.

Since retiring in Northern Virginia, I have run into several people whose children attended Marshall, and they each confided that the national spotlight had resulted in their interest in going to Huntington for what they said was an "excellent education." During the 1990s when Marshall almost doubled the out-of-state tuition, the school's out-of-state enrollment grew significantly in part because of the rising national profile.

So there is no question in my mind that football was an important factor in the growth in enrollment and a broadened recognition of the value of a Marshall degree. And there is no question that the football program, coupled with a growing academic profile, was a very positive economic factor in Huntington and West Virginia. No one can forget those Saturday night games in Joan C. Edwards Stadium and the excitement and flow of people into downtown Huntington during the 1990s.

While there is no doubt in my mind about the high academic quality of Marshall University, having an excellent athletic team and especially a nationally recognized one was and still is very positive for the university as a whole. It attracts attention that is difficult to get using traditional marketing approaches.

For example, I recently ran into a medical doctor whose daughter chose Notre Dame Law School over Georgetown, William and Mary and the University of Maryland, which are all excellent schools. He told me that the national profile of Notre Dame attracted his daughter to its excellent law school. There is no doubt that football has been a very positive factor in the national attention of that great university.

So while athletics are not directly correlated to academic quality, it is a way to gain national spotlight at a time when college enrollments are destined to drop nationwide. Changing demographics, tightening of federal student loans and reduced state funding will result in more challenging economic times for all colleges and universities.

And there is no doubt that football, which is largely self-supporting, has been and will be a positive factor in promoting Marshall's national image.

Wade Gilley was president of Marshall University from 1991 through 1999.

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