Tuesday, December 29, 2020

My take-aways on Camellia Bowl 2020

Herd quarterback Grant Wells moved his team downfield
in the waning seconds. But Buffalo's defense responded 
with two sacks to preserve the victory.
(Photo by Jake Crandall/Montgomery Advertiser)

A few days have passed since Marshall's football season ended with a third straight setback. Understandably, it was not a joyous scene. But that's hardly sufficient reason for fans of the Big Green to embrace the notion that the future is bleak.

Here's my take on what I saw on Christmas Day when the Thundering Herd came up empty in a 17-10 loss to Buffalo in the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama. The final outcome was a bit different from what I anticipated.

The outlook was not very favorable for the Herd. Aside from having three of its premier players opt out of the game (to get ready for the NFL), the team was on a downward spiral. Prior to the bowl game, MU suffered head-scratching back-to-back losses.

On Christmas Day, Marshall's Thundering Herd  was its own worst enemy. Yet, they still had a legitimate shot to force overtime or win the game with a touchdown and two-point conversion. It was a minor miracle that Marshall managed to stay in contention.

Consider these stumbling blocks that MU managed to deal with for the bowl game.  
  • Six starters did not play.
  • Three consecutive bone-headed plays on special teams -- disastrous and downright bizarre.
  • Lack of offensive diversity. The Herd needed to get more production from its air game (114 passing yards was not nearly enough). 
  • Soft pass coverage combined with a non-existent pass rush spelled doom. Over four quarters, Buffalo quarterback Kyle Vantrease rarely faced any semblance of defensive pressure.
Even so, defense proved to be the Herd's saving grace. Buffalo (47.8 points and 309 rushing yards per game) was held far below its eye-popping season averages.

Now, allow me to put the spotlight on Grant Wells, the Marshall quarterback who has received boat loads of blame for the Herd's recent offensive slide. In my humble opinion, I say it's time for all detractors to exercise some radio silence and acknowledge what transpired in the game's closing moments.

Wells, a redshirt freshman, is not a finished product by a long shot. No.8 is still subject to growing pains, indecisiveness and bad judgement just like any other up and coming QB. The maturation continues.

 Marshall DB Steven Gilmore
breaks up pass intended
for Buffalo WR Trevor Wilson.
(Photo by
Jake Crandall/
Montgomery Advertiser)

Given all that Marshall did to shoot itself in the hoof, Wells -- with no timeouts and 1:09 left to play -- scrambled for a first down and completed three passes to put his team in the red zone. With 30 seconds to go in regulation, the Herd had a first-and-10 at Buffalo's 20-yard line.

But the Herd would get no closer. On third and fourth down plays, Wells was sacked to end the game. What happened in those waning seconds has more to do with game experience as opposed to lack of skill or game smarts.

As Wells logs more crunch-time game experience, he'll develop a keener sense for pressure. He'll learn to bolt from the pocket earlier so he can buy enough time to extend plays. Acquiring that skill set, however, cannot be done in scrimmages. Getting tested under actual game conditions is the only way.

With Wells, there's so much upside. No need to fret about his first bowl game. The kid will continue to grow. He'll be fine.

MVP trophy went to the wrong player
I do understand the logic in picking Buffalo RB Kevin Marks as the Camellia Bowl MVP. Marks, subbing for the nation's leading rusher Jaret Patterson (injured knee), scored the game-winning touchdown on a 2-yard run with a little over a minute remaining in the fourth quarter. Marks finished with a game-high 138 rushing yards.

Coming down the stretch, Kyle Vantrease was the
 prime factor for the Buffalo Bulls.
(Photo by Jake Crandall/Montgomery Advertiser)
But ... when I consider the context of the game, Marks can't be that guy. Yes, he scored the game-winner. But keep in mind that Marshall let him score so that its offense would have enough time to put together a final drive. The Herd made it interesting, but just couldn't add the finishing touches at the end.

Marks did all of his damage in the first half with 110 rushing yards. Over the final 30 minutes, however, the Herd clamped down and Marks was a non-factor.

The MVP should have been Vantrease (completed 16 of 27 passes for 140 yards). Yeah, his passing stats are hardly spectacular. Still, there's no denying that when his team needed it most, he delivered.

On Buffalo's game-winning drive, Vantrease connected twice with wide receiver Antonio Nunn. The first hook-up was a 26-yard pass play that put the Bulls in the red zone. Two plays later, Vantrease threw a 12-yard pass to Nunn on a post route which set the stage for Mark's short-yardage TD run.

