Twenty-seven years after a plane crash decimated the football program, Marshall culminates a hard-fought comeback Saturday when it opens the season against state rival West Virginia in Morgantown.
Just another game?
"It's the biggest sports event in my time here, and I'm going on 50 years," says Ernie Salvatore, 75-year-old columnist for the Huntington Herald-Dispatch.
Saturday marks Marshall's football debut in Division I-A after
winning the I-AA title last year with a 15-0 record.
Bottom line: Marshall and West Virginia get along about as well as the Hatfields and McCoys. The schools last played in 1923, with West Virginia winning, 81-0. The story, perhaps apocryphal, holds that Mountaineer Coach Clarence Spears was so unconcerned about Marshall he skipped the game to scout his team's next opponent, Penn State.
West Virginia had chosen not to schedule Marshall since.
"It was fundamentally a political and power play," says Salvatore, a 1948 Marshall graduate. "WVU didn't have to play Marshall."
In a state with no major professional sports teams, Saturday's game is West Virginia's Super Bowl. Located in Huntington, on the Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia border, Marshall long has been cast as sad-sack underdog, a program racked by scandal in the late 1960s and devastated in 1970 when all 75 members of the team's football entourage were killed in a plane crash after returning from a 17-14 loss to East Carolina.
West Virginia University, located in the north, is the state's jewel. The Mountaineers long have been a major college power, having appeared in 10 bowl games the last 18 seasons under Coach Don Nehlen.
Just another game?
Marshall fans gobbled up their 7,200 allotted tickets in a matter of hours. On Aug. 16, 14 days before kickoff, this banner headline appeared on the front page of the Herald-Dispatch: "MU-WVU tickets mailed Friday."
In four previous meetings, West Virginia outscored Marshall, 210-21. The Mountaineers' 92-6 victory in 1915 prompted an NCAA rules change. The bet going around Huntington was that Marshall would score at least one touchdown. Sure enough, late in the game, "Runt" Carter ran into the end zone, climbed on the shoulders of teammate "Blondie" Taylor and caught a pass from Bradley Workman, completing a play referred to in lore as "The Tower Pass."
The NCAA outlawed it the next year.
West Virginia has done its best to ignore Marshall since.
The Mountaineers have refused so far to extend the series beyond Saturday's game and have indicated they are not interested in traveling to Huntington to play in Marshall's dinky, 30,000-seat stadium.
The tension in the state is thick as mud, though Salvatore says the pressure is on West Virginia.
"They can't just beat Marshall," he says, "They have to beat them."
Salvatore thinks the Thundering Herd, led by heralded but controversial receiver Randy Moss (more on him later), has a chance to win.
Moss, a la Joe Namath, has guaranteed victory.
A Marshall victory would help tie up some emotional loose ends. The school was kicked out of the Mid-American Conference in 1969 after being cited for 140 NCAA rules violations.
Yet, that crisis became a footnote on the night of Nov. 14, 1970, when the Marshall team plane crashed into the hills outside Huntington's Tri-State Airport.
Salvatore was then sports editor of the Herald-Dispatch and the now-extinct evening Advertiser. When he got the call at the office, he said it wasn't clear the downed plane was the Marshall charter.
Jack Hardin, a news reporter, was dispatched to the scene. He phoned Salvatore from the crash site and asked if the name John Young meant anything to him.
Hardin had found Young's wallet.
"He was a tight end on the team," Salvatore recalls. "After that, all hell broke loose."
The crash numbed the small railroad-town community. Huntington conducts an annual public ceremony on Nov. 14.
"Some people still don't have closure over it," says second-year Marshall Coach Bob Pruett, who played at Marshall in the 1960s and had friends on the plane.
One particular image is etched in Salvatore's memory.
"One day there were 11 funeral entourages," he says. "They were running into each other at the intersection. You can't describe this stuff."
Pruett says Marshall's comeback is the story of a program returning "from the depth of the ashes of a plane crash."
Marshall has even been welcomed back to the MAC, which banished the school almost three decades ago.
Pruett isn't guaranteeing victory against West Virginia.
"One thing I do know," he says. "Moss is going to go deep."
MOSS, THE BACKLASH
Marshall's star receiver held a damage-control news conference in Huntington last week to address recent comments he made in the Los Angeles Times and Sports Illustrated.
In the SI story, Moss was quoted as saying of the 1970 plane crash: "It was a great tragedy, but it really wasn't nothing big."