By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Some youngsters dream of playing sports. Steve Cotton dreamed of talking about them.
“Since I grew up as a kid, my friends wanted to be a first baseman or a quarterback,” Cotton said. “I wanted to be a radio guy so being able to do that and settle in at Marshall all these years has been great.”
Cotton is preparing for his 21st year at Marshall — and 18th as the radio voice of the Thundering Herd. Not bad for a former high school baseball player who never played the two most popular sports at Marshall.
“The challenge was getting to know the sports,” Cotton said. “I played baseball, but that was the only thing. I never played football, I never played basketball. I grew up in a small, small place in western Michigan and we didn’t even have a football team at our school.
“I kind of learned the intricacies of it. You can do it, but that is obviously as big a challenge as anything.”
A graduate of the University of Florida, Cotton earned his masters from Marshall, and has remained there. He was in Princeton recently as part of the annual Marshall Coaches Tour.
“It is fun this time of year to get out and go around and see everybody and get out of the office a little,” Cotton said. “During the season, that is the fun time doing games and going to the games. Also, at that point when the season gets over, you have to do all the office work and that kind of thing, but you get to go out and see people and that is fun.”
What is equally fun is watching the face of Marshall athletics change with each passing day with $30 million being spent on facilities for Thundering Herd athletics, from a new indoor football facility and soccer complex, along with separate projects such as a new building for the engineering department.
“...It is crazy to think of all those construction projects and not only in athletics, there is a big engineering building being built in the other end of campus,” Cotton said. “It is kind of crazy, but it is really exciting to see all the construction going on at Marshall.”
What happens on the field is of immediate interest and Cotton is excited about the football season that lies ahead for Marshall, which finished 5-7 last year with a much-improved offense, but a defense that simply couldn’t stop the opposition.
“Two years ago Marshall offense in all the things like scoring offense, total offense and passing offense, among 122 or 123 teams in the country, was right around 100,” Cotton said. “Last year it jumped up in all those same categories to the top 10, top 5 or even top 2 or 3 in the country.
“To do that in one season is kind of amazing and Coach (Doc) Holliday continues to recruit and bring guys in who are even more athletic and highly-regarded.”
Holliday made a few changes on his staff, and brought in reinforcements that are expected to help the defense and make the Thundering Herd a favorite in the revamped Conference USA.
“This year’s recruiting class was the top-ranked recruiting class in the country for any school that was not in a BCS conference,” Cotton said. “That is, in and of itself, is a great year and it just adds to what he has been doing. To look down at Marshall football practice or to watch the team now, it is an entirely different experience than it was four years ago, the athleticism, the ability of those guys has risen dramatically.”
Cotton is also confident in an improved men’s basketball program, which never did recover from the NCAA declaring point guard Kareem Canty ineligible just days before the beginning of a season that ended with a disappointing mark of 13-19.
Reinforcements are coming, including Canty and pair of transfers, and a freshman class that has Cotton excited about what lies ahead for Tom Herrion and the Herd.
“Those three guys have been there for a year so it is almost like you are bringing in two recruiting classes at the same time so there is a lot of newness,” Cotton said. “That always adds some element of excitement too and you put it all together and I think a much different and bigger element there of newness and talent that has been brought in.”
It’s not just the ‘big two’ that has been successful for Marshall. The Herd, which won the Conference USA softball title, sent two women to the NCAA track championships, and also had a baseball player, Aaron Blair, who was drafted with the 36th selection in the recent amateur draft.
Not bad for teams that don’t have a track or a diamond to call home. Alleviating that issue is among the plans for Marshall athletics.
“If we get these facilities built and people are able to train better in all kinds of weather in the indoor (practice) facility, it is just going to keep the roll that we are on going,” Cotton said.
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Marshall continues to reside in C-USA, which has had a major shift with seven teams leaving for the former Big East — now known as the American Athletic Conference — over the next two years.
C-USA has taken action by bringing in schools that will be closer for Marshall fans, such as Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State, North Carolina-Charlotte and Old Dominion, all of whom will replace such faraway schools as Houston, Southern Methodist, Central Florida, Tulane and Tulsa.
“I love it. You lose some things you would like to see like Memphis basketball, but for Marshall, up until now the closest opponents was 7 1/2 or 8 hours away...,” Cotton said. “We have a lot of games now that our fans can travel to a lot more easily and I think we are going to get that Herd travel crew rolling again.”
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Marshall has shown a willingness to recruit athletes from the area, including Devon Johnson (Richlands) and Joe Woodrum (Bluefield), who are currently members of the Thundering Herd football team.
“Devon Johnson came on last year a little bit out of nowhere because he changed positions,” Cotton said. “He went in initially as a linebacker and then moved over. They needed a fullback so they played him at fullback, h-back, tight end type thing and he really did some nice things
“He threw some great blocks in key situations, and stepped up big time.”
Woodrum, who only played one year of football at Bluefield, is currently a tight end at Marshall. He opened eyes with this production during the spring.
“He got a chance to play a lot and I think his growth over spring practice was huge,” Cotton said. “By the end of spring ball he had confidence, he was making plays, he was making catches and really showed that he can be a factor and be effective.”
Marshall continues to add local players to its roster in several sports, including McKenzie Akers (women’s basketball), Jessica Inman (women’s soccer), Rebecca Downard (cheerleading) and Chad Wyrick (football), all of whom are from Princeton’s most recent graduating class.
That is the type of move that Cotton expects to continue.
“We hope so, I know Coach Herrion, Coach Holliday, everybody, and it goes on to cheerleaders and everything else too,” Cotton said. “All the coaches, when there is a player, when there is a student-athlete from the region who can get the job done and help them win, they want them all.
“That is just icing on the cake when you can get somebody locally.”
—Contact Brian Woodson at firstname.lastname@example.org