-Craig T. Greenlee


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Herd faces huge challenge in bowl showdown

Marshall will need QB Grant Wells to play
at an all-star level to best Buffalo.
(Associated Press photo/Emilee Chinn)

On paper, the prospects don't look very promising for Marshall when it faces Buffalo in the Camellia Bowl on Friday afternoon.

In other words, the Thundering Herd could be in for a blue Christmas.

Christmas Day/December 25th
Montgomery, Alabama
2:30 p.m. (Eastern time) on ESPN

For starters, MU (7-2) will not have three of its best players available because of opt-outs. RB Brenden Knox (2019 Conference USA MVP), OT Josh Ball and LB Tavante Beckett were 1st team all-league picks. All three decided to skip the bowl game to begin their preparation for the 2021 NFL Draft. All three are projected to be chosen in the mid- to late-rounds.

On the plus side, though, there is ample  talent remaining, which includes 13 other Marshall players who were either first- or second-team All-CUSA. But whether that's enough to push the Herd over the hump remains to be seen.

Areas of concern

Loss of key personnel isn't the only issue. The Herd's performance level has been problematic over the last two games, which resulted in surprising home losses to Rice (20-0) and Alabama-Birmingham (22-13 in the CUSA title game).

As for Friday, it's crucial that Marshall's offense finds a way to get back on track. Execution has been woefully inadequate (averaging a meager 7.5 points in two previous outings). 

The Herd's inability to sustain drives and move the chains has put a strain on the defense, which hasn't played badly. But it hasn't been good enough. At the same time, they're not as dominant as they were in the first seven games when MU was undefeated.

Lately, the defense is on the field a lot longer than usual. In the late stages of games, the weariness begins to show and it results in MU not being able to deliver much-needed stops.

Time of possession a major factor

Examples: Rice controlled tempo with its ground attack and kept the ball for 36 minutes, 26 seconds. UAB was even more effective in imposing its will. The Blazers generated 468 total yards and dominated time of possession (41:26)

Buffalo (5-1) is a much different animal than UAB. Not only do the Bulls average 47.8 points and 309.5 rushing yards per game, but they have the nation's leading rusher in Jaret Patterson (178.7 yards per game).Patterson's health, however, is a question mark.

Buffalo running back Jaret Patterson has rushed
for 19 touchdowns this season (tied for second in the nation).

In Buffalo's 38-28 loss to Ball State in the MAC championship game, he injured a knee in the third quarter and came back in the fourth quarter, but ran just one time. Media reports indicate that Patterson is expected to play on Friday.

There's a possibility that Patterson might be reduced to spot duty if he's not completely recovered. If that's the case, Buffalo will call on Kevin Marks, who ran for 97 yards and averaged 10.7 yards a carry in the MAC title game.

Long odds
Given Marshall's situation entering the Christmas Day contest, there's no denying that the Herd faces long odds to win. QB Grant Wells must rediscover his throwing touch. And he will need help from a productive running game that will help the Herd build confidence and momentum as the game plays out.

In one game, anything can happen. So, the Herd cannot be counted out. But the loss of three marquee players combined with this recent losing skid could be too much for Marshall to overcome.

My prediction: Buffalo 29, Marshall 20.

I would love to be wrong about this. After all, games are not played on paper. That's why they play in the first place. Stay tuned.

-Craig T. Greenlee

Monday, November 16, 2020

Amid the Marshall football tragedy, chance meant everything

The resilient spirit of the 1970 Thundering Herd lives on
in the hearts and minds of the Marshall faithful.
(Photo courtesy of Marshall University)

By Matthew Gutierrez

     Craig Greenlee remembers thinking that could have been me, and the memories come rushing back.

     Greenlee, a former Marshall University football player, survived the deadliest plane crash in American sports history because he had quit the team. But he lost 37 of his former teammates. The relatively minor decision to leave the team ultimately spared his life.

     “Knowing that I could have been on that plane, the fact that I made a decision and it panned out this way, that still amazes me to this day,” Greenlee, of Winston-Salem, N.C., said this week. “It will always be with me. Those things don’t ever fade.”

