Fifty-one years ago, Huntington, West Virginia, was home to what has been called the worst disaster in United States sports history.
Tragedy struck Marshall University more than a half century ago, when most of the school’s football program was involved in a plane crash while returning home from a college football game against East Carolina University.
Marshall Plane Crash: What Happened?
On November 14, 1970, Southern Airways Flight 932, a chartered jet flight from Kinston, North Carolina, to Kenova, West Virginia, clipped into some trees and crashed into a hill just short of its arrival at Huntington Tri-State Airport.
All 75 passengers on the team plane were killed in the crash, including 37 members of the Marshall University football team, eight football coaches, including head coach Rick Tolley, athletic director Charlie Kautz, 25 boosters and five flight crew members.
The team was returning from a tough 17-14 loss against the ECU Pirates in Greenville, NC, when disaster struck at the crash site, less than two miles from the flight’s destination in West Virginia. It was the first time the team had flown to a game all season.
The next day, Marshall University canceled all classes and held a memorial service at Veterans Memorial Fieldhouse, per The Herald-Dispatch. Another memorial was held the following week at Fairfield Stadium in order to honor the lives of the Thundering Herd football players, coaches and boosters which had been lost.
Many of the bodies were buried at the Marshall Memorial within the Spring Hill Cemetery. The street between the cemetery and Joan C. Edwards Stadium was renamed Marshall Memorial Boulevard.
In 1972, the university dedicated a memorial fountain to the entrance of the Memorial Student Center on campus. Each year, there is an annual fountain ceremony during which people gather to honor the plane crash victims.
Rebuilding the Football Program
Rather than disband the already-struggling football program after the crash, the university decided to try to rebuild the program.
The first step in doing so was identifying a new head coach, and the board ended up hiring Jack Lengyel from the College of Wooster in Ohio. Along with fellow coach Red Dawson, Lengyel was able to field a team in the 1971 season, winning two games that year, beating Xavier on a last-second touchdown and Bowling Green.
Dawson was initially meant to be on the flight that crashed, however he was sent on a recruiting trip after the East Carolina game, and thus didn’t return home with The Herd.
In 2006, a movie was made documenting the tragedy and its repercussions. “We Are Marshall” starred Matthew McConaughey as Jack Lengyel and Matthew Fox as Red Dawson, focusing on the rebuilding of the football team.
Just ahead of the 50-year anniversary of the Marshall University crash last year, former Marshall defensive backs coach Frank Loria was honored in Clarksburg, West Virginia, at the Clarksburg History Museum, where he was posthumously awarded a key to the city.
Last year, Marshall players took the field on the 50th anniversary of the plane crash where they kicked off (and won) their home game against Middle Tennessee State in what was an emotional matchup during the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19 outbreak.
Marshall’s plane crash may have happened 51 years ago, but it — and the lives lost on board such as the Marshall football team players, coaching staff and everyone else — will never be forgotten.
This post was originally published on November 13, 2020.