On Saturday, the 50th anniversary of the plane crash, 16th-ranked Marshall (6-0), will host Middle Tennessee State. The annual ceremony that takes place at the on-campus fountain built to honor the victims of the crash will be invitation-only this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Gospel singer Michael W. Smith, who grew up 10 miles east of Huntington and was 13 when the crash happened, will sing there and then sing the national anthem before kickoff. Lucianne Kautz-Call, a Marshall graduate whose father, Charles Kautz, was on the doomed plane as the school’s athletic director, will be the primary speaker.
“It’s something that is still an important part of this football program, this school and this community,” said Doc Holliday, Marshall’s coach and a West Virginian who grew up 25 miles from the school in the tiny town of Hurricane and remembers the night of the crash vividly. “To this day, there are lots of people around here who not only remember the crash but were affected by it. In a way, it’s still something that drives us to succeed.”
Lengyel can attest to that. He was coaching at Division III Wooster when the crash happened, having just gone 7-2 after taking over a team that had been 0-9 five years earlier. When his friend, then-Georgia Tech assistant coach Dick Bestwick, accepted the Marshall job and then changed his mind two days later, Lengyel wondered whether perhaps he could help.
“Football had already given me so much, as a player and as a coach,” he said. “I knew how awful the situation had to be at Marshall and the pain all those people had to be in.”
Lengyel met with athletic director Joe McMullen and accepted the job March 11, 1971. A news conference was held the next day.
“Not many people showed up,” Lengyel remembered with a laugh. “I think they all thought I would leave after a couple of days, too.”
Lengyel didn’t leave. But he quickly realized the job he had taken went beyond rebuilding a football program. “Remember, there were 75 people on the plane, 37 of them players. There were coaches, administrators, boosters. There were 17 children who lost a parent, eight who lost both. The entire community was devastated — still in shock.
“There were those who thought we shouldn’t play that season, that it was disrespectful to those who died. My thought was there was no better way to honor them than to play — even though we knew how difficult it was going to be to compete.”
Lengyel pieced together a team of freshmen, a handful of sophomores, walk-ons and three veteran players who had been injured and hadn’t made the fateful trip to East Carolina. Lengyel dubbed his team, “The Young Thundering Herd,” and they lost their opener at Morehead State, 29-6. The sentiment going into the home opener against Xavier was that just fielding a team in the wake of the tragedy was a huge victory.
“I don’t think anyone gave that team a chance to win a game,” Holliday said this week. “You can make the case that the win over Xavier might have been the greatest upset ever in college football. There was almost no one on that team who had ever played college football.”
The 2006 movie “We Are Marshall,” in which Matthew McConaughey portrays Lengyel, brought a lot of attention to the crash. Shortly after the movie came out, Lengyel, who is now in the College Football Hall of Fame, made a presentation prior to a game at Texas. McConaughey, a Texas graduate and huge football booster, was on the sideline.
“How’d I do, Jack?” he asked when the two men shook hands.
“Well, Matthew, I never had sideburns that long, and I didn’t dress like Bozo the Clown, and I never had a five o’clock shadow,” Lengyel said he answered before adding, “I thought you did a great job.”
Like any movie 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 broken-hearted cheerleader played by Kate Mara.
“But the most important parts of the story are accurate,” Lengyel said. “What everyone had to go through just to have a team that year. The amazing support we had from the town. I’ve worked a lot of places. I’ve never seen a town that supported the local college the way Huntington did.”
And then there was the Xavier game. Late in the first half, Lengyel sent in his new kicker, Blake Smith, to try a 48-yard field goal. Smith had never been in a football game and didn’t know where to line up. Quarterback Reggie Oliver, the holder, finally told him where to stand. Smith made the kick.
“Coach,” Oliver told Lengyel coming off the field. “I wasn’t sure if he was going to kick me or kick the football.”
With his team leading 3-0 at halftime, Lengyel sensed something special might happen. “Men,” he said. “You are 30 minutes away from one of the great upsets in football history. You just have to give everything — blood, sweat and tears — and you’ll create a memory we’ll all remember forever.”
Lengyel had quoted the “blood, sweat and tears” line from Winston Churchill a day earlier at the memorial obelisk in Spring Hill cemetery that honors those who died in the crash.
With 1:18 left in the game, Marshall took over at its 48, trailing 13-9. The Herd had to convert a fourth and 10 and eventually got to the 18, with time running out. “The movie’s accurate that we got the last snap off with one second left,” Lengyel said. “I was screaming at Reggie, ‘Snap the ball, snap the ball!’ ”
In the movie, the last play takes forever — especially in slow motion, as Oliver runs around looking for someone to come open. “It was actually a simple bootleg pass,” Lengyel said. Freshman “Terry Gardner got open, and Reggie hit him. He walked into the end zone untouched.”
The postgame celebration in the movie was also accurate, though incomplete.
“We stayed at the stadium until after midnight,” Lengyel said. “Then we went to a downtown restaurant — [his wife] Sandy and several of our close friends. When we got there, it was packed. The owner came out and said, ‘Coach, give me one minute to set up a table.’ It took a few minutes. When we walked in, everyone in the restaurant stood and sang the Marshall fight song.”
Lengyel paused. “I choked up then; I’m choking up now.”
The final scenes of the movie are voiced-over by Mara, who explains that Marshall won fewer games than any Division I team in the country in the 1970s as it slowly rebuilt. By the 1990s, it had become a Division I-AA power and, even after moving up to Division I-A (now called Football Bowl Subdivision) in 1997, was the winningest Division I team of the 1990s. In 10-plus seasons under Holliday the Herd is 84-51, and this season it will go to a bowl for the eighth time in 11 years.
At the conclusion of the movie’s narrative, over a shot of Marshall players holding hands, arms aloft, Mara says, “From the ashes, we rose.”
As Saturday will prove again, Marshall carries on.