Herd's First Win 110 Years Ago This Season

Marshall football has its roots early in the 1890s, when a number of players who were members of the Letterman's Club reported playing for the college starting as early as 1892. But the first recorded games were found in 1895, and it was a slow start for the "Black and Blue" Indians of Marshall College in the early years of the program. The first victory was still three years away, in 1898.

Marshall football, in a variety of uniforms and styles, played football on campus and all over the Tri-State in the early days of the program, between 1895 through 1903, when Green and White was adopted as team colors. photo courtesy of Marshall University

In an era where players played without helmets, growing their hair long for some cushioning in the violent game college football was in 1898, Marshall was 0-4-1 in the 1895 and 1897 seasons. The program's third season would start on October 22, on the Marshall athletic field. The field was located in the "ravine", as the low area below the Old Main administration building was known. Old Main was the only building on campus at this time, where students lived, learned, ate, studied and even took gym in the basement.

Old Main had been updated in 1895 with a bell tower that fronted Sixteenth Street and Fourth Avenue, in the first recorded game in Thundering Herd football history, a 0-36 loss to Ironton (Ohio) High School on the Marshall campus field. The tower would disappear in the early 1900s, and the front was built that still faces Fourth Avenue and now Hal Greer Boulevard, named for the Huntington native who was the first African-American to play at any formerly all-white college or university in the state of West Virginia when Cam Henderson signed the future NBA Hall of Famer to play for Marshall starting in 1955.

Marshall had tied Kingsbury High School, also located in the Ironton, Ohio, area, in Marshall's first "coming home" game, 0-0, on Thanksgiving Day of 1895. It was the first "Homecoming" game played on Turkey Day by Marshall, keeping that date through World War II for football and family/college reunions around a gridiron contest in Huntington. No records were found for Marshall in 1896, but in 1897 the Indians, as the nickname was reported in the Huntington Advertiser (1895-1979), Huntington's former afternoon newspaper, stated Marshall lost to the Huntington Tigers (possibly Huntington High School, or a team of local players) 0-14, lost 0-4 to Kingsbury (four-points for a touchdown through 1888-1897, going up to five in 1898, but word apparently had not reached Huntington) and lost to Ironton on Thanksgiving/Homecoming, 6-14, but a breakthrough as Marshall scored for the first time.

Marshall welcomed their rivals from Kingsbury High School into the campus field to open the season on October 22. Colleges did not start class in the era until late September, after crops were harvested, and thus football began in October for most schools. While it might look odd to see Marshall playing high schools, much of the college's enrollment were children from the eighth to 12th grade in the "model" school, taught by students attending Marshall as a "Normal School." A normal school was a two-year program to teach secondary students, as anyone could actually teach primary students if they were so inclined. So Marshall teams often had model students playing alongside of Normal School students. Marshall would not become a four-year degree granting school until 1921, and received University status in 1961.

The game of football was a brutal, running-only game, where men and boys clashed head-first into each other. While subs could enter at the discretion of the captain since 1897, most teams were 11-on-11 with few subs. Only one man could be in motion toward the line, usually the ball carrier, and only three could be in the backfield. Players were banned, since 1894, from wearing projecting nails or iron plates on shoes, nor was any metal substance allowed on the person, or grease or other lubricant on any player. The ball was a "prolate spheroid," with no specific measurements. If a team gained five yards in three plays, they received a first-down on the 110-yard fields of the day. Injuries, even deaths, were prevalent.

Marshall fans ring the campus field for games in the early days of Thundering Herd football, like the game described in 1898. courtesy of Marshall University

Marshall's enrollment numbers 308 students (of which 12 would go on to graduate that academic year), and most of them turned out, along with townspeople, to see Marshall open against Kingsbury on October 22, 1898, including two-year Marshall College Principal Lawrence Corbly (who would not be President until 1906 and would serve until 1915), who has a hall on today's campus named in his honor.

The Ironton school had tied and beaten the college boys in two games in 1895 and 1897. Players for Marshall included John Lallance, Howard Palmer, Frank Lallance, B.R. Meyers, Guy Perkins among some of the names for the college team. Kingsbury met a determined Marshall team who scored the school's first recorded victory, 12-0, over Kingsbury. A rematch is set with the Ohio River rivals, but come game day on November 5 in Huntington, no sign of Kingsbury is ever sighted. The Advertiser reports in it's November 7th edition, "Ironton Boys Afraid," and claims a victory for the college, pushing Marshall to 2-0 to start 1898.

Marshall then faces a town-team from Catlettsburg, Kentucky, just across the Big Sandy River from Kenova, W.Va., and about 15 minutes away from Huntington today. The game took place at Clyffeside Park in Catlettsburg, just a short ride on the C&O Railroad to the park that included a lake. November 9, Marshall loses 5-11, and this game was actually noted in the student yearbook at Marshall, The Mirabilia, and was believed to be the first Marshall football game for most of the 20th Century. In a rematch with Catlettsburg back on the Marshall campus field, the Indians of MC, wearing their "Black and Blue" colors, beat Catlettsburg 17-0, an absolute rout in the scoring-system of the day. On Thanksgiving Day, Marshall plays what would eventually be the Tom Cats of Ashland High School (today's Paul Blazer H.S., in Ashland, Kentucky) for homecoming, and scores a 6-0 win in the first Homecoming win ever. A sign of the respect Marshall and Catlettsburg had for each other, however, is shown when an all-star team of players from the two rivals beat an all-star team of Ashland, Ky., and Ironton, Ohio, players at Clyffeside Park in a second Thanksgiving game, winning 26-6 over the Bluegrass-Buckeye team. Most of the Marshall team was at the second game, splitting time with the Catlettsburg players.

An event more exciting than Marshall's first winning season was the arrival of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show in Huntington on November 14, 1898. courtesy of americanwest.com

As exciting as the 4-1 season is for Marshall College, the event that set Huntington on its ear that fall was the arrival of Colonel William "Buffalo Bill" Cody and his "Congress of Rough Riders" Wild West Show. Arriving on November 14 and setting up in the flat area that is around today's Fifth Avenue and 29th Street (the former Big Bear store, now owned by the nearby St. Mary's Medical Center), for only 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children, Huntington's citizens were treated to the trick shooting of Annie Oakley and a re-enactment of the 1876 "Battle of the Little Bighorn," better known as "Custer's Last Stand," when around 200 U.S. Troopers were killed by thousands Great Plains Indian tribes near the Little Bighorn River in what was the Montana Territory.

The show began with a parade on horseback, with participants from horse-culture groups that included US and other military, American Indians, and performers from all over the world in their best attire. There were Turks, Gauchos, Arabs, Mongols and Cossacks, among others, each showing their own distinctive horses and colorful costumes. Visitors to this spectacle could see main events, feats of skill, staged races, and sideshows. Many authentic western personalities were part of the show. For example Sitting Bull and a band of twenty braves appeared. Cody's headline performers were well known in their own right. People like Annie Oakley and her husband Frank Butler put on shooting exhibitions along with the likes of Gabriel Dumont. Buffalo Bill and his performers would re-enact the riding of the Pony Express, Indian attacks on wagon trains, and stagecoach robberies. The show typically ended with a melodramatic re-enactment of Custer's Last Stand in which Cody himself portrayed General Custer.

1898 was a big fall in Huntington, but the Boer War and the Spanish-American War (where Teddy Roosevelt would borrow "Rough Riders" for his troop of men who took San Juan Hill in Cuba, during the war) loomed in 1899, as did many changes in the coming years for what today is your Marshall University Thundering Herd Football team. We'll revisit the birth of Fairfield Stadium in our next look back at Marshall history.

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