Tragic event ‘defines’ Marshall University
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Red Dawson, his once-crimson hair now mostly thin and gray, stood at midfield inside Joan C. Edwards Stadium at Marshall University choking back the tears as he remembered a tragedy that forever changed this once-bustling steel mill town.
It changed him, too.
Forty years ago, on a cold and foggy autumn night, Dawson was on a recruiting trip while the Thundering Herd, along with 25 boosters and community leaders, took a flight home following a football game at East Carolina on Nov. 14, 1970.
At about 7:47 p.m., the Southern Airways DC-9 two-engine jetliner crashed near a desolate hillside less than a mile west of Tri-State Airport, killing all 70 passengers and five crew members.
Jack Hardin, then a reporter with the Huntington Herald-Advertiser, said moments after the crash: “There’s nothing here but charred bodies. It’s terrible.”
Chuck Landon, a columnist for the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, remembers the pay phone in his dormitory ringing throughout the night. Families wondered if their sons and brothers were aboard the ill-fated Flight 932.
“In their hearts, they knew,” said Landon, then a student correspondent at Marshall. “We all stood on the corner waiting for the paper to be dropped off at 5 a.m. – that’s the one thing that would make it real. We got the paper, and there it was.
“It never leaves you. It defines Marshall.”
Dawson, 68, has been conflicted both emotionally and mentally the past four decades. He wants to forever remember that tragic day. There are times he’d rather forget.
“We heard over the radio that the plane crashed while landing,” recalled Dawson, then an assistant coach who was traveling with graduate assistant Gale Parker. “It didn’t sound awful, but we had no idea. I pictured it hitting the runway – that’s all.
“It seemed like time stood still talking to those young men’s families. It was tough duty. I’m sure it’s guilt, but I’ve had some nasty nightmares ever since the crash.
“I promised those families I would take care of those kids and make sure they went to class,” the Georgia native continued. “I knew I wasn’t responsible, but I feel responsible. It keeps on haunting me.”
It was an unimaginable tragedy that continues to impact the city, the university and a football program that pulled itself from the ashes; a rebirth amid the ruins of the worst sports-related airline crash in U.S. history.
The Thundering Herd, with their 1971 season chronicled in “We Are Marshall,” have since evolved from college football doormats in the 1970s into the most successful major-college football program in the 1990s – including two Division I-AA national championships.
Today, Dawson and thousands of others will honor the 75 men and women who died in the plane crash during the 40th annual memorial service on the Marshall University main campus. The service concludes with the placing of the memorial wreath at the Memorial Fountain.
The fountain, with 75 copper water pipes representing each crash victim, will be silenced until next spring.
Mickey Jackson, one of two other surviving assistant coaches on the 1970 team, will be the keynote speaker. Jackson and assistant Carl Kokor, a former Pitt assistant, were scouting the Ohio-Penn State game the day of the crash.
“It is very inspirational to remember those folks and the relationships,” said Jackson, a Columbus, Ohio resident who later served as an assistant coach for Woody Hayes at Ohio State. “But, it is very, very sad at the same time. When they place the wreath at the fountain and the water stops, my heart just stops beating.”
As with the movie, the ceremony symbolizes another step in the healing process for the city and victims’ families. Even though its population has dwindled from nearly 100,000 in 1970 to slightly more than 50,000, Huntington is strengthened by its shared pain.
Dawson helped rebuild the program in the aftermath of the tragedy. He and head coach Jack Lengyel were tasked with putting together a team after the university petitioned the NCAA to allow Marshall to play freshmen.
“My intention was to help rebuild, but initially I decided to get another job,” said Dawson, who played both defense and offense at Florida State. “It was March 1 (1971) before they hired Lengyel, and it was too late to get a job. I wanted to be the next coming of Bear Bryant.”
In “We Are Marshall,” it’s suggested that Dawson was disinterested in the head coaching job. In fact, he wanted it, but was told, “I was too young for the job.”
Ultimately, Dawson walked away from the game after Marshall compiled a 2-8 record in 1971 – including a heart-wrenching victory over Xavier in its first home game after the crash.
“I distanced myself from Marshall and football,” Dawson said. “I wouldn’t even watch games on television.”
