On Saturday, the 50th anniversary of the plane crash, the sixteenth marshall, currently 6-0, will host the state of East Tennessee. The annual ceremony, which takes place at the fountain on campus built in honor of the victims of the crash, will be by invitation only this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Gospel singer Michael W. Smith, who grew up 10 miles east of Huntington and was 13 years old when the crash occurred, will sing there and then sing the national anthem before kick-off. Lucianne Kautz-Call, a Marshall graduate whose father Charles Kautz went down as the school’s sports director, will be the keynote speaker.
“It’s something that is still an important part of this football program, this school, and this community,” said Doc Holliday, Marshall’s current coach and West Virginian who grew up and attends to himself in the tiny town of Hurricane 25 miles from school the night vividly reminds of the crash. “To this day there are many people here who not only remember the crash, but were also affected by it. In a way, it’s still something that drives us to succeed. “
Lengyel can confirm that. He trained with Div. III Wooster, when the crash happened after having just gone 7-2 after taking over a team that was 9-0 five years ago. When his friend, then Georgia Tech assistant coach Dick Bestwick, accepted the Marshall job and changed his mind two days later, Lengyel wondered if he might be able to help.
“Football has given me so much as a player and as a coach,” he said. “I knew how terrible the situation must be in Marshall and the pain all these people must be in.”
Lengyel met with Sporting Director Joe McMullen and accepted the job on March 11, 1971. A press conference was held the next day.
“Not many people showed up,” Lengyel recalled with a laugh. “I think they all thought I’d leave after a few days too.”
Lengyel didn’t go. But he quickly realized that his job was beyond rebuilding a football program. “Remember, there were 75 people on the plane, 37 of them gamers. There were trainers, administrators, boosters. There were 17 children who lost a parent; eight that both lost. The entire community was devastated – still in shock.
“There were people who thought we shouldn’t play this season, that it was disrespectful to those who died. In my opinion, there was no better way to honor them than to play – even though we knew how difficult it would be to compete. “
Lengyel had put together a team made up of newbies, a handful of sophomores, walk-ons, and three seasoned players who had been injured and hadn’t made the fateful trip to East Carolina. Lengyel had named his team “The Young Thundering Herd” and they lost their opener at Morehead State, 29-6. The feeling at the home game against Xavier was that it was a great win to have just one team after the tragedy.
“I don’t think anyone gave this team a chance to win a game,” Holliday said earlier this week. “It can be said that beating Xavier could have been the biggest surprise in college football. There was almost no one on that team who had ever played college football. “
The 2006 film We Are Marshall, in which Matthew McConaughey portrayed Lengyel, drew a lot of attention to the crash. Shortly after the film came out, Lengyel, now in the College Football Hall of Fame, gave a presentation to a game in Texas. McConaughey, a Texas graduate and a huge soccer promoter, was on the sidelines.
“How did I do it, Jack?” he asked as the two men shook hands.
“Well, Matthew, I’ve never had sideburns this long and I didn’t dress like Bozo the Clown and I never had a five o’clock shadow,” Lengyel replied before adding, “I thought you had a great one Job done. ”
As in any film based on a true story, parts of We Are Marshall are fictionalized. The grieving father, played by Ian McShane, is a composite, as is the heartbroken cheerleader played by Kate Mara.
“But the most important parts of the story are accurate,” Lengyel said. “What everyone had to go through to have a team this year. The incredible support we got from the city. I’ve worked many places. I’ve never seen a city that supported the local college like Huntington’s. “
And then there was the Xavier game. Late in the first half, Lengyel sent his new kicker Blake Smith to attempt a 48-yard field goal. Smith had never been to a soccer game and didn’t know where to line up. Quarterback Reggie Oliver, the proprietor, finally told him where to stand. Smith did the kick.
“Coach,” said Oliver to Lengyel, who came from the field. “I wasn’t sure if he was going to kick me or kick the football.”
Lengyel led 3-0 at halftime and sensed that something special could happen. “Men,” he said. “You are 30 minutes away from one of the big surprises in football history. You just have to give it your all – blood, sweat, and tears – and you will create a memory that we will all remember forever. “
The day before, Lengyel had quoted the line “Blood, Sweat and Tears” by Winston Churchill on the memorial obelisk in Spring Hill Cemetery, honoring those who died in the crash.
With 1:18 in the game, Marshall took on his own 48, followed by 13-9. The herd had to convert a fourth and a tenth, eventually reaching 18, with time running out. “The film is precisely that we have the last snapshot with a second left,” said Lengyel. “I yelled at Reggie, ‘Snap the ball, snap the ball! ‘
In the movie, the last piece takes forever – especially in slow motion while Oliver walks around looking for someone to open. “It was actually a simple bootleg pass,” Lengyel said. Freshman “Terry Gardner was opened and Reggie hit him. He went into the end zone untouched. “
The post-game celebration in the film was also correct, if incomplete.
“We stayed in the stadium until after midnight,” said Lengyel. “Then we went to a restaurant in the city center – [his wife] Sandy and some of our close friends. When we got there it was full. The owner came out and said, “Coach, give me a minute to set a table.” It took a few minutes. When we entered, everyone was standing in the restaurant singing the Marshall battle song. “
Lengyel paused. “Then I choked; I’m choking now. “
The final scenes of the train are voiced by Kate Mara, who explains that Marshall has won fewer games than any div. I worked in the country back in the 1970s when it was slowly being rebuilt. By the 1990s it had become a div. I-AA Power and also after advancing to Div. IA (now called the Football Bowl Subdivision) was the most successful Div in 1997. I team the 90s. In more than 10 seasons under Holliday, the herd is 84-51 and will go into a bowl for the eighth time in 11 years this season.
At the end of the film’s narration, Mara says of a shot of Marshall players holding hands and arms: “We rose from the ashes.”
As Saturday will prove once again, Marshall continues.