HUNTINGTON - Right after Red Dawson got his first college coaching job at Marshall University, the program went on NCAA probation and was expelled from the Mid-American Conference.
Then, the football program was all but wiped out when the chartered jet bringing the team back from a loss at East Carolina crashed on a rainy evening. Driving to and from the game instead of flying kept Dawson from being one of the 75 people who perished.
As a tribute to the fallen, he stayed with the program after an outsider was named as the head coach. Finally, differences of opinion with athletic department leaders prompted him to walk away from a program he wanted to help restore.
Dawson stayed in Huntington and started a construction company he ran for 35 years before retiring. He slowly beat "survivor's guilt" and reluctance to address the painful subject of the plane crash. It was time for him to open up and writing a book was the best way.
"A Coach In Progress: Marshall Football - A Story Of Survival and Revival" written by freelance journalist Patrick Garbin from the viewpoint of Dawson lets the world in on what life was like after that horrific crash on Nov. 14, 1970, what caused him to later withdraw from the football world and what events happened to bring him back into the Marshall and Huntington fold. That story is told by freelance journalist Patrick Garbin of Athens, Ga. The book came out Nov. 10 which happened to conincide with the 45th anniversary of what still remains the worst air disaster in college sports. The memorial service to honor the 75 who died is held each Nov. 14 beside the fountain at the Memorial Student Center.
"I want to set the record straight," Dawson said. "I wanted someone to hear it from me, to know what I had said and what I believe is true."
Dawson played high school football in Valdosta, Ga. He played at Florida State University. Bobby Bowden came to Tallahassee, Fla., in 1963 and coached receivers for the Seminoles, meaning he worked with Dawson his final two seasons. Bowden went on to become the head coach at West Virginia University and had a meaningful encounter with his former player and then Thundering Herd assistant after the crash. Bowden wrote the foreward for the book along with Fred Belitnikoff, former Florida State receiver who went on to have a Pro Football Hall of Fame career with the Oakland Raiders.
"Bobby called and said I see you're writing a book," Dawson said. "Whatever I can do to help you I will."
In the book Dawson talks about his days at Florida State, his brief time in pro football (nine games with the Boston Patriots of the AFL) and his time with the Orlando Panthers in the Continental Football League where his coach was Perry Moss. In 1968, Dawson and Moss reunited as Moss, the new Marshall coach, brought Dawson on as an assistant to work with receivers. The Herd went 0-9-1 and then allegations of rules violations came to light and were proven true. The school was found guilty of more than 140 NCAA violations, placed on probation for one year and later expelled from the Mid-American Conference. Moss was fired and Rick Tolley was named as the new coach.
"My first coaching job, you have goals to move up, everybody does. What a way to start," Dawson said. "We continued to recruit. I think we did recruit some good people. In a year or two we were going to beat some people. We had forged a solid foundation for Marshall football."
In 1969, Marshall lost its first six games, but then won the next three. The run started with a 21-16 victory over Bowling Green to end an 0-26-1 skid. Ohio University beat the Herd, 38-35, in an emotional finale at Fairfield Stadium for a 3-7 season, but two losses had been by three points and one by one.
"Close (to a turnaround)? Sure," Dawson said.
Marshall started the 1970 season with a 3-5 record heading into the East Carolina game in Greenville, N.C. The Herd went by chartered jet. Dawson drove because he had some recruiting to do as well. The Pirates won, 17-14.
Graduate assistant Gail Parker, who flew down on the charter, gave his seat to assistant Deke Brackett and rode back with Dawson. On their drive home they received news via radio that the plane had gone down short of the runway at Tri-State Airport in Kenova and there were no survivors.
"The talent's there. We'd have turned the corner a lot sooner than it happened," Dawson said. "We had players who had great ability. Joe Hood would've been in the NFL. Then the crash. Everything is turned upside down."
Joe McMullen, the head football coach at San Jose State in 1969-70 (3-10 record), started his career in administration as Marshall's athletic director in 1971. He hired Jack Lengyel from the College of Wooster as head coach of the Young Thundering Herd. Dawson, the acting head coach right after the crash, stayed on and joined fellow assistants Mickey Jackson, Carl Kokor and Parker doing all they could to hold things together.