Dawson’s absence from the early memorial services was often conspicuous. Even when he began to attend the services, he stood in the shadows behind the Old Main administrative building, where he nervously carved notches into a couple of sycamore trees.
“I did that because I could hear and see everything. I didn’t want to be seen,” he said. “When the movie was made, I almost felt like it was my duty that it was positive and respective of the family of the boys who died on the plane.”
Dawson, though he tried, couldn’t part with Huntington. At times, he struggled to shake the nightmares, but after 40 years, one of the city’s most successful businessmen has finally moved on.
“Mickey and Carl went through a lot of the same things,” said Dawson who owns a construction company. “I’ve had some nasty nightmares, but I probably got over it working construction 10 to 12 hours a day.
“I still ask myself, ‘why wasn’t I killed?’ It’s the only road game that I didn’t travel with the team in the four years I coached at Marshall. It’s hard to understand, but the plane crash and the comeback helped the community come together.”
For some here, the crash remains a vivid reminder of how drastically their lives changed. Yet, most here are confident the city will persevere, partly because of its time-tested resiliency.
It’s a city that adapted to heavy losses in manufacturing jobs, then transformed seamlessly into one buoyed by the university’s medical and research facilities – including the state-of-the-art Robert C. Byrd Biotechnology Science Center, which is the same site as the old stadium where the football program began its amazing, if not impossible comeback in 1971.
“The city has gotten a little smaller with the manufacturing jobs gone,” said local sportscaster Keith Morehouse, whose father and Marshall’s play-by-play announcer, Gene Morehouse, was a crash victim. “The university has grown tremendously, and it has become more important to the town now that jobs are tougher to come by.
“The magnitude was hard to understand. We lost state delegates, doctors and boosters. We lost a generation of leaders. They were the movers-and-shakers in this town.”
In recent years, the football program has fallen on hard times. But for the Thundering Herd, the program’s history — the tragedy, the championships – are a part of the fabric of a university that’s inseparable from a community, which like Marshall’s football program, is rebuilding.
“Obviously, with it being the 40th anniversary of the crash this is a special week,” said Marshall’s first-year coach Doc Holliday. “I remember I was in the eighth grade, so I understand the importance of it to the program. I understand the history of how far we came to getting back to winning championships.”
The Thundering Herd endured four straight losing seasons until a 7-6 mark in 2009. So far, Holliday is off to a 3-6 start, and Marshall entered Saturday’s game against visiting Memphis having won two in a row.
“I see some of the newer fans saying this is rock-bottom football,” Morehouse said. “Well, they don’t know rock bottom. This university and the program continues to blossom.”
“It’s ironic that football is now the selling point for our school all these years later,” said Randy Burnside, the university’s sports information director. “It’s the centerpiece of what people know about our school.”
It’s a lesson learned by every Thundering Herd player both past and present — Chad Pennington, Randy Moss, Byron Leftwich and senior quarterback Brian Henderson.
“When you first come here, you don’t know whole lot about the crash,” said senior quarterback Brian Anderson. “I’ve met a lot of people that it affected. It really becomes a part of you, and something you play for.
“The coaches tell us about it when we first get here. It still defines your team. It’s about our history. A lot of fans follow us for that reason.
“It’s something you have to respect,” he added. “I didn’t notice it during my visit, but I noticed later, especially the fountain.”
Burnside said there are still scars and reminders — like the six unidentified players buried in a gravesite at the peak of Spring Hill Cemetery, which overlooks the Thundering Herd’s stadium.
“I don’t follow Marshall much, but the movie really brought me back to the realization that a lot of young people died in the plane crash,” said Terry Vance, 51, of Bowling Green, Ky. “It’s why I came to the grave site of the unknown players who died. It’s something that lives and lasts.”
Also, there’s the “The Bronze”, a shrine with all the victims’ names engraved in marble near the stadium entrance. “Just reading the list of names is chilling,” said John Bremer, 67, a Huntington native. “I think back how hard those times were, and it’s incredible to think how far we’ve come.”
There, too, is the crash site, which has a memorial plaque erected above a ravine, where only recently the rows of towering oaks and maples are lined with thin blades of grass.
“For years, nothing would grow because the earth was so scorched because of the jet fuel,” Landon said. “Finally, some long needle pines grew. The symbolism was so overwhelming. Now, when you fly over, there’s one big patch of green — Marshall’s school color.”