Chuck Landon: One missed opportunity equals many for Marshall
East Carolina isn't the first school that had the opportunity to improve its athletics by accepting a football-only offer to join a better conference.
Marshall had a similar chance.
The difference is the Pirates are making the most of the offer from the Big East, while the Herd failed to cash in on its opportunity.
Remember Marshall's 64-61 double overtime win over East Carolina in the 2001 GMAC Bowl? The day before the game on Dec. 18, 2001, there was a meeting in Mobile, Ala.
In attendance, according to multiple sources, were then-Conference USA commissioner Mike Slive; then-East Carolina athletic director Mike Hamrick, who was the chairman of the league's expansion committee; then-Marshall head football coach Bobby Pruett; then-Marshall president Dan Angel; then-Marshall chief of staff Keith Spears; and ESPN executive Dan Shoemaker.
Slive offered Marshall the opportunity to join C-USA in football and Olympic sports. And, remember, C-USA was at the height of its strength in those days with such members as Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida.
The league, according to informed sources, also offered what amounted to associate membership for the Marshall men's basketball program until it could become a full-fledged member. Besides assuring multiple non-conference games with C-USA members, the league guaranteed Memphis, Louisville and Cincinnati would make two visits a piece to the Henderson Center during a 10-year span.
It was an intriguing offer.
So, why didn't it come to fruition?
First, because a deal for Marshall basketball to join the Horizon League fell through literally at the last minute when a member school's leader got his presidential panties in a wad.
Next, Marshall had cut a deal with the Southern Conference to join the league for five years in every sport but football. But that deal got pulled off the table because the negotiations weren't kept confidential.
Since not one, but two contingency plans fell through, Angel eventually declined C-USA's offer.
But imagine what could have been.
Remember, Marshall football was a perennial Top 25 program in those days and had been ranked as high as No. 10 in the nation. In 2002, the Herd soundly defeated Louisville, 38-15, in the GMAC Bowl.
It is reasonable conjecture to argue Marshall could have been the C-USA champion in 2002, rather than TCU and Cincinnati, which tied for the crown with 6-2 records. After all, the Herd already had a win over the Bearcats in the 2000 Motor City Bowl.
So, when the Big East Conference dipped into C-USA in 2003 to replace Virginia Tech, Miami (Fla.) and Boston College with Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida and basketball-only schools Marquette and DePaul, who is to say Marshall wouldn't have replaced someone on that list?
It most likely would have been Louisville, Marshall and either Cincinnati or South Florida along with the two basketball schools.
And don't forget, those were the days when the Big East was at its height.
Now, compare where Marshall had the opportunity to be with where the Herd is currently positioned. It shouldn't take more than a few seconds because there is no comparison.
Instead of being affiliated with name programs, Marshall is mired in a league with nondescript schools. Not that C-USA hasn't made the best of a bad situation. It has. But it's still a bad situation.
It's a sobering reminder of how one missed opportunity can affect a collegiate athletic program.
Otherwise, look where Marshall could be right now.
Chuck Landon is a columnist for The Herald-Dispatch. Call him at 304-526-2827 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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