HUNTINGTON, W.V. - Even before the 1970 season, Marshall University’s football program had experienced some difficulties.  The team had a poor record in the 1960’s, including a handful of seasons with that yielded no wins.  In 1962, the stadium was condemned for health and safety violations.  In 1969, the Mid-American Conference expelled Marshall from the conference because of recruiting violations.  At the time of the 1970 plane crash that claimed the lives of all 75 passengers – including 37 members of the football team – on board, Marshall was part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) but was on probation due to the same aforementioned allegations of academic impropriety.

The crash profoundly affected both the university and the surrounding community.  After the crash, government offices and local businesses were closed, the university cancelled many school-related activities, and a memorial service was held at the stadium on November 15, one day after the tragedy.  Marshall cancelled the following Monday’s classes and several funeral and memorial services took place over the following weeks.  The bodies of six football players that could not be identified were buried together at Spring Hill Cemetery, which overlooks the Marshall campus.

On March 17, 1971, Jack Lengyel became Marshall University’s new football coach.  Assistant coach Red Dawson, who had made the trip back to West Virginia by car, returned to coach for one year.  With the help of other surviving faculty and staff members, Marshall University began assembling a new football team.

They started the rebuilding effort with players who had not been aboard the flight due to injuries, academic conflicts, and other reasons.  In addition to these players, Lengyel added athletes who played other sports at the school.  The school also requested permission from the NCAA to allow freshmen to play, which the NCAA granted.  Lengyel re-named the team the Young Thundering Herd until the program regained its original four-year class structure.

The Young Thundering Herd lost their first game back against Morehead, but it won its second game – the first home game since the crash – against Xavier University by the score of 15 to 13.

The team won one other game during the 1971 season.

The true turnaround with the Marshall football program came in the mid-1980’s, which saw the Thundering Herd play in the NCAA Division I-AA Playoffs in 1987 and win the Southern Conference football championship in 1988.  In 1992 and 1996, Marshall won the NCAA Division I-AA championship before ultimately moving to the Division I-A ranks in 1997, winning the program’s first-ever bowl game in 1998.

The 1970 tragedy is still a part of life at Marshall and in the city of Huntington.  An annual memorial ceremony takes place at the Memorial Student Center fountain, which was dedicated on November 12, 1972.  Each year following the ceremony, the school turns off the water to the fountain until the spring, memorializing the lives that were lost nearly 43 years ago.

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Wesley Price

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