Minium: Marshall has one of the best football programs, yet most tragic histories, in Conference USA
By ODU Athletics
By Harry Minium
Every time Marshall’s football team plays Old Dominion University, I am reminded of the time nearly 48 years ago when I trekked to Huntington, W.Va.
Two months earlier, on Nov. 14, 1970, a plane carrying the Marshall football team, coaches, administrators and alumni crashed into a mountainside as it approached the Huntington airport. All 75 people returning from a game at East Carolina were killed.
I was a 17-year-old linebacker at Norview High School in Norfolk, Va. My dad penned a letter to then-Marshall recruiting coordinator Gail Parker suggesting that the Herd consider recruiting me and others from Norview. He did it unbeknownst to me, and even though I never played for the Herd, I'm so glad he did.
Parker, a native of the South Norfolk and an ODU graduate, called my coach at Norview, Bob Tata, and said he’d be glad to host as many of us as wanted to come. So I got into a car with several of my teammates and drove to Huntington.
Memorial to those killed in the 1970 plane crash at Marshall University.
We took game film, which coaches watched while we were escorted around campus, ate in student dining and were introduced at halftime of a basketball game along with 40 or so other recruits. I was struck when the crowd loudly cheered some hotshot quarterback. These fans know their football, I realized.
Marshall didn’t offer any of us scholarships. We were too small, and other than cornerback Otis Purvis, who went on to become a national rugby star, we weren’t quite good enough.
But I’ve never forgotten the makeshift memorials nor the sadness and utter devastation I saw in eyes of so many people of this close-knit town.
Although the plane crash happened nearly five decades ago, this remains the most haunting sports tragedy of modern times.
The movie “We Are Marshall” tells the story of the program’s first season after the crash. How can you go wrong with a football movie starring Matthew McConaughey and a storybook ending? By all accounts, the movie hit pretty close to the truth. I've watched it at least a dozen times. And I cry every time.
"We Are Marshall" chronicles the trials of coach Jack Lengyel, who was tasked with re-starting the program almost from scratch. Lengyel wasn’t hired until March 1971, so I never met him.
Marshall coach Doc Holliday told me a few years ago that every Marshall recruiting class watches the movie as a group. When the lights come back on, there’s hardly a dry eye in the room.
During summer conditioning drills, the entire football team runs about a mile from the football complex to Spring Hill Cemetery, where seven members of the football team who died in the crash are buried. Officials were unable to identify their remains. Having lost a daughter years ago, I know how devastating that must still be to the parents of those kids.
Keith Morehouse, sports director of WSAZ-TV in Huntington, speaks to the team at Spring Hill about his father, Gene Morehouse, who was killed in the plane crash. Gene was the longtime radio voice of the Herd.
Parker asked me to walk-on without a scholarship, something my family could not afford without taking out loans. I often wonder what path my life would have taken had accepted the offer.
I remember asking Parker how people were coping with the loss of so many close friends. He started to answer, but his voice trailed off and we sat for a few seconds in embarrassed silence.
Years later, I learned that Parker flew with the team to ECU but took a rental car from Greenville to make a recruiting visit to a junior college. The recruiting trip saved his life but left him with a lifetime of guilt.
Shortly before his death in 2009, he acknowledged in an interview he never was able to overcome the grief of surviving when so many others died.
I went to Huntington three years ago to cover an ODU game and visited the Marshall memorial on campus. It’s the scene of an annual service that draws thousands. I don't know anyone who died in the plane crash, but I cried as I stood next to the fountain.
Huntington is a hard-scrabble, blue-collar town where Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia come together. The city’s major industries revolve around coal, oil and the city’s port facility on the Ohio River.
The city is fiercely loyal to Marshall, which is one of Conference USA’s best football programs. It has one of the league’s best stadiums, an indoor workout facility and a loyal fan base that has supported the Herd in good times and bad.
That's in spite of the fact that Marshall did not have a winning season until 14 years after plane crash. Seven years later, Marshall won its first I-AA (now FCS) national championship.
Holliday has taken the Herd to bowls in five of the past seven seasons, and Marshall won all five.
The fans at Marshall chant “We Are Marshall,” at every home game, as perhaps 1,000 or so did earlier this year when the Herd defeated ODU in Norfolk.
"I was at Florida, I was at N.C. State and I was at West Virginia," Holliday said. "Those are all great places, but I've never been to a place where their football team means more to the fan base than it does at Marshall.
"Until you coach here, you don't appreciate the number of people it affected. No one else has that kind of tragedy in their history. There's not a school in America where football is more important."
I work for ODU now, where I write opinion pieces and feature stories for the athletics department. But I will always have a place in my heart for the wonderful people in Huntington who endured, and continue to endure, so much pain.
Contact Minium: firstname.lastname@example.org