Of all the early decisions made after the crash, Dawson quietly took issue with some, but didn't make waves and went to work. He would wage a constant battle against survivor's guilt. Having to identify bodies, attend so many funerals (27 in less than two weeks) and the constant reminders about the crash on campus and in the media took its toll on a young coach in his late 20s.
There was talk about friction between Dawson and Lengyel. Dawson said there was none. He stayed on to honor those who had perished and worked with those young players he had recruited to wear the green and white.
"Jealous," Dawson said. "I wanted to be the head coach. It didn't happen so I got over it."
Lengyel opted to run the veer offense to make up for the lack of size and numbers on the roster. That led to a meaningful trip to Morgantown in early April 1971 prior to Marshall spring practice where Lengyel, Dawson and two assistants met with Bowden, who had just completed his first season at WVU. The Mountaineers used the veer and had one of the top offenses in the country. Herd coaches examined playbooks and game film for three days. While there, WVU started spring ball. Dawson saw where WVU players had a green cross on the back of their helmets to honor the victims of the crash.
"That was real emotional," Dawson said. "That's Bobby. A class guy."
In Week 2 of the 1971 season, the Young Thundering Herd took on Xavier at Fairfield Stadium. It was the first home game after the crash. The Herd trailed 13-9 in the closing stages. Dawson sent in the play "213 Bootleg Screen." Quarterback Reggie Oliver got the snap off just before time expired, wide out Lanny Steed went across the field and attracted the Xavier secondary, back Terry Gardner went left, caught a pass from Oliver and sprinted to the end zone behind guard Jack Crabtree.
Needless to say, that memorable 15-13 victory created quite a celebration among the Herd faithful. It might have been a sign of things to come.
"We showed it again against Bowling Green (winning 12-10 later in the season against a team led by future WVU coach Don Nehlen)," Dawson said. "Maybe there was more to the TD than just winning one game."
Marshall finished 2-8 in 1971 and again in 1972. Dawson had endured enough. He and McMullen (identified only as "administrator" in the book) had differences and Dawson said farewell to football after the 1972 season. "I decided to move on," he said. "I gave my all to get it right."
Believe it or not, Dawson has no recollection about that season. That's been attributed to repressed memory. "I remember a lot of details about my childhood, college and games I coached in, but no memory of being an assistant in 1972."
Dawson got completely away from football. Then one day in the fall 1978 he was at home, the TV was on and Florida State was playing Navy. Dawson elected to watch his alma mater complete a 38-6 win over the Midshipmen. That gap between him and Marshall would begin to close. As a fan. Not as a coach.
When Jim Donnan became the Herd head coach in 1990, he contacted Dawson and asked him to be a part of the program again. He met with Donnan and in time rekindled his relationship with Marshall football. That bond grew stronger under coaches Bobby Pruett, Mark Snyder and now Doc Holliday.
"In time I believed the program would get to where it is today," Dawson said.
Another icebreaker for Dawson would be the movie "We Are Marshall." Matthew Fox played Dawson in the Warner Brothers production and Dawson had the part of a Morehead State coach for one of the scenes. The movie brought worldwide attention to a school, town and state that suffered greatly, said yes to keeping and supporting the sport and slowing developed a program that won conference championships, national championships, bowl games, produced Heisman Trophy candidates, and players who went on to star in the NFL and be on Super Bowl winning teams.
One movie scene details the trip to Morgantown to meet Bowden, study film and see the crosses on the back of the helmets. Dawson offered his expertise in the role of consultant. It helped him deal with his emotions. He did many interviews and spoke to many groups over a period of years. The man who once stayed in the background at the annual memorial service was later invited to be the guest speaker. It's amazing how many doors that movie opened for Dawson.
"The movie was a blessing," he said. "The nightmares start to taper off."
Dawson, who'll be 73 on Dec. 4, makes the tailgate scene at Marshall home games. He goes inside Joan C. Edwards Stadium to watch as a fan.
When Dawson got his first look at Garbin's finished product, he felt at ease.
"Was I down? Yes," he said. "I'm at peace now. I love Marshall. I love Huntington."
Dawson's book is available at Tri-State bookstores and amazon.com.