1996 National Champs Coming Back To MU

Many of you will heading out to Saturday's Green-White Game. Most Herd fans are trying to differentiate this year's emerging standouts from the more established veterans already on the roster. In addition to the Green-White Game, which caps the first set of spring drills under second-year head coach Mark Snyder today the Warner Brothers film crews from the "We Are Marshall" movie will be roaming around for shots of the crowd action of Herd fans.

But in addition to the movie's cast and crew and this year's Herd, there will also be another group of Herd heroes back on campus this weekend. The 1996 Thundering Herd I-AA national championship team is holding a reunion, with John Wade here, along with two honorary coaches for the game, Randy Moss and Chad Pennington rubbing shoulders with this season's edition of the Marshall squad. If you see one of the members of the 1996 squad tailgating at the M-Club Plaza on the West Lot or making "The Walk" from the Henderson Center with the current Herd, shake his hand. Buy him a hotdog, or better yet, invite him over to your tailgate for a cold one, if is he is so inclined. Take the time to make a connection with a member of one of the most obscenely talented and unique squads in Marshall history. If you joined the Herd Nation after the move to I-A and the Mid-American Conference in 1997, you really missed something special in the Herd's farewell tour in I-AA.

"It was Randy (visiting with Wade in the off-season for the Oakland Raiders receiver and Tampa Bay Buccaneers center) who told John he hadn't won a title since he left MU," said Byran Reed on the Insider Statewide show on last Friday. Reed has been the local coordinator for the reunion. "With the 10-year anniversary this year, they wanted everyone to come back for a really special event and the Green-White Game was perfect for the NFL guys." Reed wanted to make sure this was serious, but the longer he talked with Moss and Wade, the more he was convinced. "This is something I want to do," said Moss, who just announced plans to also endow a scholarship with the Big Green in the name of the 1996 team. "90 percent of the players, coaches and other members of that team will be returning," said Reed. There will be private events for the participants and their families on Thursday and Friday, but Saturday they will tailgate among the Herd Faithful.

MU head coach Mark Snyder, who has been reaching out to former members of the Marshall football family since his arrival one year ago, has invited Pennington and Moss to serve as coaches on the sidelines for the Green-White Game. "We may close practice to the public or media from time-to-time," said Snyder in one of his early August practices last year, "but former members of Marshall football are not always welcome, but were encourage them to come back." Troy Brown spoke to the team, as have former coaches Red Dawson and Jack Lengyel, while Snyder's teammate, and member of the College Football Hall of Fame, Mike Barber served as an honorary coach in one of last season's games. Snyder even helped to move the Mike Bartrum and Troy Brown camp to the Joan C. Edwards Stadium for 2006.

The 1996 team was loaded for bear the final season in I-AA and the Southern Conference. Marshall had won the title in 1992 and finished as national runners-up in 1987-91-93-95. Former head coach Jim Donnan had been stockpiling talent for Marshall's impending move to I-A, but his departure for the University of Georgia made it a blue Christmas for Marshall fans on December 25th of 1995 -- just days after a two-point loss in the I-AA title game to Montana in Huntington. But former Herd receiver and Florida defensive coordinator Bobby Pruett returned home to his alma mater with a plan to keep the good times rolling and added to Donnan's already impressive pool of players.

Pruett had a staff that included future head coaches like Tim Billings (at SE Missouri State, now at Wake Forest as an assistant), Kevin Kelly (Georgetown Hoyas) and Ernie Purnsley (E.A. Laney H.S.). There were also future coaches at BCS schools like Gunter Brewer (North Carolina), Tony Petersen (Minnesota), David Johnson (Georgia) and Tim Nunez (Texas). Others included current Director of Football Operations at MU, Mark Gale; current offensive coordinator for the Herd, Larry Kueck, who also worked at SMU and Southern Miss before returning to MU; and the defensive coordinator at Southern Miss, Jay Hopson. Even equipment manager Matt Lewis has gone on from Marshall to work at Wake Forest, Iowa State and now TCU.

