KENOVA, West Virginia - It was rare for Marshall University's athletic teams to travel by air in those days. Most of their road games were played within easy driving distance of the Huntington, West Virginia, campus, so planes were unnecessary. Marshall's 1970 game against East Carolina, though, was an exception; Greenville, North Carolina, was just a bit too far away to drive, so Marshall chartered a plane to transport the football team back home from its game against the Pirates.
Because a plane ride was a rare thing for the Thundering Herd, several big-name boosters and prominient members of the Huntington community were on the plane, as well. Along with the 25 boosters, 37 players and eight coaches were on the plane, as well as the flight crew.
The plane took off without incident, and there were no reported problems with the flight. As the plane approached Tri-State Airport near the Marshall campus, the pilots made radio and visual contact with the airport. It was a rainy, foggy night, making a landing difficult but nowhere near impossible. Nothing seemed too out of the ordinary.
Just more than a mile outside of the runway, during descent, the plane clipped the tops of trees and burst into flames. It crashed nose-first into a ravine and burned with tremendous heat, the fuselage turning into dust. Nobody on board had a chance.
The crash of Southern Airways Flight 932 remains the deadliest crash involving an American athletic team, and it decimated the Marshall football program. The 37 team members on board comprised the majority of the Marshall football roster - only a few junior varsity players had been left behind. Only one coach was left on the coaching staff - only receivers coach Red Dawson survived, as he had driven back from the East Carolina game to make a recruiting stop.
Aside from the devestation to the football program and the university itself, the crash was a blow to the city of Huntington, as well. Among the boosters on the plane were a city councilman, a state legislator, and four physicians; 70 children in Huntington lost a parent in the crash. The campus, the city, and the entire state plunged into mourning. Government offices around the state closed, and the school held a mass funeral at the campus field house.
The Marshall football program almost didn't survive the crash. The program had already been on thin ice because of improper recruting practices the previous year, and now with the loss of virtually the entire roster, many people thought that the team would be discontinued. But Marshall students and fans convinced the acting school president to revive the football program.
Led by new head coach Jack Lengyel, Marshall rebuilt from the ground up. Using the existing junior varsity players as a base, Lengyel scrambled to recruit players from anywhere he could, even going to the Marshall baseball and basketball teams to recruit players, not caring whether they had ever played football before.
Miraculously, Marshall perservered. In its first home game following the crash, against Xavier the next year, the Thundering Herd won 15-13, scoring a touchdown on teh final play for the victory. It was a bittersweet victory, and it was a rare moment of happiness for the program. Marshall won only two games each of the next two seasons and didn't have a winning record until 1984. From there, though, Marshall took off finishing as the I-AA runners up four times and winning the national championship in 1992 and 1996. The 1996 team, featuring freshman wide receiver Randy Moss, is commonly called the best I-AA team of all time.
Marshall continued its resurgance even after moving up to Division I-A in 1997, going 35-4 in its first three seasons at the top level. Though the Thundering Herd have since come back to earth, the school's recovery from devestation has been nothing short of remarkable.