Published Nov. 13, 2005
HUNTINGTON -- Coach Jack Lengyel had returned home from a successful day at the office. Lengyel, head football coach at the College of Wooster in 1970, directed the Fighting Scots to a 9-6 win at Oberlin College on the afternoon of Nov. 14. At home that evening with his wife, Sandy, they saw a bulletin on TV about the plane bringing the Marshall football team back from its game at East Carolina crashing.
"My heart just sank," said Lengyel during a Huntington visit. "The atmosphere of players, coaches and fans. It's like it's your team."
Lengyel and Thundering Herd backers in the Tri-State and across West Virginia finally got the news no one wanted to hear. There were no survivors in the traveling party of 75 people.
"You pray someone survives," Lengyel said. "But it's hope against hope. I thought, 'Oh my God!' There's that fraternity of athletics, that bond. I imagine every coach in the country had that same hollow feeling."
Marshall head coach Rick Tolley was among the crash victims.
Lengyel was named to take Tolley's place on March 12, 1971. He accepted the job after the first choice, Dick Bestwick, backed out after staying for a week and returned to Georgia Tech.
"I believe I called them," Lengyel said. "They've got to find somebody. It never bothered me about Dick leaving. They needed leadership."
Lengyel, who went from walk-on to scholarship player at the University of Akron, found himself in an NCAA Division I environment with limited resources. His 1971 team was made up of returning players who didn't make the East Carolina trip, members of the 1970 freshman team and walk-ons.
"I had a chance to give back to football what football gave to me," he said. "I wanted to be a part of this. I wanted to help rebuild. It was an overwhelming challenge, but one I thought we could accomplish."
After his arrival, Lengyel found the damage went deeper. "It was more than football recovering. It was a town recovering," he said.
The Young Thundering Herd, as Lengyel called the team until a four-year class structure was established, won two games in 1971 (Xavier and Bowling Green). After four years and a 9-33 overall record, Lengyel left Marshall and went into business. He later got into athletic administration and served as athletic director at Louisville, Missouri, Fresno State and the Naval Academy where he retired in 2001.
Starting in 1984, the Herd started fielding winning teams. Marshall went on to dominate the Southern Conference and Mid-American Conference, won league and national titles, had Heisman Trophy candidates and moved into a 38,000-seat stadium. This is year one for Marshall in Conference USA. The city has made a rebound, too, with things such as the opening of Pullman Square.
It's quite a turnaround from 1971 and that's what makes Nov. 14 memorable for Lengyel wherever he is.
"When the curtain's pulled back, you relive the moments," Lengyel said. "You see faces, people and remember the events. It was bigger than the football team. It was about the struggle of a community.
"You see Pullman Square and what the football team's done, it's all about progress. It (Nov. 14) is always special."