On November 14, 1970, a chartered jet carrying most of the Marshall University football team clips a stand of trees and crashes into a hillside just two miles from the Tri-State Airport in Kenova, West Virginia. The team was returning from that day’s game, a 17-14 loss to East Carolina University. Thirty-seven Marshall football players were aboard the plane, along with the team’s coach, its doctors, the university athletic director and 25 team boosters–some of Huntington, West Virginia’s most prominent citizens–who had traveled to North Carolina to cheer on the Thundering Herd. “The whole fabric,” a citizen of Huntington wrote later, “the whole heart of the town was aboard.”
The crash was just the most tragic in a string of unfortunate events that had befallen the Marshall football team since about 1960. The university stadium, which hadn’t been renovated since before World War II, was condemned in 1962. From the last game of the 1966 season to midway through the 1969 season, the team hadn’t won any games. Making matters worse, the NCAA had suspended Marshall for more than 100 recruiting violations. (The Mid-American Conference had expelled the team for the same reason.) But Marshall seemed to be getting back on track: It had fired the dishonest coaches, built a new Astroturf field and started winning games again. The Thundering Herd had lost a squeaker to East Carolina on the 14th, and was looking forward to a promising season the next year.
For Huntington, the plane crash was “like the Kennedy assassination,” one citizen remembers. “Everybody knows where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.” The town immediately went into mourning. Shops and government offices closed; businesses on the town’s main street draped their windows in black bunting. The university held a memorial service in the stadium the next day and cancelled Monday’s classes. There were so many funerals that they had to be spread out over several weeks. In perhaps the saddest ceremony of all, six players whose remains couldn’t be identified were buried together in Spring Hill Cemetery, on a hill overlooking their university.
Marshall got a new football coach–Jack Lengyel, from the College of Wooster in Ohio–and set about rebuilding the team. The NCAA gave the Thundering Herd special permission to let freshmen play on the varsity squad, and Lengyel cobbled together a ragtag group of first-years, walk-ons and the nine veteran players who hadn’t been on the plane that night. The team lost its first game of the 1971 season but–with a last-second touchdown that seemed almost too good to be true–defeated Ohio’s Xavier University 15-13 in its first home game since the crash. The Herd won one other game that season, and nine in Lengyel’s four-year tenure at Marshall, but none was as emotional as the first.