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Editors Note: The following article was also published in the Fall 2020 issue of GOLDENSEAL Magazine.
On the evening of November 14, 1970, 75 Marshall University football team members, coaches and community members lost their lives in a plane crash.
Obviously, the crash changed the lives of the families forever. But the crash changed Huntington, West Virginia and Marshall University, too.
In the late 1960s, Huntington was a typical city for the region. It had a thriving business sector with steel and glass making factories as well as a company that manufactured railroad cars.
Marshall University was located in the middle of Huntington, but it was separate. The community supported the football and basketball teams on game days, but there wasn’t much more of a connection. The relationship between the blue-collar town and the university wasn’t strained; they just had little to do with each other.
That changed after the crash.
About the same time, the city began going through economic changes of its own. The nation itself was in an economic slump in the late 1960s that entered an official recession in 1969 and 1970. The heavy industry that had propelled Huntington to prominence began to close.
Morris “Mac” McMillian was a student at Marshall when the plane crashed. He described the atmosphere on campus in those next few days as “devastated.”
“Everything was closed, except for the old Shawkey Student Union. We sat there and stared at each other. We didn’t know what to do. There were no announcements. The buildings were closed, there were no classes,” McMillian said.
And there was only one subject on everyone’s mind.
“People just walked around in a daze downtown. And then people would, if you would get engaged in conversation with someone, it would be ‘Did you know anybody on the plane?’,” he said.
Like a lot of people who were on campus at the time, McMillian knew members of the football team and it is still a sensitive topic. He said he has not been able to visit the Spring Hill Cemetery where several former players are buried including those who remain unidentified.
Mike Kirtner was a Marshall University Sophomore in 1970. He was working for WMUL, the student-led radio station, when he heard the first reports of the crash.
Kirtner was on a date, but immediately drove to Tri-State Airport to find out what was going on. With his student press credentials, he was able to gain access to the airport and the crash site itself.
“One vivid memory I have from that night is seeing the old school bus they used to take the team to campus. It was painted white, but it had Marshall University on the side. That bus was empty and it was a misting rain. I remember seeing that bus sitting there empty. For whatever reason that’s the most vivid memory of that evening,” he said.
Kirtner, who now owns Kindred Communications, said he grew up in the Huntington area and described it as a typical “Leave it to Beaver” blue collar town.
“I think, when the plane crash occurred, that’s when Marshall became a college town. That’s when the transition started, because suddenly the innocence was gone. I mean, we’d been through the Silver Bridge disaster and various things that happened, but after that happened in Huntington, it all changed,” he said.
For Kirtner, the aftermath of the plane crash brought about a grieving process for the entire town. By the next year, he was a radio DJ and he became more aware of the emotional attachment people made to the team.
“I actually collected 100s of names in support of the new football team. When they decided to play football again, that’s when people started bonding with the football program and they became emotionally attached to it versus just being a sports attachment,” Kirtner said.
Lessons and Determination
Huntington Mayor Steve Williams was a member of the Thundering Herd football team. He didn’t arrive on campus until 1974, but he grew up in the region and was very familiar with Huntington and the Marshall football coaching staff. His father was almost a member of the staff, too, although Williams didn’t learn that until the movie We are Marshall came out.
Dr. Don Williams was friends with Marshall Head Football Coach Rick Tolley. Tolley offered the senior Williams the Offensive Coordinator coaching position at Marshall, but Williams turned him down. If he hadn’t, Williams likely would have been on the plane.
In the film, there is a scene in the film where the acting Marshall University president Dr. Donald Dedmon is going through a list of potential coaches calling them and then scratching names off the list. After watching the film with his parents, Steve Williams asked his dad if he ever wondered what would have happened if he had gotten that call since he quit coaching at Concord College in 1969.
“Dad said, ‘I did’. My mother’s fork just dropped. She didn’t even know that. Dad said he told the university he would only be interested if he could be head coach and athletic director. They said they were separating the two jobs. Dad went off that next year to Virginia Tech to work on his doctorate. When he finished his doctoral work and he got another call from Marshall. Marshall just kept calling our family. We were destined to be together,” Williams said.
For Williams, the biggest lesson for Marshall, and for the city of Huntington, was determination.
“If you want to understand Marshall, if you want to understand Huntington, understand we never give up. You think you’re ever going to take us down? It might take us 30 years, but we’re going to figure it out. We’re going to come back, and we will end up prevailing,” he said.
For Williams, Marshall is the heartbeat of Huntington. “Make no mistake about it, Marshall today is the heart and soul of the city and it became that way because of the crash,” he said.
For a long time, no one in Huntington talked about the plane crash. Joe “Woody” Woodrum, the long-time team manager and former color commentary announcer for the football program, said.
“We didn’t talk too much about the crash. I mean, it was largely avoided my first 10 years here,” Woodrum said. He came to the Marshall campus in January of 1975. “We were trying to rebuild the program.”