     On Nov. 14, 1970, a chartered Southern Airlines plane transporting the players, coaches, spouses, boosters and officials from a game at East Carolina crashed and burned into a wet, foggy hillside two miles from the runway of the Tri-State Airport. An official cause wasn’t determined. All 75 passengers aboard the DC-9 plane were killed instantly upon impact. Greenlee lost dozens of friends, coaches and acquaintances. There were no survivors.

Unmistakable reminder

     Greenlee’s survival is a powerful reminder of the sheer randomness of how the day unfolded, who lived, who died, which families were touched, and whose were impacted forever. Every day, people make seemingly insignificant decisions — to join an organization, to run to the grocery store, to grab a coffee — without realizing the possibilities that our choices lead to. Call it “luck” or “fate.”

     What is clear is the role chance plays in peoples’ lives, every day, and how consequential the small decisions we make can be. No matter how hard we work, how much money we have or who we are, we are all subject to the vagaries of chance.

     “The possibilities of any day are limitless,” Greenlee says. “It taught me there are so many things that can happen at any given time.”

Greenlee played two seasons for the Thundering Herd.

     Marshall is amid one of its best seasons in its FBS history, ranked 15th in the country at 7-0 (as of Nov. 16). The Thundering Herd hammered Middle Tennessee 42-14 last Saturday, which was Nov. 14. It marked 50 years to the day since the tragedy. 

     On that particular game day, a 9 a.m. ceremony was held to commemorate those who died. And 75 banners — each one showing a photograph of one of the 75 victims — were placed around the Huntington, W.Va., campus.

 So many ironies

     The 1970 team cheerleaders survived the crash because there wasn’t enough room on the plane for all to attend the game, and the group had adopted a policy that “all go or none go.” Two local journalists survived because one of their colleagues called in sick that week, and they decided to fill his role at the office by not traveling to the game. 

     One player didn’t make the trip because he overslept on Friday morning, the team’s travel day. Other players, such as defensive backs Tony Barile and Felix Jordan, survived because they had been injured and didn’t travel with the team.

     Ed Carter survived the crash because he had to endure a death shortly prior. The offensive lineman was grieving the death of his father. He flew home to Texas to be with his family and attend the funeral. His mother encouraged him not to return back to Marshall, so he didn’t travel with the team that weekend. 

Lineman reads his own obituary

     His mom’s relatively small decision proved to keep him alive. The next day, when it was assumed he died in the crash, he read his own obituary in the local newspaper.

     Then there was the trio of Marshall players (Bob Harris, Jack Repasy and Mark Andrews) who came from the same Cincinnati high school. Their parents had attended the game, and when it was time to head home Saturday evening, they asked their kids to drive back with them. 

 Players turn down parents' offer to ride back to MU

     But the players, coming off a loss to East Carolina, didn’t want to upset their coach or teammates for not returning with the group. Although the parents pleaded, the players said they preferred just to fly back, and they’d reunite back on campus.    

     “The way that happened, with those three gone because of that seemingly small decision, it’s remarkable,” Greenlee says.

     Greenlee left home in Jacksonville, Fla., to attend Marshall, hoping to earn a scholarship if he made the team. He was one of a growing number of Black players on a team that had only recently begun integrating players of color. He won a spot and played two seasons, 1968 and 1969, but he lost his passion for football toward the end of his sophomore season, and he quit the program when the year ended. 

 Life-changing decision

    He didn’t know at the time how consequential his choice would become. He didn’t know it would essentially determine whether he survived beyond the age of 20.

     Fifty years later, he says the tragedy doesn’t consume him, and he rarely talks about it. He doesn’t usually consider the event, those involved and the consequences until the calendar hits November. 

     Then, amid the second half of the college football season, as the days grow shorter, the reminders become more real. He says he hasn’t necessarily felt classic symptoms of survivor’s guilt. He doesn’t regret his decision to quit the team. Given the circumstances, it was best for him. 

     Still, he deeply grieved the loss of friends, some close, others acquaintances. He felt for Scottie Reese, his best friend on the team, who had agreed to be Greenlee’s best man at his wedding, but died in the crash.

 Overwhelming sorrow

    In an instant, Greenlee was among a population that had lost friends, parents, children, and husbands. The pain was immeasurable. “What makes it heartbreaking is you’re talking about kids who are 20 years old,” Greenlee says. “They are near graduation, before marriage, having families, living life, and then everything is gone.”

