Marshall had lost 37 players, five coaches, administrators, media, fans and five members of the Southern Airway crew, 75 persons in all died, on November 14, 1970, when MU's charter flight returning from a 17-14 loss at East Carolina crashed into a hillside in Wayne County below Huntington's Tri-State Airport. Nearly all varsity players were lost in the accident, still the worst air disaster in American sports history, and many people outside of Marshall thought it might be best to just do away with what had been a struggling program at best. MU had not had a winning season since 1964, and only three seasons over .500 since 1951. Marshall had also spent 1969 on NCAA probation for recruiting violations and was thrown out of the Mid-American Conference for the same problems.
Jack Lengyel came in to take over the Marshall job from Wooster College, after Dick Bestwick had spent one day before returning to Virginia as an assistant. Lengyel would have "Red" Dawson, an assistant with the Herd since 1968, to help with the rebuilding. Dawson had been recruiting Ferrum College by car and missed the tragic crash. The Herd varsity returned Felix Wright and Nate Ruffin at defensive back, as both missed the ECU trip with injuries. Eddie Carter returned on the defensive line, as he had flown home to Texas for his father's funeral and had not joined the team in North Carolina when his mother asked him not to leave her.
Marshall had the sophomores who had played junior varsity ball the year previous as freshmen-ineligible, like Reggie Oliver at quarterback, Rick Meckstroth at linebacker, John Johnsonbaugh at running back and Jack Crabtree at offensive tackle. New freshmen joined and were declared eligible for the "Young" Thundering Herd, including Allen Meadows, Ned Burks, Bob Esbaugh, Eric Gessler and Charles "Chuck" Henry, who will be inducted into the Marshall Athletic Hall of Fame this October. Walk-on tryouts drew 50 persons and 35 of those became players for the Herd, including former MU basketball center Dave "Bubba" Smith with a fifth-year of eligibility.
Marshall took the field at Morehead State University to start the season and the 4,000 or so MU fans that traveled West for the "I-64 Rivalry," as the schools were an hour apart on Interstate 64, thought just putting a team on the field was a victory for Marshall. The Eagles beat the Herd 29-6, with Oliver hitting tight end Tom Smyth for a late score that was the second standing ovation of the day for fans in both blue and green. "I don't know if there ever was a team that made more progress between game one and game two," said assistant coach, and former All-MAC MU running back, Mickey Jackson, later of when the Herd prepared to welcome the Musketeers of Xavier to Fairfield Stadium.
Marshall also had to find a kicker, as there were so many other things to do the Herd coaches had ran for two at Morehead State. Tryouts were again opened up and Blake Smith, who admitted, "I don't even attend football games," hit kick after kick on Monday of the XU game. "Coach told him if he would cut his hair and shave his beard, the job was his," said Oliver. "He just nailed kick after kick." Marshall would prepare to meet a team it had beaten 31-14 in Cincinnati the previous year but was 5-12 against all-time. MU lost to XU 7-0 in 1968 and 30-20 in 1969.
All of Huntington and much of the nation wished the Herd good luck in its home opener. President Richard Nixon sent a letter Lengyel had copied and framed for each player. A sellout crowd of over 13,000 was joined by W.Va. Governor Arch Moore as the Herd took the field against Xavier to a roaring cheer, one of the loudest ever remembered by fans or team members that day. Marshall moved the ball down the field early in the game, but stalled on fourth down. Lengyel showed no hesitation and sent Smith into the game. "I knew it was one thing to kick at practice, but it is a whole different thing to kick with a rush coming and the crowd roaring," Lengyel said later, but Smith calmly hit a 31-yard field goal. The Herd would take a 3-0 lead to the locker room.
Players and coaches were called together by Lengyel at halftime in the locker room. "You've got it right here, right in the palm of your hand," Lengyel told his team of the 3-0 lead, "if you will go all out for 30 more minutes." Something was already all out and that was the live Bison mascot of the Herd, Marco (for Marshall College-the school became a university in 1961) was out trying to graze on the green grass of the Astroturf. "He just kept trying to eat that plastic grass," remembered Meadows of the loose buffalo. "It was so green and the less he succeeded, the more determined he got." Lengyel, fearing a delay penalty, was almost run over trying to corral Marco, but eventually four men returned him to his cage, to the delight of the 13,000-plus in attendance.
The two teams traded touchdowns, with Xavier going up 6-3 midway through third quarter. Oliver scored on a quarterback sneak with 11:58 to go in the fourth to put MU back up 9-6. With 5:18 left, however, an Esbaugh punt was returned by the X-men for a touchdown and MU was down 13-6. The two teams traded punts and it appeared Marshall was down to its last chance with 1:18 to play, at the Thundering Herd 48-yard line. History was in the making.
Oliver mis-fired on first, second and third downs before finding Jerry Arrasmith on a "do-or-die" for 11 yards and a first down at the XU 41-yard line. Johnsonbaugh picked up four yards, then Oliver then hit Kelly Sherwood on the next play for another 11 yard gain and MU was down to the 26-yard line. Another six yard rush moved the ball to the 18-yard line and, with 20 seconds to play, Oliver again found Arrasmith, who he had played with on the JV team in 1970. The pass moved the ball to the 13-yard line, first and ten, but not getting out of bounds meant the clock would start with the chains being set and the Herd was out of timeouts.
Red Dawson sent down the play and it was signaled into Oliver, a 213 bootleg screen. Oliver called the play, broke the huddle and snapped the ball just before the clock ticked to 0:00. The Herd quarterback rolled right, taking the defense with him. Terry Gardner, a MU freshman from nearby West Portsmouth, Ohio, floated out in the flat to the left and Oliver stopped suddenly and lifted the pass to Gardner. There was one Xavier player to beat, but Crabtree peeled off from his left tackle position to deliver a sensational block and Gardner cruised into the southeast corner of Fairfield Stadium. Marshall had won the first home game, following the worst air disaster in sports, with a screen pass with no time on the clock. "Elated...stunned...truly, a miracle," and that was only the players and coaches, who were mobbed on the turf by elated fans.
Better than one hour after the game, after hearing in the locker room from MU interim President Donald Deamon, Governor Moore and a stunned but satisfied Coach Lengyel, the players and coaches emerged to find most of the fans still in the stands, many crying, many hugging and some almost afraid that if they left, it might not have been true. But the play collegefootballnews.com rated the 93rd greatest play ever in 130-plus years of college football still stands today as the greatest play and win in the history of Marshall football. The rise from the ashes had started towards the glory that lay ahead for this program, but it would be another 13 years before Marshall would post a winning season and 17 years before the Herd would win its first conference title since grabbing the Buckeye Conference title in 1937.
"We Are Marshall," the movie coming out in December of 2006 from Warner Brothers, will retell the story of Marshall in that dark time of 1970 and the day we remember today: September 25, 1971, when the Thundering Herd won one for the ages, 15-13 over Xavier, in the most improbable win in Marshall, and perhaps college football, history. We Are Marshall, then and now.