Marshall University, Friday night’s Boise State football opponent, is most famous for one thing: a plane crash that happened in 1970. You know about it if you saw the 2006 movie “We Are Marshall” or the documentary “Marshall University: Ashes to Glory” from 2000. The Marshall Thundering Herd football team was returning from a 17-14 loss to East Carolina the evening of November 14, 1970 when their chartered plane, a Southern Airways McDonnell Douglas DC-9, clipped the top of some trees just west of the runway of the Tri-State Airport and nose-dived into a small valley with a dry stream bed, or what people in Appalachia would call a “hollow”. Seventy-five people were aboard. Nobody survived.
Of the 75 who died, there were 37 Marshall football players, head coach Rick Tolley, four assistant coaches, two trainers, athletic director Charles Kautz, sports information director and radio announcer Gene Morehouse, the pilot, the co-pilot, three other Southern Airways crew members and 24 team boosters. Two assistant coaches and 18 players didn’t make the trip, including 15 members of the freshman team. In 1970, freshmen were prohibited from playing NCAA varsity football and basketball. The freshman ineligibility rule had been abolished for all other sports in 1968 and was abolished for football and basketball in 1972.
Both “We are Marshall” and “Marshall University: Ashes to Glory” deal with the aftermath of the accident. Donald Dedmon, the president of the university, initially wants to drop the football program indefinitely, but he is persuaded to reconsider by Marshall students, the players who didn’t make the flight and residents of Huntington, West Virginia, the location of the university. New head coach Jack Lengyel fields a team for the 1971 season consisting of surviving players who didn’t transfer to other schools, walk-on athletes from other Marshall sports and new freshman recruits after Dedmon convinces the NCAA to waive the freshman rule just for Marshall. They lose their opening game on the road at Morehead State, but defeat Xavier 15-13 in their home opener in Huntington. The team finishes the season with two wins and eight losses (also defeating Bowling Green State in their homecoming game) and only 57 points scored all season, but Marshall football continues without missing a year.
Today, in the plaza at the center of the Marshall University campus, there’s a fountain dedicated to the 75 who died in the plane crash. The water in the fountain flows each year from the first day of spring football practice until November 14th.