     Then Greenlee recalled how, on the evening of the crash, he was preparing to attend an off-campus party. He heard rumors in his dormitory that a plane had crashed, and there were murmurs that it could have been the football team. Soon, there were reports on the radio confirming what the students feared: The plane was indeed the one transporting the team.

     “I made up my mind right there, I’m not going out there to the crash sight,” he says. “I wasn’t sure what I might see. I never wanted to have that memory because I know once you see it, you can’t get rid of it.”

Everlasting snapshot

    For Greenlee, one of the lasting images of the tragedy is of Reese, a linebacker and defensive end from Waco, Texas. Greenlee remembers seeing him for the last time, on campus, with his facial structure, his lean but solid stature at 5-11, 185 pounds, and his smile. He also remembers the way Scottie sounded, the facial expressions he made, and the legacy he left behind.

     “You remember snapshots,” Greenlee says. “You come to grips in some shape or form with your own mortality, and you realize how each day is a gift, a canvas to be worked on, and anything can happen to us at any point.”

Matthew Gutierrez is a staff writer for The Athletic, covering Syracuse basketball and football, as well as golf. He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, among others. Previously, he covered Syracuse basketball and football for The Daily Orange, the student newspaper. A native of Princeton, New Jersey, he is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Former MU cheerleader works behind the scenes to bolster legacy of '70 Herd

Debbra (Bailey) Bowen (far right) was the first
black cheerleader at Marshall University.

     When the movie "We Are Marshall" came out in 2006, the story of the November 14, 1970 plane crash that killed most of Marshall's football team became well known. But now, there's an added twist.

     Thanks to Debbra Bowen, a cheerleader at MU during the late '60s/early '70s, the legacy of that team, coaches and supporters is being immortalized in a different venue -- the Chick-fil-A College Football Hall of Fame.

     Bowen, whose maiden name is Bailey, worked closely with Hall of Fame officials to ensure that the story of the plane crash will never be forgotten. The Hall of Fame now has put together a display that informs and inspires all who visit.

     Check out this link to see posts on Facebook regarding Bowen's work. Kudos to Debbra.


Saturday, November 14, 2020

50 years later ....

Marshall's Joe Hood
started attracting attention from NFL
scouts in 1970 as a multi-talented running back
in his first varsity season as a sophomore.
(Herald-Dispatch photo archives)

     Wow, here we are. Fifty years -- to the day -- after the fact.
     A half-a-century has passed since November 14, 1970. It was a gut-wrenching night when Marshall University lost most of its football team in a fiery plane crash. 
     Time did not stand still in the wake of the tragedy. Yet, there are still those occasions when I'm frozen in time as I think about my life as a 20-year old ex-college jock at MU.

Talented freshman class
     Two years before the tragedy, I was part of a new wave of football at Marshall. I was on that 1968 freshman team that went undefeated and had all of Huntington, West Virginia in constant buzz mode. 
     There was excitement galore about what Thundering Herd football would be like in the immediate future.
     The high hopes of the team's followers, however, took a big hit in the summer of 1969. Marshall was axed from the Mid-American Conference for recruiting violations. The NCAA came down hard with sanctions which severely limited the program's ability to woo enough top-flight athletes who could make a difference right away.
     The Herd, though, still had ample talent on board for 1970. As things turned out, roster depth became an issue when injuries sidelined key personnel. 
     Even so, Marshall proved to be a pesky opponent. Even in defeat, there was a calm confidence that better days were coming soon.

Unforgettable night
     But then came the crash. There were no survivors among the 75 passengers. All but a handful of players on the 1970 varsity team died when Marshall's charter jet slammed into the side of a hill as it attempted to make a landing at Tri-State Airport.
     In spite of the substantial losses, Marshall made the decision to keep football alive. But the process to achieve stardom was woefully slow and often painful. It would take more than a decade after the crash before the Herd produced a winning season.

     Once the breakthrough came, the Herd went on a roll. Winning conference titles, two (Division I-AA) national championships, along with several post-season bowl games, Marshall gained some national notoriety.

Quite a journey
     Personally, it's been a thrilling experience. I played two years as a safety for the Herd. When I stepped away from the game, I became an intrigued observer. As a result, I've been an eye-witness to arguably the most inspired comeback story in the annals of sports at any level.
     That gives me plenty of reasons to never forget 
     It's appropriate to acknowledge and pay homage to those who perished on that chilly, rainy and foggy night from so long ago. And for me, it will never get old.
     The memories from my time at Marshall are as vivid as ever. And I'm so glad about it. Here's my tip of the hat to the 75.