For the 1995 season, Chad Pennington had gone from probable red-shirt to throwing for nearly 2,500 yards and 15 touchdowns, leading the Herd within a whisker of winning a I-AA title. In 1996, however, Eric Kresser transfered from Florida to Marshall for his senior year and that allowed Pennington the chance to red-shirt as a sophomore. Pennington spent the season learning the ins-and-outs of the Steve Spurrier-influnced passing attack Pruett brought along from Gainesville, while Kresser let it fly in the system he was already comfortable in. The decision to red-shirt Pennington in 1996 was a masterstroke for Pruett, who recognized the potential in Kresser, who was buried behind Danny Wuerffel at Florida. Wuerffel won the Heisman and a I-A national title in 1996, while Kresser quarterbacked Marshall's unbeaten I-AA champs in the same season, throwing for 3,407 yards, 35 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions while completing 60 percent of his passes. Mark Zban backed him up with 35-of-55 passing for another 480 yards and six more touchdowns. Pennington would lead the Herd to unimaginable successes in I-A when he returned to the field in 1997, 1998 and the 10th-ranked, 13-0 1999 Herd. Pennington would lead MU to three Mid-American Conference titles, take the Herd to three straight Motor City Bowls (winning two) and 35 wins, against only four losses, in those three years.

With proper respect to the halcyon days of the Penguins of Youngstown State (four titles), EKU (two titles) and Georgia Southern (four titles), a strong case can be built that the 1996 Marshall squad was the best I-AA team…ever! No fewer than 15 players on that squad eventually were in pro football and the strength of the 1996 team was borne out in 1997, when many of the key members of the I-AA champs from the previous season were still around to help the Herd win the MAC in its first year at I-A. That kind of validation isn't available now – teams transitioning to I-A are required to go through a two-year period in which they are ineligible for the I-AA playoffs. The accomplishments of the 1996 squad look like fantasy football numbers now.

Let's start with Randy Moss, who came to MU from Florida State, where he had red-shirted. It's safe to say he didn't have trouble adjusting to the college game. Moss was truly dominant – a man among boys in I-AA, I-A and the NFL for that matter -- catching 78 passes for 1,709 yards and an amazing 28 touchdowns. Senior Tim Martin, however, added 74 more receptions for 868 yards and five scores while Mark Wicks had 18 for 310. Every one of the Herd top seven receivers averaged double-digit yards per catch and scored a combined 39 touchdowns.

Want a running game? How about out-rushing the opponents 3,395 to 1,843, and the 1996 Herd had not one, but two, 1,000-yard rushers in senior Erik Thomas (1,296) and freshman Doug Chapman (1,238). They were backed up by future running star Llow Turner and crowd-favorite Jason Balwanz, who combined for another 834 yards. With Wade anchoring the offensive line, along with the Herd's fourth Jacobs Blocking Award winner in five years in Aaron Ferguson, not to mention Reed, Jaime Wilson, Jason Starkey, Mike Guilliams and Mike Webb, as well as tight ends John White and Jason Wellman, the Herd allowed just 19 total sacks in 15 games.

Special teams, anyone? Chris Hanson would have led the nation in punting average – but didn't have enough attempts. Moss also returned kicks on that team and he lead the nation in I-AA kickoff returns. Tim Openlander is still third all-time in points scored at Marshall, with 337 points in field goals and extra-points. Martin led the Herd in punt returns for four straight seasons and set the MU record with 49 returns in 1996, another tip of the hat to the defense for forcing six-plus punts per game.

