Most know Marshall football’s story by now.
It was one of great tragedy and tremendous triumph. On Nov. 14, 1970, 75 people, consisting of 37 Marshall football players, eight coaches, 25 boosters and five crew members were killed in an airplane that went down in Kentucky.
On this day 50 years ago, Marshall did what it had to as a program and a community. It played a home football game — the first after the deadly crash. When all was said and done, the Thundering Herd emerged with a 15-13 victory over Xavier.
Setting the Stage
Fortunately for Red Dawson, he was not on the plane when it went down. Then the Marshall defensive coordinator, Dawson was on a recruiting trip with a graduate assistant. Following the crash, Dawson was tasked with reviving the program.
Jack Lengyel was lured away from Wooster College and succeeded Rick Tolley, who died in the crash, as head coach. At the time, true freshmen were not allowed to play varsity football, but an exception was made for Marshall.
For the first time in nearly 11 months, the Thundering Herd were set to host a football game on Sept. 25, 1971. Marshall was at home against a Xavier team that finished just 1-9 in 1970. Coming off a 3-6 season, Marshall started a new era on the right foot and in dramatic fashion with a 15-13 victory.
One for the Ages
The decisive score for Marshall came on the game’s final play. The Thundering Herd were on the short end of a 13-9 score as they came to the line of scrimmage with just eight seconds remaining.
With the ball at the 13-yard-line, quarterback Reggie Oliver completed a screen pass to Terry Gardner. Gardner set up his blockers on his way to the end zone as time expired. Xavier’s Leo Burby was the last line of defense for the Musketeers, but Marshall tackle Jack Crabtree was able to execute a cut block as Gardner made his way to the end zone for the winning touchdown as time expired.
The scoring pass capped a 10-play, 48-yard drive as Marshall won a thriller.
It was Oliver who had scored the first touchdown for the Thundering Herd as his keeper with less than 12 minutes to play made it a 9-6 game in favor of Marshall. The Musketeers retook the lead with 4:09 to play as John Gompers returned a punt 48 yards for a score. Marshall led 3-0 at halftime before Xavier’s Ivy Williams scored the game’s first touchdown from a yard out in the third quarter.
The thrilling victory provided closure and a new hope for the Huntington community. As far as football went, the win was not a sign of things to come.
Marshall won just once more during a 2-8 campaign in 1971. Xavier finished just 1-9 in its first season under Dick Selcer.
For the university, program and Huntington community however, the contest was much more than a game. It was a sign of hope. It came on this day a half-century ago.