On the Mark
Just a month shy of my 10th birthday, a plane crashed near Huntington killing all 75 onboard.
Among those who died were members of Marshall’s football team and most of the coaching staff.
Growing to love football more and more with each passing day, I had become a big fan of the Thundering Herd.
Most of what I knew about Marshall football had come from watching “The Rick Tolley Show.”
Tolley was Marshall’s head coach when the plane crashed. He was only 30 years old.
Those who knew Tolley said he had a presence that made him appear to be much older.
He was mature, tough, and hard-working.
It’s no surprise, considering he grew up in the town of Mullens. Located in Southern West Virginia’s Wyoming County, Mullens has produced a lot of great athletes through the years – including Dan and Mike D’Antoni, a pair of basketball playing and coaching greats.
One year while working at WOAY-TV in Oak Hill, I visited with Tolley’s surviving father to do a story about his son. It was heartbreaking.
Tolley had taken over the Marshall program in 1969 after an NCAA scandal had nearly rocked not only Thundering Herd football but the university.
Many have wondered what might have been had he not passed away on that dreary evening of November 14, 1970.
One of those trying to help Tolley build something special in Huntington was Ravenswood’s very own Allen Skeens. A rock-solid center and linebacker for Fred Taylor’s Ravenswood Red Devils, Skeens was in his second season with the Thundering Herd program.
Listed as a sophomore center, Skeens was a walk-on but one who was certainly beginning to make his mark.
The trip to Greenville, North Carolina that day was his first chance to fly with the team.
Talking with his late father, Don, a few years ago along with his sister, brother, and Taylor, it is easy to see that Allen Gene Skeens was a quality individual.
He died much too young.
The plane crash gave me an entirely different perspective for Thundering Herd football.
The program had to start over. It did so with Jack Lengyel at the helm guiding what was known as the Young Thundering Herd.
Ravenswood would be represented in those early years by the great Joe Fox.
Lengyel was followed by classy Frank Ellwood. Then came the late Sonny Randle, fiery and as colorful as they come.
Stan Parrish was lured away from Wabash College to guide the Herd after Randle. (He had incredible success at Wabash, a team my Marietta College Pioneers played).
Parrish brought Marshall its first winning season in 20 years with the campaign of 1984. His 1985 squad also had a winning record.
Parrish departed for Kansas State and the late George Chaump took over.
By 1987, Chaump had Marshall playing for the 1-AA national championship.
The program was definitely on the move.
Chaump got the opportunity to become Navy’s head coach, which allowed Jim Donnan to get his first stab as a head coach.
Donnan put four of his five Herd teams in the 1-AA national title game, with the ’92 squad winning it all, before moving on to Georgia.
Next came Bob Pruett, who won a national crown right out of the gate in 1996 with a team featuring Randy Moss. The 15-0 season ended Marshall’s days at 1-AA.
The move to Division I has been a success as well with conference titles, bowl victories, and national rankings. Moss and Chad Pennington were invited to New York as Heisman Trophy candidates.
So many great things have happened since 1970.
As Lengyel said, “Blood, sweat, and tears.”
Mark Snyder replaced Pruett and coached five Marshall teams before current head coach Doc Holliday took over.
Now in his 11th season, Holliday has enjoyed an abundance of success. Holliday has now coached Marshall in more football games than any other coach in the school’s history of the program.
I’ve been fortunate to be involved with Marshall’s program as a sportscaster and writer.
I’ve had the chance to get to know all of the coaches from Lengyel to Holliday.
I’ve done play-by-play, color commentary, and sideline reporting going back to 1991. I did several games over the course of time with Randle, who was an absolute hoot to be around. I miss Sonny.
Since 2012, I’ve had the pleasure of writing, producing, and hosting Marshall Football Today with Doc Holliday (along with Marshall Basketball Today with Dan D’Antoni).
It’s the same type of show I watched as a kid when learning what Marshall University and Thundering Herd football was all about.
From the time we begin putting the weekly show together until it airs, I’m truly humbled to be a part of Marshall football.
Hearts will always be heavy as we think of the 75. Not just on November 14, but each and every day that goes by.
The tragedy not only wiped out a football program but left a big dent at the university and the Tri-State community.
The decision to keep football going was a great one.
It has brought loads of healing in the past 50 years.
And the 75 are no doubt smiling from the Heavens above.