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‘Best path’: Marshall leaders laud move to Sun Belt

November 1, 2021 GMT
Marshall University interim director of athletics Jeff O'Malley speaks during a press conference about joining the Sun Belt Conference, Monday, Nov. 1, 2021, in Huntington, W.Va. (Ryan Fischer/The Herald-Dispatch via AP)
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Marshall University interim director of athletics Jeff O'Malley speaks during a press conference about joining the Sun Belt Conference, Monday, Nov. 1, 2021, in Huntington, W.Va. (Ryan Fischer/The Herald-Dispatch via AP)
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Marshall University interim director of athletics Jeff O'Malley speaks during a press conference about joining the Sun Belt Conference, Monday, Nov. 1, 2021, in Huntington, W.Va. (Ryan Fischer/The Herald-Dispatch via AP)

Moving to the Sun Belt Conference gives Marshall a secure future, school officials said Monday, as well as chances to renew some old rivalries and boost its sorely lacking television footprint.

Marshall’s Board of Governors completed the university’s move to the Sun Belt on Monday, three days after the school revealed it was leaving Conference USA, which now has only five members committed to the league long-term.

“There is no doubt that we had chosen the best path for Marshall,” interim athletic director Jeff O’Malley said at a news conference.

O’Malley said he got a “clear affirmation” about the move from Marshall fans while walking outside the football stadium Saturday.

“The excitement, the anticipation and positive vibes about this new affiliation was unlike anything I have ever seen,” he said.

Marshall, based in Huntington, West Virginia, joined C-USA in 2005, won its only league championship in football in 2014 and rose as high as No. 15 in the AP Top 25 poll in the 2020 season.

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But the school that produced NFL Hall of Famer Randy Moss and is remembered for the deadliest plane crash in U.S. sports history in November 1970 gets little national exposure nowadays. Marshall’s TV appearances in recent years have bounced among regional networks and online-only broadcasts.

“Joining the Sun Belt is going to present stability with tremendous options and opportunities for Marshall to strengthen its brand,” Marshall President Jerome Gilbert said.

Getting a long-term deal with the ESPN family of networks in the Sun Belt “was appealing to us,” he added. “Our fans were frustrated on finding our games and this is going to make it much easier for them.”

Brad Smith, who takes over for Gilbert as president in January, said after being based in California for the past 15 years, “I’m looking forward to watching a game on something other than Facebook.”

Marshall will join the Sun Belt by July 2023, along with C-USA schools Southern Mississippi and Old Dominion, whose additions also were announced last week. The additions will give the Sun Belt 13 football-playing members, and the conference is also pursuing FCS powerhouse James Madison.

Marshall will renew regional rivalries that it had more than two decades ago with current Sun Belt members Appalachian State and Georgia Southern when they were with the then-Division I-AA Southern Conference.

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“We certainly knew there could be institutions that would add value to our conference, and Marshall does just that,” Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill said. “We just got a lot stronger today.”

Last month, six C-USA schools announced they would be leaving for the American Athletic Conference at a date to be determined. The schools left in C-USA — for now — are UTEP, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee State, Florida International and Western Kentucky.

C-USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod has said the conference is pursuing new members, including FCS schools that are considering making the move to FBS, the NCAA’s top tier of Division I college football.

Other possible options for C-USA include FBS independents Connecticut, Massachusetts, Liberty and New Mexico State.

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