Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Perseverance helped Marshall overcome ‘70 crash

Chad Pennington
By “The Coach”
       Chad Pennington dropped back to pass, looking downfield for the best wide receiver in the college game – Randy Moss. It was the 1997 Motor City Bowl and Marshall University would end up on the short end of a 34-31 loss to Mississippi.
       Moss would catch an 80-yard touchdown pass from Pennington on Marshall’s first play from scrimmage. For Marshall fans, however, it would mark another beginning, one of an era of dominance in which the Thundering Herd would win five Mid-American Conference championships in six years.
       Just 27 years earlier, Marshall football almost ceased to exist.
On November 14, 1970, while returning from a game at East Carolina, the Southern
Airways flight carrying 75 passengers, including 37 players and five coaches of the Marshall football team went down on a hillside outside of Huntington, West Virginia.
       Decision-makers at the university, including acting President Donald Dedmon, contemplated what to do with the football program. They wound up hiring Jack Lengyel, a Division III head coach at Wooster College in Ohio, to rebuild the program.
Randy Moss
       University officials pushed the NCAA for a waiver that would allow freshmen to compete at the varsity level, which was not permitted at that time. Lengyel, whose character was personified in the film We Are Marshall by Matthew McConaughey, built his team from the ground up, recruiting players from other sports and even advertising in the school newspaper for a place-kicker.
       Lengyel ended up winning just nine games in four seasons as the futility of the Marshall football program continued. Prior to “The Crash” (1966-69), the Herd had a winless streak of 0-26-1. After joining the Southern Conference in 1977, Marshall matched that dreadful streak before finally defeating Appalachian State, 17-10, in 1981.
       In 1984, under new head coach Stan Parrish, Marshall experienced its first winning season in two decades, finishing up at 6-5. What transpired over the next 20 years was nothing short of amazing.
       After Parrish led the Herd to two winning seasons, Coach George Chaump brought national prominence to Marshall at the Division I-AA level with back-to-back ten-win seasons and a trip to the 1987 national championship game.
       The success of Chaump’s teams in the late ‘80s led to a period of dominance in the ‘90s. Marshall won two NCAA Division I-AA championships, defeating Youngstown State in 1992 and Montana in 1996.
       The following year (1997), Marshall made the jump to Division I-A and became a member of the Mid-American Conference. Head coach Bob Pruett, a former Marshall player, would lead the Herd to five conference titles. During that stretch, the only team to beat Marshall in a MAC championship game was Toledo (2001).
       From ‘96 to 2004, Marshall won 94 games, which includes five bowl game victories. The Herd also had six seasons in which it won at least 10 games.
       Marshall’s gridiron success of the ‘90s was made possible by those who weathered the storm during the turbulent years following “The Crash.” 
       Without the vision of those who were willing to take a chance on continuing a football program in the wake of a disaster, Marshall would have never become the NCAA’s winningest football program in the 1990s.
       The scars of the accident still remain in the minds of those who were on the scene more than four decades ago. A historical road marker located near Tri-State Airport serves as a tribute in remembrance of the 75 crash victims. The flames of the horrible crash from so long ago have died out. Yet, the flame of Thundering Herd football will continue to burn for years to come.

Chad Pennington photo/ courtesy of The Bleacher Report
Randy Moss photo/courtesy of College Sports Kings.com

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