MUC greencarpet 21.jpg

Louis Brems/The Herald-Dispatch Former Marshall coach Jack Lengyel on the green carpet before the premiere of "We Are Marshall" on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2006.

PHOENIX (AP) -- Thirty-six years later, Jack Lengyel vividly recalls the overwhelming sadness that surrounded him when he arrived at Marshall.

He had come as the new football coach to help revive a program torn to pieces by one of the worst sports disasters in U.S. history -- the loss of 75 people in a plane crash on the outskirts of town.

"I thought I was coming to rebuild a football program," Lengyel said. "It turned out to be the whole community."

Among the dead were 36 members of the Thundering Herd football team, as well as some of the university's leading boosters, top administrators and city officials.

"What you had here was a void of leadership of the community, a void in the administration of the university, and obviously a void with the football team," he recalled. "This tragedy cut a wide swath."

The effort to rebuild the football program and bring hope to a stunned city is the subject of "We Are Marshall," a movie that opens nationwide Friday. Lengyel is the central character, portrayed by Matthew McConaughey.

Now 71, Lengyel lives in the Phoenix suburb of Surprise and works as a software executive after many years in athletic administration. He was among several principals from the real-life story who helped in the making of the film.

While he says a few details aren't accurate, he loved the finished product.

"It's a movie about core values," he said, "hope and faith and perseverance and love."

Huntington is a small town with ever-so-close ties to the university.

"I've been to about 16 universities as coach or athletic director, associate athletic director or interim athletic director," Lengyel said. "There has never been another university I've been associated where the community and university have a heart that beats as one -- and it's all Marshall green."

There were heartbreaking, sometimes miraculous, stories at every turn when Lengyel got to town. He remembers the parents of one player had asked their son to drive with them home from that game at East Carolina, but the youngster said he wanted to go with the team on the ill-fated flight.

In an incident not mentioned in the film, a player got a telephone call from his mother pleading with him not to make the trip because she had a feeling the team's plane would crash. The player, Eddie Carter, agreed with his mother's wishes and went on to become a prominent evangelist.

Two coaches had turned down the Marshall job before the university chose Lengyel, then head coach at the tiny College of Wooster in Ohio.

"When I went down there, I quickly found out about 21 boosters on the plane, 70 children left without one parent, 18 without both parents," he said. "I quickly found out that this was a community that needed to heal."

Suns coach Mike D'Antoni was a 19-year-old sophomore on the Marshall basketball team at the time of the crash. He recalls that suddenly rows and rows of rooms in the athletic dormitory were suddenly empty.

"They were all just not there," he said.

D'Antoni's older brother, Suns assistant Dan D'Antoni, was baby-sitting the six children of the team's doctor -- a prominent booster -- at the time of the crash. The older D'Antoni brother was haunted by the trauma for years.

Lengyel said McConaughey told him right off that he would not be impersonating Lengyel, but interpreting the role as an actor to best tell the story. Lengyel said he never was nearly as animated on the sidelines as McConaughey is in the movie.

The movie climaxes with the second game of that first post-crash season, the home opener in front of an emotion-soaked crowd. A touchdown pass on the final play of the game gave the Thundering Herd a 15-13 upset of Xavier.

The play used in the movie isn't the one that won the game, Lengyel said, but all is forgiven because he loved the way the scene was shot.

Lengyel remembers what he told the players at halftime of that game, with Marshall leading 3-0 on a field goal "by a soccer player who had never played football in his life."

"I told the team that in the palm of your hand, you've got an opportunity for one of the greatest upsets in college football," he recalled. "If you continue to play the way you're playing, you'll have an experience you'll remember for a lifetime."

Fairy tales don't last long in sports, though. Lengyel lost his job after four seasons, and he went into a long career as an administrator, including 13 years as athletic director at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Marshall's climb to football respectability was slow, too. But in the 1990s, the Thundering Herd were rolling. When the 1996 team went 15-0 -- with a freshman receiver named Randy Moss -- and won the NCAA Division I-AA championship, coach Bob Pruett had special national title rings made for Lengyel and a few others who were instrumental in the resurrection of the program.

Lengyel always wears that ring. It is a reminder of his defining years and his great lesson.

"As you live your life in sometimes quiet desperation, facing adversity and tragedy," he said, "if you have hope and love, that mixture helps you overcome that tragedy and go on with the rest of your life."

 

Tags

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.