clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Crash and Its Meaning in Marshall Football History

New, 3 comments

Marshall is in the midst of a 10-game win streak and a top 25 ranking in the AP and Coaches' Polls with an upcoming match against the last team to defeat the Thundering Herd. However, revenge takes a backseat to the greater meaning of this weekend in Huntington.

Marshall Memorial Fountain
Marshall Memorial Fountain
Marshall University

It was a cold, rainy night.

None of this was stopping business as normal at Tri-State Airport, as two flights were due in at any minute, one from Eastern Airways and one from Southern. Shortly after 7:30 that night, the Southern Airways DC-9 checked in from the outer marker of the airport at the altitude of 1240 feet.

A few moments later, on a hillside in Wayne County, West Virginia, the Marshall University football program was changed forever.

After losing their game to East Carolina 17-14 earlier that day on a controversial intentional grounding call, Marshall was looking to get home and return to the field to prepare for their upcoming rivalry game with Ohio. The loss dropped Marshall to 3-6, securing their 6th consecutive non-winning season. Coach Rick Tolley had been brought in to help a Marshall program who had been recently kicked out of the Mid-American Conference after the NCAA found Marshall and their previous coach Perry Moss guilty of recruiting violations. Tolley had Marshall as a competitive team, just with not enough bodies to finish games. Such was the case on November 14, 1970, but before Tolley could continue building the program, the plan was flipped upside down.

On the hillside in Wayne County, chaos took over as the Huntington and Ceredo-Kenova fire departments and the rest of the town tried to figure out which plane it was, the Eastern flight or the Southern flight. Herald-Dispatch reporter Jack Hardin called into the paper's office, where he spoke to sports reporter Ernie Salvatore. Hardin had found the wallet of John Young, a Marshall tight end.

It was clear which plane it was, and news began to spread throughout the university. There were a variety of emotions on the Marshall campus: some students went to the Christian Student Center and prayed, some waited for their classmates to come walking in, and some just sat and cried. In all, 37 players, 8 coaches, 25 fans, and 5 crew members had perished on the mountainside.

After the crash, the process of healing had to begin. The National Transportation Safety Board began investigating how the crash occurred. More and more pieces were pieced together and different theories were eliminated. By the time the report was released, everything short of pilot error had been eliminated, though no official reason was given. As the NTSB looked into why this happened, the remains of those on board had to be identified, which was done in a hangar at Tri-State Airport.

Players, classmates, and family members were brought in to identify a ring, a necklace, anything that might distinguish a body. In the end, only 6 bodies were unidentified, all of them players. These six players were buried together at Spring Hill Cemetery overlooking the campus of Marshall. Beyond the memorial at Spring Hill Cemetery, the student union on campus was renamed the Memorial Student Center. A fountain with 75 points pointed towards the sky was put in right behind the student center. The week of the 30th anniversary of the crash, a new statue was placed outside Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

Marshall Crash Site

In early 1971, Marshall was faced with the decision on whether or not to continue the football program. Marshall went out and first hired Joe McMullen from Penn State as their athletic director. McMullen first hired Dick Bestwick, an assistant from Georgia Tech. However, after only one week, Bestwick left Huntington and Marshall had to find another new coach. Jack Lengyel from the College of Wooster took the job after Bestwick and began to recruit his team. The 1971 team won 2 games, their first home game over Xavier and a homecoming victory over Bowling Green.

Over the next 12 years, Marshall would go through 3 coaches with usually the same results. During the stretch between 1971 and 1983, the Herd's best season record was 5-6 (after a forfeit victory over Morehead State). On the other end, Marshall finished 1-10 for one season under each of their 3 coaches. After the 1983 season, Marshall hired Stan Parrish from Purdue, who led Marshall to their first winning season in over 20 years. After Parrish left for the Kansas State job, Marshall would continue their rise, which would see Marshall make 8 I-AA playoff appearances, a move to I-A (FBS), and 5 MAC championships in 6 years. Now, after some lean years after their move to Conference USA, Marshall is on the verge of their second consecutive C-USA East Division crown and a potential major bowl game.

Last year, for the first time in 43 years, Marshall played an away game on the anniversary of the plane crash (only the fifth game ever played on the anniversary). Marshall wore a ‘75' decal on the left side of their helmet. Marshall won the game over Tulsa by a score of 45-34 and the Herd team decided to wear the decals for the remainder of the season, playing to honor the memory of the 1970 team. Marshall finished 4-1 in their games wearing the ‘75' decal. Doc Holliday, who was a junior high football player in nearby Hurricane, WV the night of the crash, makes sure his team understands the impact of the crash.

Every year, at the opening of fall practice, Holliday leads his team on the mile and a half run up 20th St to the Memorial at Spring Hill Cemetery. Even players from outside the area with no connections to school before arriving, understands the meaning of the crash from an early time in Huntington. Before Holliday, Marshall's two previous coaches were both Herd football players in their own day. Bob Pruett and Mark Snyder also made sure their team knew the meaning of the program. Doug Chapman, a running back from 1996-99, said that playing football at Marshall was about never forgetting, and that November 14th serves as a reminder as to why Marshall alum, especially football players, have such a unique bond.

