The Thundering Herd. A team with an evocative name. And Marshall are a tream with an evocative history. And a team on the rise.
On November 14th this year, the fountain in the middle of Marshall’s Huntington, West Virginia campus will fall silent until spring next year. The water will stop flowing. Turned off to commemorate both the end of a short journey and the beginning of a long resurrection/renaissance. Symbolising the promise of spring and a new season, in life, and in football.
Fifty years ago, on November 14th, 1970, tragedy struck. Southern Airways Flight 932, carrying 75 players, coaches, fans and benefactors of the Marshall University football team didn’t quite return. Following a 17-14 loss at East Carolina University, they crashed near Huntington Tri-State Airport, killing all on board. The impact was not unlike the 1958 Munich crash that has forever left its mark on Manchester United. A tragedy no less significant. But on a community far smaller.
Marshall’s gritty tale
It’s hard not to be sucked in by the romanticism of the Marshall Story. As a Brit, and fan of Liverpool FC, I grew up watching both the tragedies of Heysel and Hillsborough. Inspired by how a team and its community of fans rose from the ashes of despair. Their thirty-year quest for a title was realised this year. Yet you look at Marshall. And theirs is a story that could be easily glamourised by Hollywood. But when they turned their attentions to Huntington, ‘We Are Marshall‘ delivered a raw, compelling view on a tragedy that deeply affected both a team and community. Implying that while there was no box-office Hollywood ending, realism and enough green shoots can inspire a recovering spirit and desire to fight.
If any current actor was born to play a coach in college football fighting against the odds, it’s Matthew McConaughey. Often seen leading the cheers along the sidelines of the Texas Longhorns. McConaughey’s line, as coach Jack Lengyel, sums up the Thundering Herd’s mission: “One day, not today, not tomorrow, not this season, probably not next season either but one day, you and I are gonna wake up and suddenly we’re gonna be like every other team in every other sport where winning is everything and nothing else matters. And when that day comes, well that’s, that’s when we’ll honour them”.
Herd on the Rise
Now here we are a few weeks into a season surrounded by a broader realm of tragedy. And Marshall University, somewhat appropriately for a team that plays in green and synonymous with a rich history and tragic story, are the green shoot pushing through the dense soil of the 2020 season so far.
A 59-0 mauling of Eastern Kentucky and 17-7 upset of then-ranked Appalachian State, elevated Marshall to No.25 in the AP Top 25 poll. Albeit briefly.
Marshall have left their mark on College Ball
While they may have yet to win a national championship (they did win an FCS title in 1996), Marshall have certainly left their mark on college football. Marshall lobbied the NCAA to allow freshmen to play for the first time having seen their team decimated by the crash. A ruling that paved the way for a permanent rule change in 1972.
The Thunder Clap, made popular by Iceland fans, has been a feature at Marshall games for years. One of the male cheerleaders presses a female cheerleader above his head once for every point scored during the Thunder Clap.
They have also contributed some interesting alumni. Randy Moss delivered one of the greatest freshman seasons in college football history. Moss was part of a then Division 1-AA national championship winning team. That team also included future New York Jet Chad Pennington. Moss set records for receiving yards (1,709), and touchdown passes (28 – tied with Jerry Rice). He was also the leading kickoff returner that season. Moss went on to have a superb NFL career. Catching passes from, among others, Tom Brady. Who seems to be the football equivalent of the Kevin Bacon “six degrees of separation” game. Moss caught passes from Brady. Who was the sixth quarterback taken after Moss’s Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington in the 1999 draft. And who is now working with former Herd quarterback Byron Leftwitch as his offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay.
And this year?
Marshall, under the marvellously named coach “Doc” Holliday, are threatening the traditional powerhouses in the Top 25 this year. This year there is no CFL season. So Marshall have apparently been adopted by a Canadian radio show as their team to follow. They have been tipped as a preseason contender for the Conference-USA title. Grant Wells, their redshirt freshman quarterback is off to a promising start. Leading Marshall to their first win over a Top 25 ranked opponent (Appalachian State) since 2003. Wells is a 6’1” pro style quarterback. And his ability, coupled with a strong defense gives them a great opportunity to return to the Conference-USA title game.
While their long term standing in the Top 25 remains uncertain, their spirit remains undeterred. The Memorial Fountain, as it’s annually accustomed, will fall quiet from noon on 14th November. Can the team give the fans something to shout about? Something above the respectful silence of the water that once flowed through an entire season?
Western Kentucky is up next on October 11th. It’s a story ready to unfold.
Banner imae from NCAA Fandom