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Marshall-Ohio: A River Runs Through It

Former Herd head coach Bob Pruett (l) and Ohio head coach Jim Grobe

Sept. 13, 2012



HUNTINGTON – The Marshall-Ohio football rivalry dates to 1905. The “Battle for the Bell” doesn’t even ring back even more than two decades, much less more than a century.

While the rivals will meet for a 56th time Saturday night at Edwards Stadium in a date that is compelling for many more reasons than the winner getting possession of the trophy, the Thundering Herd and Bobcats will be battling for the Bell for only the 11th time.

The Bell has become a valued bauble in these campuses. But back in the Chad Pennington-to-Randy Moss days, you see, it was a marketing vehicle, so to speak. The schools had played so many times without a trophy – no Old Oaken Bucket (Indiana-Purdue), no Little Brown Jug (Michigan-Minnesota), not even a Keg of Nails (Cincinnati-Louisville).

But when Marshall moved back into major college football with its move from great success in Division I-AA – and back into the Mid-American Conference -- in 1997, the Herd-Bobcat series would resume as a conference game after an eight-year hiatus.

The teams already had met 44 times, and every season from 1949-75, with the exception of 1970, when the season-ending game was canceled the week after the Marshall team plane crash that took 75 lives. The Marshall-Ohio game has ended a regular season 21 times.

So, in hopes of adding something to a rivalry that already was good on the field, the schools came up with the traveling-trophy concept.

Jim Woodrum, then Marshall’s associate athletic director for external operations, and Alan Bailey, then Ohio’s director of marketing for athletics, met at Pigskins -- an Athens, Ohio, restaurant – in the summer of 1996 to see if they could come up with something that would ring with players, coaches, fans.

“Alan and I had been friends for a while, and when we talked, the teams hadn’t played in a while,” said Woodrum, now the COO of Huddle Inc., a sports ticket marketing firm. “We were going to be in the MAC together starting in ’97, so we wanted to, if we could, create somewhat of a rivalry on paper like on the field.

“We wanted something people would talk about, the media would write about. We started out talking about what were symbols, things that could be a rallying cry. We didn’t have anything like a Keg of Nails or Old Oaken Bucket, but we talked about what was common to both schools, and what makes us different, too.”

Well, there are different shades of green, but …

The Battle for the Bell could have become the Coal Versus Corn Game.

“We talked about what ties to each state,” Woodrum said. “West Virginia has coal. Ohio has agriculture. We kept kicking things around and we finally hit on, ‘What separates us?’ And one of us said, ‘Well, the Ohio River is one thing.’ We really kind of said it as a joke.”

So, Bailey – he’s now a pharmaceutical sales rep in southeast Ohio -- and Woodrum decided it was a good idea and talked about what could be a symbol of the river, and went with riverboat and a bell.

“It rang out, really,” Woodrum said, no pun intended.

The Ding-Dong Schools concept took on a life of its own, and working a full year before the 1997 game, Woodrum and Bailey had plenty of time to sell the symbol and the new rivalry name – which, by the way, was the third Battle for the Bell in major college football.

Cincinnati and Miami of Ohio play one, and have since the late 1800s in the oldest FBS rivalry west of the Alleghany Mountains. Southern Mississippi and Tulane have played for their own Bell since 1979 (when the Conference USA schedule matches them these days).

The athletic directors and coaches bought in … and by coincidence, the first Battle for the Bell in ’97 featured one-time members of the same Sonny Randle staffs at MU -- Huntington native Jim Grobe on the Bobcats’ sideline, and Marshall alumnus Bob Pruett guiding the Herd.

(Grobe’s last game at Ohio, by the way, was a 38-28 win at Peden Stadium over the Herd, which went on to win the MAC title and then the Motor City Bowl the following month.)

Woodrum contacted Dale Manns, of Superior Marine Ways in South Point, Ohio. Manns provided a new bell from one of his boats. “They do a lot with barges, so I just assumed it was from a tug,” Woodrum said.

Woodrum took the bell to the now-defunct A&J Trophy in Guyandotte, which created a base and a plaque for what was to become a traveling memento.

One problem … how do you ring the bell? There was no lanyard on the bell.

“A&J came up with a piece of leather that was the lace from a majorette’s boot,” Woodrum said. “I don’t know where the boot came from, but that piece of leather is how you ring the bell.”

“It just all clicked into place,” Woodrum said. “We held the press conference for the first game up at Point Pleasant – about 45 minutes away from each school – at Tu-Endie-Wei (State Park). The next year, we crossed the river and held the press conference at the Holiday Inn in Gallipolis. Then, Holzer Clinic got involved as the game’s sponsor, and we moved it there.”

Alas, the Bell-ringing series came to an abrupt halt when Marshall left the MAC for Conference USA after the 2004 season. The teams finally played again in – of all places, Detroit – when the Herd won the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. That game was not a Battle for the Bell.

A six-year, non-conference home-and-home series deal to start in 2010 was signed in the summer of 2006 by then-ADs Bob Marcum of Marshall and Kirby Hocutt of Ohio. The game this Saturday is the third in that contract that runs through the 2015 season. Ohio leads the series 30-19-6, but the Herd has won 10 of the last 12.

“Marshall and Ohio have played frequently over the year in a lot of sports,” Woodrum said. “Basketball,   baseball, football, track and field, tennis … the rivalry has always been there. We wanted to give it a symbol.”

As an idea, as a concept, Woodrum and Bailey really did ring a bell.