By MIKE RUBEN
His first season as play-by-play sportscaster at Marshall University had remarkable results.
Steve Cotton was announcing one highlight after another during the football season of 1996 as the Thundering Herd enjoyed repeated lopsided victories, a conference championship and a 15-0 record culminating with the NCAA Division I-AA National Championship.
He says Coach Bob Pruett’s initial season was a great launch to a career move where he followed respected broadcasters such as Frank Giardina (now with Sports Spectrum), Bill Roth (Virginia Tech), Wes Durham (Atlanta Falcons) and Stan Cotten (Wake Forest).
“That may be the greatest team in I-AA history,” said Cotton. “When the team is good, your broadcasts sound good. The closest game that year was 14 points. It seems like I was always saying, ‘touchdown Herd.’”
While another national title is unlikely, college football “experts” are predicting Cotton’s 19th year at Marshall will be a banner season in Conference USA. Led by quarterback Rakeem Cato, Coach Doc Holliday’s Herd has considerable talent returning from a 10-4 team that defeated Maryland 31-20 in the Military Bowl.
Cotton admits he initially thought that his tenure in West Virginia would be brief. The University of Florida graduate saw MU as an opportunity to pursue a graduate degree while building his resume toward his ultimate goal of announcing Major League Baseball.
Huntington, however, has become home. Marshall officials presented Cotton with the game ball during basketball season when his 750th broadcast aired on the 15-station Thundering Herd Network. The football season opener against Miami University will be his 768th game, according to Jack Bogaczyk of the “Herd Insider” publication.
Cotton followed an unlikely path from the beginning. Growing up on the family’s potato farm in the rural Midwest, he attended a “Little House on the Prairie” one-room school through eighth grade. Athletics were not a priority around Kalkaska, Michigan.
He remembers being intrigued by radio before he was fascinated by sports. A transistor radio was a well-used childhood birthday present.
“I would take it to bed with me and listen every night,” he said.
Despite minimal exposure to sports, he soon became enthralled with legendary sportscaster Ernie Harwell. Now deceased, the hall of fame broadcaster announced Detroit Tigers games for 42 years.
“At the time, I didn’t even know what he was talking about, but I kept listening,” Cotton said. “I would tune in until I fell asleep. I loved his storytelling, his rhythm and excitement in his voice. That’s how I learned the game. I became a sports fan through radio.”
By the time Cotton reached high school, the family moved to Gainesville, Florida, when the local archery manufacturer relocated. He devoted his first three years of his studies to engineering on the Gainesville campus before making the switch to broadcasting.
“I took some broadcasting classes and loved it,” he said.
After college, Cotton was the sports information director and part of the broadcast crew at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee, before attending graduate school at Marshall and eventually becoming lead announcer.
As for his broadcast style, Cotton says he’s partial to Marshall, but not to the point of being a “homer” on the air.
“I take it seriously,” said Cotton, an accomplished caricature-style woodcarver in his spare time. “I know that more than 90 percent of the listeners are Marshall fans. My ‘touchdown Herd’ is going to be more enthusiastic than the opposition’s. I try to respect the game and the opponent, but from the Marshall point of view.”