-Craig T. Greenlee

Monday, October 26, 2020

Video: Huntington names city block in honor of Thundering Herd football legend

Marshall legendary quarterback Reggie Oliver
passed away two years ago, but his memory lives on. 
As part of Marshall's 2020 Homecoming
celebration, the city of Huntington, West Virginia named
one of its streets after Oliver in a ceremony
on Oct.23. (You Tube video)

Friday, October 23, 2020

Reggie Oliver's legacy rises to new heights

Oliver's life was celebrated by fans and members of 
the Young Thundering Herd when Marshall hosted North Carolina State
at Edwards Stadium in an early-season game in 2018. 
(Photo courtesy of speaktherights.com)

    Reggie Oliver forged a wonderful legacy as the legendary quarterback who led Marshall University's Thundering Herd in the years following the 1970 plane crash that killed most of the school's varsity football team.

    Oliver finished his college career in 1973 with a hefty share of the school's passing records. In 1984, he was inducted into the Marshall Sports Hall of Fame.

    But now, that legacy has reached new heights.

    Oliver, the school’s first black quarterback, was honored during Marshall's Homecoming celebration during the weekend of October 23. In ceremonies held on Friday of homecoming, the MU icon  had a street named after him. The city-block-length street that used to be known as Huntington Avenue, has a new name now -- Reggie Oliver Square.

    The street runs right next to what used to be Fairfield Stadium, the home field for Marshall football for 63 years. Fairfield was demolished in 2004. Since 1991, MU has played its home games at Edwards Stadium, which is located adjacent to campus.

Oliver looks downfield for a receiver
 in a 1971 game against Bowling Green
which the Herd won in a 12-10 upset.
     The site of the old stadium is now used by the school’s Forensic Science Center and the Edwards School of Medicine.

     Oliver, who served as an assistant coach at Marshall, Bowling Green and Central State (Ohio), passed away  two years ago in Huntsville, Alabama. He died from complications of a head injury suffered in a fall.

      It did not take long for Oliver to become part of MU’s football folklore. In the team’s first home game after the crash, Oliver, a sophomore, orchestrated a game-winning drive for the ages. He connected with Terry Gardner on a 13-yard screen pass on the final play of the game as the Herd beat Xavier (Ohio) 15-13 in a heart-stopping upset on Sept. 25, 1971.

    “Our primary focus is to preserve Reggie’s legacy,” said Paul Jackson, president of the Reggie Oliver Endowment Scholarship Foundation, which has been operational since July. “There’s no question about his contributions to Marshall’s football program and his work (as a consultant) with the movie (“We Are Marshall”).”

 Oliver got a standing ovation for his
keynote speech at the Spring Fountain
ceremony at MU in 2018.

  “On a personal level, I just want to make sure that Reggie gets full acknowledgement of his achievements. In the past, there have been so many black athletes who have come through Marshall who have not gotten the recognition they deserve.”

    At the time of  the Marshall tragedy, Oliver was a freshman. As a result, he was not on the plane because NCAA rules prevented freshmen from playing varsity football and basketball.

    The street unveiling ceremony provided some blissful memories for Oliver's mother Mattie Lou Underwood, who was in attendance along with several representatives of the family. Due to the city's restrictions on public gatherings because of COVID-19, only 25 people were allowed to attend.

     Speakers for the ceremony included Steve Williams, Huntington mayor; Mike Hamrick, Marshall athletics director; Rev. James Hughes (Oliver’s uncle); and Mickey Jackson, a foundation representative who was a Herd assistant coach during Oliver’s playing days at MU.

     The street sign unveiling is just one aspect of the foundation's plans to further enhance Oliver's legacy. A $25,000 scholarship in Oliver’s name will be awarded for the 2020-21 school year to a Marshall football player who is not on a full-ride scholarship.

     One of the short-term goals for the organization is to grow the scholarship fund to $100,000.

    To learn more about the foundation, contact Paul Jackson at jackson_paul55@yahoo.com or call (614) 264-2222.

 -Craig T. Greenlee

Note: Yours truly has a lot of familiarity with Fairfield Stadium from back in the day. During my senior year at Marshall, I lived in an upstairs apartment on Charleston Ave., which was located right across the street from the stadium. I could watch the Herd play from my bedroom window.