HUNTINGTON — Chad Pennington finished fifth, although he probably should have been third, in the 1999 Heisman Trophy voting.
If an award was given by Marshall fans for their favorite all-time Thundering Herd football player, though, Pennington likely would win in a landslide reminiscent of Reagan-Mondale.
Randy Moss was the greatest player in MU history, but wasn’t quite as outgoing. Few were. Reggie Oliver was beloved and probably would finish second to Pennington. Byron Leftwich, too, is near the top of the list of Herd heroes and earns the award for the toughest, having played on a broken leg.
Pennington, though, was special. His Heisman Trophy finalist season of 1999 was astounding and not just because of his statistics — 275 completions in 405 attempts, 3,799 passing yards and 37 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. Fans waited in line outside the Shewey Building after practices for Pennington to pose for pictures and sign autographs. Sometimes, for his own good, teammates sneaked the star quarterback out of the stadium so he could get some rest.
To Herd fans, Pennington was the All-American boy. Not only was he supremely talented, he had come from being a lightly recruited, skinny freshman to a strong senior who led Marshall to an undefeated season and No. 10 national ranking. He was an underdog-makes-good story that everyone except opposing defenses loved.
Smart, Pennington was a Rhodes Scholar candidate. Marshall had three of those in its 183-year history — one in 1929, another in 1981. Well-spoken and a terrific interview, Pennington was humble, deflecting credit to his teammates and coaches, another quality that endeared him to so many. There was no “look at me” in the player fans simply referred to as “Chad.”
Pennington’s boyish good looks also made him popular, the slightly unruly blond hair adding to his allure. A photo by The Herald-Dispatch photographer Melissa Moore of a shirtless Pennington holding a dog led to our phones ringing nearly non-stop with female fans asking for prints.
Pennington earned fans’ admiration when as a true freshman in 1995 he ascended from third-team quarterback to starter when Larry Harris and Mark Zban were injured and led Marshall to a victory at Tennessee-Chattanooga despite throwing five interceptions. He cemented fans’ respect when he accepted a redshirt year in 1996 when Eric Kresser transferred from Florida. Pennington easily could have transferred, but stuck with Marshall.
Head coach at Sayre High School in Lexington, Kentucky, many would love to see Pennington in such a position with the Herd someday. Upon his hiring, Pennington would rival Jack Lengyel and Bobby Pruett as the most popular football coaches ever at Marshall. How long that would last would depend on the wins and losses.
No doubt, though, no one ever to wear the Kelly green and white in Huntington has been more popular.