CHARLESTON - It's not a long drive for Marshall University's football team, less than an hour to pack up the bus at Joan C. Edwards Stadium in Huntington and head east to downtown Charleston. Yet Thursday evening's drive was an important one for the Thundering Herd.
Marshall fans gathered in the ballroom of the Embassy Suites Hotel for the annual Paint the Capital City Green event sponsored by the Marshall University Quarterback Club of Charleston and the Big Green Scholarship Foundation.
Fans decked out in Kelly green dined on tailgaiting fare like nachos, burgers and chicken, while members of the Marching Thunder played the university's fight song and other tunes and MU cheerleaders belted out chants.
The energy was high in the ballroom, and the buzz around the team this preseason had something to do with that. Conference USA media members picked the Herd to win the conference's East Division in their preseason poll. If Marshall can reach those expectations, it will mark the first time since 2014 that the team has reached the championship game.
Marshall head coach Doc Holliday said that excitement from the fans seeps into the Herd roster, but the team still must take care of business through the regular season.
"The expectations are always high at Marshall," Holliday said. "But we embrace those expectations. And we also understand that, along with that, comes a responsibility. We have to go to work every day to get ready to go."
Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick is comfortable with those expectations as well. He said the athletic program embraces high hopes, and that those predictions are a product of the football program's work over the years. Marshall is 6-0 in bowl games under Holliday and has two C-USA title appearances and one championship.
"Some people say you don't want to be picked to win it all," Hamrick said. "We like that. That's what we want at Marshall. We want the target on our backs. That's the way the program has been.
"I think being picked to win the East is the respect our program has earned over a long, long time," he added, "and with coach Holliday's success, that's something you want, and that creates a buzz."
This visit to Charleston is special for both Holliday and Hamrick. They're sons of the Kanawha Valley, Holliday from Hurricane and Hamrick from Clendenin. So it means a little more for them to come to town holding the titles they do.
"It's always great to get back and see a lot of people I know and a lot of familiar faces," Holliday said. "I'm just proud of being the football coach here and getting the chance to share it with them."
Thursday's was an important event for Marshall University as a whole. The Charleston area is one stocked with both alumni and potential students, as well as Herd fans and donors. Paint the Capital City Green is a traditional event for Marshall, now in its 28th year, and Hamrick said it will remain a strong one.
"It's our chance to come and see them," Hamrick said, "to take our program to them. They come to Huntington all the time.
"So tonight is a way to kick the football season off, and it's important for Marshall to have a presence here."