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 that 80yard touchdown pass from Pennington on Marshall’s first play from scrimmage, but for Marshall fans, it would mark another beginning, one of an era of dominance where the Thundering Herd would win five Mid-American Conference championships in six years. Just twenty-seven years earlier, the Marshall football program 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 members and five coaches of the Marshall football team went down in the hillside outside of Huntington, West Virginia. Decision-makers, including acting president Donald Dedmon, at the university contemplated what to do with the football program and wound up hiring Jack Lengyel, a Division III head coach at Wooster College in Ohio, to rebuild the program. Lengyel and other administrators pushed the NCAA for the waiver that would allow freshman to compete at the varsity level, which was not permitted at the 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 kicker. Lengyel would wind up winning just nine games in four seasons as the futility of the Marshall football program continued. Prior to “The Crash” from 1965 to 1969, the Herd had a winless streak of 0-26-1. After joining the Southern Conference in 1977, Marshall matched that losing 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 twenty years, going 6-5. What transpired in the next twenty years was nothing short of amazing. After Parrish led the Herd to two winning seasons, 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. Twice, Marshall won the NCAA Division I-AA championship, defeating Youngstown State in 1992 and Montana in 1996. The following year, in 1997, Marshall made the jump to Division I and became a member of the Mid-American Conference. Head coach Bob Pruett, a former Marshall player, would lead the Herd to those five conference titles, losing in the MAC championship game only once, to 10-2 Toledo, in 2001. From ‘97 to 2004, Marshall would win 94 games, have five 10-win seasons, and win five bowl games to go along with the MAC championships.
The legacy of Marshall football is owed to those who weathered the storm during the
turbulent era following “The Crash.” If not for the vision of a few brave men, those willing to take a chance on continuing a football program in the wake of a disaster, Marshall football would have never become the NCAA‘s winningest football program in the 1990s. The scars of the accident still remain and a flame of stone still burns atop a monument near Tri-State airport in remembrance of the 75 victims. And the flame of the Thundering Herd football program will continue to burn for years to come.