National champions: it has a nice ring to it. Considering it doesn’t happen all that often for a mid-level major like Marshall University, winning the men’s soccer title a few weeks ago set off wild cheers around Huntington, West Virginia.
It was especially sweet given the chart published in the week leading up to the Final Four that detailed the respective teams’ annual athletic budgets.
Indiana, whom Marshall defeated 1-0 in the championship, checked in at the top of the list at $127 million. MU brought up the rear at $32 million.
Aside from the hubbub over victory, the backstory of the Thundering Herd’s climb to the top of a major college sport includes a couple notable aspects.
First is that it almost never happened. This was something I wasn’t aware of previously, since it took place a couple years before we moved back to the area, until the local newspaper carried a sidebar about it after the title game.
In 2003, officials at the school considered eliminating the soccer program. That’s when soccer fans and Marshall sports enthusiasts initiated a letter-writing (and I assume emails as well) campaign protesting the idea.
Soon after, MU’s president waved the white flag. The prescience of such a move can be seen by the growth soccer has enjoyed around the nation in the intervening 18 years.
Whereas I don’t profess to be that big a soccer enthusiast, it is clear the sport is riding a wave of popularity.
Between its hold on the world’s consciousness and the fear of serious injuries from football, I think numerous parents are now steering their youngsters onto a safer field.
A Key Role
The other interesting aspect of the national championship is the role its soccer stadium seems to have played in attracting better athletes.
The team started playing there in late summer of 2013 after demolition of the facility that used to occupy the land. Memorial Field House was the arena where Marshall played its basketball games for 30 years.
While home to the historic run of the late 1960s and early 1970s exceptionally talented Marshall basketball teams, the building’s glory days had long passed.
In 1981, Marshall opened a new on-campus arena, named for the legendary football and basketball coach, Cam Henderson. It seats just over 9,000, compared to 6,500 at the old facility.
The fieldhouse lived on for a variety of school athletic and community events, like a model railroad show that I attended in the late 1980s.
One of the few megachurches in the area also held its Sunday services there for a while during construction of its new facilities.
Time to Go
However, as the first decade of the new century stretched on, the problems with the fieldhouse became obvious. When the proposal for the soccer stadium surfaced, the roof on the antiquated facility was leaking badly and would cost a million dollars to replace.
Needless to say, funds to fix the roof were in short supply. Which is why I’m grateful that people with foresight envisioned replacing it with an attractive soccer stadium that has proved a key building block for a new national champion.
Sometimes, to move into the future we must scrap the love affair we had with the past.