By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
Over the years, Jim Justice has brought in some of the nation’s best-known sports figures to speak at the Big Atlantic Classic Tip-Off Banquet. From Dick Vitale, Terry Bradshaw and Charles Barkley, to Larry Bird, Julius Irving and Cam Newton, Justice has never disappointed.
But he has also been sure to honor the accomplishments of West Virginia and Marshall universities. Today will be no different, as Marshall head football coach Doc Holliday and quarterback Rakeem Cato will be the guest speakers at today’s banquet.
The Thundering Herd completed its first 10-win season since 2002 with its 31-20 Military Bowl win over Maryland Dec. 27. A 54-28 victory over East Carolina on Black Friday gave Marshall the Conference USA East Division title for the first time.
“They had an incredible year,” Justice told Register-Herald Sports Editor Cam Huffman last week. “We wanted to ask them both to come to celebrate their success. It’s a great coach and a future NFL player, and I think people will enjoy it.”
Marshall’s 10-4 finish and the fact that several starters will be back has the Herd garnering plenty of respect early in the offseason. USA Today and CBSSports.com both released polls they feel reflect the way the 2014 will begin and have Marshall among the top 25.
Obviously, it’s entirely too early for anything to be accurate. But the point is well taken.
“I really like where we are,” Holliday said in a postseason press conference earlier this month. “We have high expectations and I like those. I don’t want to be somewhere where there aren’t high expectations. People are starting to pay attention to Marshall football again and that’s what we want, what the school wants and what the community wants.
“It’s probably been 12-13 years or so since people were mentioning Marshall in a preseason top 25 and expectations are good. As a team, a staff and a program, we embrace those expectations.”
Cato, announced today as the Hardman Award winner as the state’s top amateur athlete, will return to Marshall for his senior season. The Miami native was named C-USA’s Offensive Player of the Year after completing 298 of 499 passes for 3,916 yards and 39 touchdowns, and was intercepted just nine times.
He will go into his senior year as the active leader in consecutive games with a touchdown pass at 32. The Football Bowl Subdivision record is 38, by former N.C. State and Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson, who will lead the Seattle Seahawks into Super Bowl XLVIII a week from today.
Cato is second in Marshall history in TD passes (91) and touchdowns accounted for (98) and third in career completions (886), passing yards (10,176) and total offense (10,533).
Floor tickets for the banquet, which include a meal, can be purchased for $40. Those who don’t want to eat can get seats in the stands. Those are $7.50 for adults and $2.50 for students. The dinner is scheduled to begin at 12:30 p.m., with the speaker at 1:30.
“Rakeem and I would like to thank Jim for the opportunity to speak in Beckley Sunday,” Holliday said. “His support of not only Marshall football, but our entire athletic program, is second to none and we owe him a debt of gratitude for all he has done.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @GaryFauber.