If you have read my blogs, you probably have figured that I’m a history buff. And so on this day Sunday, November 14, 2010 it is worthy to note the 40th anniversary of the worst air plane crash ever involving an American sports team. On Nov. 14, 1970, the Thundering Herd of Marshall University, located in Huntington, W.V., had just lost a 17-14 football game to East Carolina. (infoplease.com, 11/00). Rather than bus the 340 miles from Greenville, North Carolina to Huntington, WV, the team opted to fly back to West Virginia.
The Thundering Herd boarded their chartered Southern Airways DC-9 for their 60-minute flight back to the Tri-State Airport in Huntington, WV. There were thirty-seven players, eight coaches, five crew members and 25 other supporters (fans or administrative personnel) that boarded the team’s chartered plane bound for Huntington. The weather conditions were rough that night. It was windy, rainy and foggy, and later reports confirmed that none of the crew had ever flown into that airport before.(infoplease.com, 11/00)
At approximately 7:40 p.m. est. as the plane approached Tristate Airport, the it struck the treetops of the Appalachian hillside just west of Highway 75, flipped over and burst into flames. All 75 passengers were killed. The entire program was wiped out. (infoplease.com, 11/00)
The impact of the crash on Huntington, West Virginia went far beyond the Marshall University Campus. The entire town of Huntington felt the pain of Marshall’s loss. Because it was the Herd’s only chartered flight of the season, many boosters and prominent citizens were on the plane, including a city councilman, a state legislator, and four physicians. Seventy children lost at least one parent in the crash, with 18 of them left orphaned. (Wikipedia, 10/4/10)
The crash of Flight 932 almost led to the discontinuation of the university’s football program. The program was previously sanctioned by the NCAA for improper recruiting practices, and they were thrown out of the Mid-American Conference as a result (they returned in the 1990s, voluntarily leaving after the 2004-05 academic year). Head coach Rick Tolley was among the crash victims. Jack Lengyel was named to take Tolley’s place on March 12, 1971. Dick Bestwick was the first choice for the job,but backed out just after one week and returned to Georgia Tech. Lengyel, who came from a coaching job at The College of Wooster, was hired by recently-hired athletic director Joe McMullen. Lengyel played for McMullen at the University of Akron in the 1950s. (Wikipedia, 10/4/10)
Jack Lengyel, students and Thundering Herd football fans convinced acting Marshall President Dr. Donald N. Dedmon to reconsider and reinstate the football program. In the weeks afterward Lengyel, aided by receivers coach Red Dawson, a coach from the old staff who had driven back from the East Carolina game due to recruiting duties, began rebuilding the program. They brought together a group of players who were on the junior varsity team during the 1970 season, and other students and athletes from other sports. Many of these players had never attempted to play football before, and the team only won two games during the 1971 season. Those wins came against Xavier and Bowling Green. Jack Lengyel led the Thundering Herd to a 9–33 record during his tenure, which ended after the 1974 season. (Wikipedia, 10/4/10)
It took Marshall a few years to rebound from that tragic 1970 season. They however did. The Thundering Herd won the Mid-American Conference East Division Championship in the 1988, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2002 seasons. They won national titles in 1992 and 1996. They produced star quarterbacks like Chad Pennington, and Bryan Leftwich. (Nationalchamps.net)
Personally, I remember the air plane crash. I was a ten year old fifth grader at the time. I have always wondered that with all the several thousand air flights that both profession and college teams take each year, it’s a wonder that this sort of tragedy hasn’t happened more often. And of course we hope it never does again. I never really had a full appreciation for what Marshall accomplished by rebuilding their football program. It took the movie We Are Marshall for me to get a grip on how miraculous their feat was. God bless all those living and deceased who made that program a success. And God bless the fine people who perished on the rainy that Saturday evening in November of 1970.
Wikipedia, infoplease.com, and Nationalchamps.net provided me with 90% of the information I needed to write this blog
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