Photo from 1170 KFAQ - Tulsa

On the 14th, Marshall's football team will turn off the memorial fountain again in remembrance of the 1970 team, and the fountain will remain off until spring practice begins. Marshall will play the next day against the last team on their schedule who defeated them last year. If Marshall hopes to host the C-USA title game and reach their ultimate goal of a C-USA championship, they have to get past Rice in Huntington.

For Marshall fans, the crash is always on their minds as they walk into the stadium for a Herd game. The crash brought the fan base together and created a kinship that ties alumni together tighter than any other alumni base, whether they graduated in 1971 or 2014. There are very few Marshall students, alumni or fans who have not found some connection to those involved in the crash, whether that be truly examining the pictures and stories of those who were on the fateful flight, or simply walking down the same hallways on campus those players walked down the day before the crash.

I was born 20 years after the crash happened, but through my parents, I learned the story as a young fan. My uncle graduated from Marshall just before the crash happened. My mother attended Marshall with some of the children orphaned by the crash. My brother attended Marshall with the children of students who sat on campus, wondering what happened and why Marshall on that November night. The voice of athletics in my youth was Keith Morehouse, whose father Gene was the Herd's SID and radio announcer in 1970 and who perished on the plane crash. Despite all these connections, it was hard for me to grasp what Marshall had gone through. For much of my youth, I had watched Marshall play in five I-AA national championships in 6 years, winning two, then seamlessly transition to the next level and win five MAC titles in 6 years. For me at a young age, the fountain was merely a way to remember those who had perished. It was not until this year that the crash truly became "real" to me.

Earlier this year, I visited both the crash site and the monument at Spring Hill Cemetery for the first time. It was a gray, dreary day, really the way it should have been. In the cemetery, small rocks weigh down faded ticket stubs from Thundering Herd football games placed on the base of the monument overlooking campus from high above Huntington. 12 miles to the west, a small deck, painted green, with a state historical marker and a flag pole are all that marks the site. Evergreens continue to be the only growth in a large clearing on the side of an old logging road in rural Wayne County. On the deck, the motto of all Herd fans is painted big black letters on a simple white sign, "Never Forget - 75".

As I looked at the photo in the student union named in memory of these players, it hit me that these guys who would have in their early to mid-60's, had died before they were 22. Even at 24, there are some things that I got to experience they never got to do. These young men never got to walk across the stage and receive their college diploma. They never got to be proud alumni walking back into their alma mater's stadium. They never got to see the groundwork that they laid come to fruition in the Marshall teams of my youth. However, there is an almost comfort in Huntington that the stadium always had 75 more people there, all of which had better seats than the rest of us.

On a cold, rainy night in November 1970, Thundering Herd football, and Huntington, West Virginia as a whole, was forever changed. Since then, Marshall has played for more than just the men on the field and the fans in the stands. At Marshall, football arguably means more than anywhere else in the country. Every fall Saturday is a remembrance of where Marshall has been, and where they have come in the time since the crash.

In Memory of:

Coaches: Rick Tolley, Al Carelli Jr., Jim "Shorty" Moss, Deke Brackett, Frank Loria

Athletics/Football Staff: Charles Kautz (AD), Gene Morehouse (SID/Announcer),  Jim Schroer (Trainer), Donald Tackett (Asst. Trainer), Gary George (Student Assistant Statistician)

Players: Jim Adams, Mark Andrews, Michael Blevins, Dennis Blevins, Willie Bluford, Larry Brown, Thomas Brown, Roger Childers, Stuart Cottrell, Rick Dardinger, David DeBord, Kevin Gilmore, David Griffith, Arthur "Art" Harris, Robert "Bob" Harris, Bobby Hill, Joe Hood, Tom Howard, Marcelo Latjerman, Richard "Rick" Lech, Barry Nash, Pat Norrell, Bob Patterson, Scotty Reese, Jack Repasy, Larry Sanders, Al Saylor, Art Shannon, Ted Shoebridge, Allen Skeens, Jerry Stainback, Robert Van Horn, Roger Vanover, Fred Wilson, John Young, Tom Zborill

Fans: Charles and Rachel Arnold, Donald Booth, Joseph and Margaret Chambers, Ray and Shirley Ann Hagley, Arthur L. Harris, Emmett "Happy" and Elaine Heath, James and Cynthia Jarrell, Kenneth Jones, Jeff Nathan, Brian O'Connor, Michael Prestera, Glenn and Phyllis Preston, Herbert and Josephine Proctor, Murrill and Helen Ralsten, Parker Ward, Norman Weichmann

Flight Crew: Captain Frank Abbott, First Officer Jerry Smith, Stewardesses Charlene Poat and Patricia Vaught, Charter Coordinator Danny Deese