The defense on the 1996 squad featured some of the best to ever wear the Green and White. Up front, B.J. Cohen, Billy Lyon (each with nine sacks, Lyon with 15 tackles-for-loss and Cohen with 10), Ricky Hall and a young Girardie Mercer (all wo either played or are playing pro football) dominated the trenches, along with John Duncan, Jarrod Keely, Paul Totten and Joe Zeglowitsch. At linebacker, has the Herd had many units better than Larry McCloud, Jermaine Swafford and Jerome Embry, who finished with 150 (97 solo-third most in MU history), 130 and 84 tackles respectively and four interceptions combined? McCloud recovered four fumbles to lead team, while Swafford (four) and Embry (three) led in forced fumbles.They were only backed up by John Grace, Andre O'Neal, Eric Pinkerton, who all figured so prominently in the success of 1999.

In the secondary, you had Rogers Beckett, B.J. Summers, Thomas Maxwell, Larry Moore, Melvin Cunningham (three interceptions, two touchdowns and seven passes broken up), Scott Smythe (96 tackles, fourth on team), Tim Dempsey – you get the idea. They held opponents to 190 passing yards per game, and much of that came when games were already decided.

Want a squad that played its best in its biggest games? As they say, you can look it up. This team scored over 40 points in 10 of 15 games, including three-of-four playoff games. It was somewhat of a moral victory for Northern Iowa in the semifinals, losing to Marshall 31-14. The Panthers were the only team to get within 17 points of the Herd at home all season. The Herd drilled Furman 52-0 in the opening round of the playoffs – not bad for a program that didn't own a I-AA win inside the state of South Carolina until Marshall finally broke through against the Paladins in Greenville in 1991. On the road, Appalachian State was the only relative nail-biter, until the Herd broke it open late to win by 14 in Boone, and an early 29-13 win at Georgia Southern. The ETSU game was exciting in the "Mini-Dome" in Johnson City, because Mark Zban hit Moss late with a 72-yard bomb for TD to keep his scoring streak alive of scoring in every game in the 34-10 win.

Montana was the best team Marshall would face in 1996 in the I-AA title game rematch. A recent poll on the best-ever I-AA teams still had the ‘96 Griz squad in its top dozen, despite its lack of a championship. Montana came to Huntington for the rematch as the winners of 21 straight games, but in this matchup of 14-0 squads, Marshall dominated the Grizzlies – building a 46-6 lead before winning 49-29. The Herd out-scored opponents 658 points to 210, holding opponents to two touchdowns per game while averaging 44 points per game on offense.Maybe the most amazing number about the 1996 team was that only 227,778 came to the stadium to watch this team, an average of just 20,707. That included a sell-out of 30,052 against Montana in the title game, but only around 14-15,000 in the other playoff games. Yet today, everyone was there for every game.

The other thing the 1996 team did was get Woody Woodrum into the radio business, after injuring his back severly in 1995's two-a-day practices. As it was the final season after 20 years in the Southern Conference (winning titles in 1988-92-96 in football), Woodrum was asked to come on the pre-game show and talk about each SC opponent, as he had been around for almost all of those game. Two minutes became five, then ten, then co-hosting the show. 10 years later, he is still doing that, and much more, to promote the Herd. You can either send a thank you (or nasty) note to Derek Scott of the Ohio Network for bringing Woodrum in for football, the talk show and, eventually, leading to his seat here at the Herd Insider.

"A lot of the guys on the 1996 team were also a big part of the 1999 undefeated team," said Reed of players like Pennington, Grace, Mercer and Starkey. "They'll want to do this in a few years, but we hope to set the bar pretty high for reunions this weekend. Isn't it great to be at a point where fans can argue about which was the best team ever at Marshall - the 1996 team, 1992, 1999 or 2002," said Reed. "The great thing about bringing these players back is then and now, Marshall will always be their home, no matter where they are. That wouldn't change, for this year's players or other players from the past. Coach (Snyder) is working hard to not just build a team, but a program-type mentality, like they have at Notre Dame or Miami, Florida. We can help him get that going this weekend."

To all of the members of the 1996 I-AA champs, we welcome you back home, where your gridiron exploits performed on the corner of Third Avenue and Twentieth Street (and beyond) at then Marshall University Stadium are appreciated more than you know and will never be forgotten.

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