Who says politics and football don't mix?
Gov. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia has won the coveted ESPN.com college football politician of the year, an award that dates all the way back to the beginning of this sentence. Manchin said during his campaign last year that he thought West Virginia and Marshall should meet on the football field. Then he did something about it.
And what he did has athletics directors across the country smiling in acknowledgment of an ingenious solution.
West Virginia AD Ed Pastilong and Marshall AD Bob Marcum had reached an impasse. Pastilong wanted a series that called for three games at home and one at Marshall. Marcum wouldn't go beyond 2-for-1.
Just to get that far required some give on both sides.
West Virginia had to decide that the campus would not be irreparably harmed if its football team deigned to occupy the same field as Marshall's. The last game, in 1997, was the first since 1923 and only the fifth overall. West Virginia has won all five, including that 42-31 game eight years ago.
"The atmosphere was truly electric," Manchin said in a statement last week. "If you weren't there, you should have been."
Marshall had to decide that its honor wouldn't be besmirched if it didn't get a home-and-home deal with the bigger institution.
"When you look at most institutions in an in-state rivalry, it's usually one-for-one," Marcum said. "We all need revenue. They do require more than we do. They are 97 percent self-supporting. We are not."
The state motto might be "Mountaineers are always free," but Mountaineers football is not.
Marcum and Pastilong began discussing a possible series earlier this year at the Fiesta Frolic, the annual golf outing for athletics directors and coaches sponsored by the Fiesta Bowl. They continued when they returned to their respective campuses, 200 miles apart. But when progress slowed, Manchin invited the men to come to Charleston.
For the record, they didn't meet halfway. The state capital is closer to Marshall's Huntington campus. Then again, Manchin is a WVU grad. In fact, he played for the Mountaineers in 1963-64, although injuries kept him from earning a letter.
Manchin must have some stick. While the state voted to re-elect President Bush last year, Manchin, the Democratic secretary of state, received more than 60 percent of the vote.
There is a history of governors and legislators sticking their noses into football business. Alabama and Auburn ended their 40-year mutual boycott in 1948 at the point of a legislative bayonet. Clemson once had to play at South Carolina every year. That ended in 1960, when Tiger-loving politicians forced the Gamecocks to switch to a home-and-home.
This one is different, though, on a number of levels. Manchin didn't knock any heads, although he invited Marcum and Pastilong to breakfast at his office, fed them lunch, and threatened to bring in dinner, too.
"We have beds, if needed," Manchin told them.
The governor met with the athletics directors in the morning. He implored them "to do what's best for the fans," Pastilong said. Manchin left them, and a little later stuck his head in again.
They could agree on playing in Morgantown in 2006 and 2008. They could agree on playing in Huntington in 2007. Neither man could make the other one see his point of view on a fourth game.
At one point over the last few weeks, my colleagues in the big-money building on the ESPN campus offered to set up Marshall and West Virginia at a neutral site the Panthers' stadium in Charlotte, N.C. Neither side wanted to do that.
"Why would you take all that [from our] state and take it to someplace else?" Marcum asked.
"All that," as in all that money and all that excitement.
Sometime around lunch, Manchin made his suggestion. Play for the right to host the fourth game. Whichever team wins two of the first three games will get the prize of a game on his campus on Oct. 3, 2009.
Just like that. Done.
"It was comfortable. It was equitable," Pastilong said.
The athletics directors not only scheduled through 2009, they went through 2012. Marshall will get the 2010 game. West Virginia will get the 2011-12 games. The Mountaineers have four home games. Marshall has two. One is to be determined.
Tickets for the 2006 game will be $35, the same as West Virginia will charge for its Big East games. Texas and Oklahoma held up their fans for $85 last season. If Pastilong and Marcum ever considered a higher ticket price, finding out that the governor has gone all consumer advocate on them crushed that yearning.
"We should be rooting for each other every time we play somebody else," Manchin said when the agreement was announced. "We really should be. That's the spirit of West Virginia. That's who we are."
There are some West Virginia fans who don't quite share Manchin's desire that the entire state join hands and sing "Kum Ba Ya."
"Some people talked about it providing Marshall with equity," Marcum said. "I've been in this business 46 years. I haven't found equity yet."
Notre Dame had its $13 million extra point. A home game at West Virginia is worth $1.5 million, give or take a hot dog. That will be at stake 2006-08. More important will be the pride and the passion of a rivalry that, 95 years after the teams first met, is finally coming to life.
"It will be a tailgate like none other," the governor said of the 2006 game. "It will be the best time you ever had in West Virginia legally."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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