Woodrum said he has materials from those early years and there was little to no mention of the plane crash at all.
“I’ve got a media guide from 1971. It has a brief bit about the crash and the worst disaster in modern sports history. And that was it,” he said.
We are Marshall documents the decision to bring back the football program immediately after the crash but Woodrum recalls those discussions happening for years, especially while the team continued to struggle.
“I remember Bill Smith in the Daily Mail wrote a column about 1979 or 80 and said ‘Marshall should give up football. You’ve got a great basketball program. Why not put more money into that?’,” Woodrum said.
From Woodrum’s perspective, the thing that helped people begin to open up was when the team began winning. The first winning season posted by the football team, following the crash, was in 1984.
“I think that’s when people began to accept and be able to talk about the plane crash,” Woodrum said.
Mike Hamrick played football for Marshall University during the rebuilding years. He arrived on campus in January of 1976, after a semester at a junior college, and graduated in 1980. He played for the Thundering Herd in the 1976, 77, 78 and 79 seasons. Hamrick went on to a long career in university athletics before returning to Marshall as the Athletic Director in 2009.
“There were people into the mid to late 70s that didn’t think Marshall should have football. Just imagine you are an 18 or 19-year-old college kid and you’re playing for the Thundering Herd and people in the community are telling you ‘Man, we don’t need football here. Let’s just forget about football’,” Hamrick said. “In the 70s, we didn’t refer to the plane crash at all.”
Hamrick says the players from those early years kept the program alive during the tough times when the team wasn’t winning.
“Without the guys in the 70s, the late 70s, the program probably would have gone away. I’m telling you, I was there. There were people that wanted the program to go away. And thank goodness for the leadership at Marshall at the time. They kept football going and look what it’s done for our university today,” he said.
Each fall, on November 14, the university turns off the fountain at the Memorial Student Center in a ceremony that has grown over the years. It features members of the community, families of those lost and members of the athletic department.
The current president of Marshall University, Dr. Jerome Gilbert, is a fairly new arrival at Marshall University. He took over the position in January 2016. After he had been announced as president, but before he began the job, he was able to attend a fountain ceremony on November 14, 2015.
“It was very moving and emotional and hard to describe if you’ve never been there. The intensity of the emotion and the intensity of the feelings that are present on that day with so many people gathered there to pay their respects. It made me feel there was a very special bond at Marshall, due to the tragedy,” Gilbert said.
Dr. Gilbert said Mayor Williams was right about the connection between the school and the town.
“When you look at a lot of universities in cities and towns, there’s often the town-gown rivalry. The town folk don’t want to associate with the university folks and there’s some of that vice versa. That was a positive side effect of the plane crash. It really drew the city and the university closer together,’ he said. “There’s very little distinction between the city and the university. They embrace each other. And I think that’s the way it should be.”
Dr. Gilbert equated plane crash and the community reaction in the city of Huntington to the trauma of war.
“You see a lot of World War Two veterans that never talked about the war when they were younger and then, in their later years, they started talking about it. My father-in-law was certainly in that camp,” Gilbert said. “He wanted to put it out of his mind because it was such a horrible experience. I think it’s something that you have to give time to be able to psychologically deal with it. So I think that has been part of it over the years, to sort of make peace with the whole event and to be able to talk about it and commemorate it in appropriate ways as we’re doing now.”
Fifty years after the plane crash, the Marshall community, both the school and the community that surrounds it, is able to discuss the plane crash. There is still emotion and there are tears, but they are mixed with pride at what the university has accomplished since November 14, 1970. Those who are still involved with the program make sure new arrivals to campus understand that legacy.
“The parents of the recruits really understand it, when they’re doing their homework before they come up with their son on their recruiting trip, but if they don’t understand it before they get here, I can promise you, they understand that once they get here,” Hamrick said.
As part of the recruiting visits, Hamrick said they hear real people talk about their stories of losing their parents or losing an aunt or an uncle or a grandparent or a friend.
“It doesn’t take them long once they get on this campus to understand what that fountain means, and to run up to Spring Hill Cemetery and see that memorial and look at the graves of those unidentified players. It sinks in real quick what this is all about,” he said.
Before the film We Are Marshall was the 2000 documentary Marshall University: Ashes to Glory that helped the community begin talking about the plane crash. In the 50 years since the crash, and in the 20 years since that documentary, Marshall fans around the world have been able to understand the connection between the town and the university.
“I think, over the years, Marshall and Huntington have grown as one and we are one. I don’t think either one of us could survive in the manner that we would like if we were not joined together. So yeah, we’re all in this together. November 14, 1970 is a part of Huntington, it’s a part of Marshall, and it will always be that way,” Hamrick said.
This story is the result of a partnership between GOLDENSEAL Magazine, and West Virginia Public Broadcasting. A print version of this story appears in the Fall issue of Goldenseal Magazine. The entire issue is dedicated to the plane crash and you can buy a copy here.