This story originally appeared in The Eagle on Oct. 1, 2000.
The healing process for two universities began with music and laughter in a packed Levitt Arena on a chilly Saturday night. “A Night of Stars,” held Nov. 28, 1970, was supposed to be a benefit for the victims of a horrific airplane crash carrying members and supporters of the Wichita State football team. The accident took the lives of 31 people.
Unbelievably, the football team from Marshall suffered another crash with even more people killed, 75, just two weeks before the show. It remains the worst sports-related air disaster in American history.
So WSU representatives agreed to share the money raised that night with Marshall, a school located in Huntington, W.Va.
The two schools would rebuild in different ways with vastly different results. But that night, they were intertwined as one victim of tragedy.
Several entertainers, including Bill Cosby, Kate Smith and Marilyn Maye, were flown into Wichita with precious little time to prepare for the event. The two-hour benefit was televised by ABC on more than 200 affiliates.
Ohio State coach Woody Hayes read a statement of sympathy from President Nixon.
The emcee that night was Monty Hall, host of the popular “Let’s Make a Deal.” He pleaded with viewers to send in their pledges, and teased Kansas Sen. Bob Dole for leaving early.
“It was quite an exciting time for all of us,” Hall said. “It was quite a formidable array of people who donated all their services and came in from all parts of the country. I have great memories of Wichita.”
In the years following, Hall would check the sports page for scores and write-ups about the two programs forever joined in tragedy.
He still keeps up with Marshall, a program that is winning bowl games, playing on television and sending players to the NFL.
Hall stopped reading about Shocker football in 1986 because it no longer existed. The program was suspended in a sea of apathy and debt.
“Yeah,” Hall said. “Did Wichita ever come back to football?”
Two football programs left for dead. Two programs that went in totally opposite directions in the 30 years that have followed “A Night of Stars.”
* * *
The Marshall football team was returning home from a loss at East Carolina on Nov. 14, 1970. The night was rainy and windy. None of the crew members had ever landed at the Tri-State Airport.
As it was about to touch ground, the plane clipped the top of some trees near the runway. The pilot lost control and the plane smashed into a nearby Appalachian hillside.
A full load of fuel caused a massive explosion. All 75 passengers, includin g 37 players, died instantly. Six bodies couldn’t be identified.
Marshall was supposed to play only one more game that season. But WSU had six more after its crash, and the remaining players elected to finish out its “Second Season.”
In WSU’s first game after the crash, the Shockers were defeated by No. 9 Arkansas 62-0. The Razorbacks sent in their second string just seven minutes into the contest.
The Shockers steadfastly remained a Division I program over the next few years, and they continued to get beat up by the big schools.
Texas A&M 48, WSU 0.
Oklahoma State 59, WSU 0.
Cincinnati 43, WSU 0.
WSU was caught in a vicious circle. It played the major programs for the guaranteed money, but that philosophy was not conducive to the improvement of its record.
Marshall steered away from the powerhouses, but the Thundering Herd was horrible, anyway. Its success came in small doses even before the crash. Marshall lost 27 straight games from 1966-69. It was even suspended from the Mid-American Conference in 1968 because of its woeful facilities and more than 140 NCAA recruiting violations that year.
Of all the football teams in America, Marshall was the worst candidate to survive the devastation of a plane crash that took nearly all of its players.
But in 1978, the NCAA created I-A and I-AA football, the latter for smaller programs. In 1982, Marshall officials made the decision to take a step back and start over at the I-AA level.
That was the beginning of the end of Marshall’s problems. The Thundering Herd went 6-5 under first-year coach Stan Parrish in 1984 for their first winning season in 20 years.
And the Herd has had winning seasons every year since.
As bad as Marshall was before that - and it was 31-109-1 in the 13 seasons following the crash - there was never serious talk from the administration of disbanding the program. Keith Morehouse, the radio play-by-play man for Marshall, is sure the community wouldn’t have allowed it.
“I really believe that part of that is, if you cut football, are you just saying, ‘Those people died in vain. Let’s just quit and let it go and say we couldn’t do it?’” Morehouse said.
“I take nothing against Wichita and what their reasons were. But I think the people here would have seen that as a slap in the face.”
* * *
Many in Wichita did. Clark Ahlberg didn’t.
Ahlberg was WSU’s president during the crash and retired in 1983, three years before WSU football was discontinued. Ahlberg didn’t applaud the decision, but he supported it.
Ahlberg said the crash and the end of Shocker football should be seen as mostly separate issues.
“I thought it (the decision to suspend football) was wise and also necessar y,” Ahlberg said. “It made sense. Football was a burden to the basketball program and women’s athletics and all the other sports. The financial problems were multiplying, not leveling.”
Current Marshall coach Bob Pruett, who played for the Thundering Herd in the mid-1960s and was an assistant in the late 1970s, said the key for Marshall was taking a step back. The team didn’t even have a weight room. Had Marshall remained I-A, it might have suffered the same fate as WSU.
“Stepping back to I-AA really allowed them to regroup and retool,” Pruett said. “You need to get in your element and give yourself a chance to succeed. Once you succeed, you can grow. As long as you’re getting beat down, well, people don’t want to come and play for a team that’s being beaten down.”
Kansas State 32, WSU 0.
Colorado 52, WSU 0.
Memphis State 31, WSU 0.
Why didn’t the Shockers drop a level, like Marshall? Ahlberg said it was never discussed.
“I think the psychology would have been very bad,” Ahlberg said. “Competing at Division I-A was a reasonable expectation of the financial contributors. They wouldn’t have viewed a lower level as appropriate or acceptable. Right or wrong, I don’t think they would have. And it wouldn’t have appealed to the public.”
In July 1986, WSU president Warren Armstrong said,”We’re either going to play Division I-A football or we’re not going to play football.”
It was his decision to ax the program five months later.
* * *
Pruett now enjoys the benefits of Marshall’s persistence, for the Thundering Herd had the best winning percentage of any college football team in the 1990s. Marshall made the move back up to Division I-A in 1997. It finished last season undefeated, ranked 10th in the final polls, and sent seven players to the NFL.
Marshall product Randy Moss, a Heisman Trophy finalist in 1997, plays for the Minnesota Vikings and is arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL.
In 1991, Marshall moved into a football stadium with more than 40,000 seats. It signified the commitment from the administration that eventually sent the Thundering Herd back to I-A football. Marshall won a pair of I-AA national titles before doing so.
“This is a story with many heroes,” Pruett said.
From ashes to glory.
“Some of the kids think every year we go out and get a ring and get a bowl,” said Woody Woodrum, the projects coordinator and historian for Marshall’s athletic department. “I can remember when we only got ring around the collar.”
Shocker football wasn’t all bad. WSU had a heck of a season in 1982, an 8-3 record with an impressive 13-10 victory over Kansas. The team had the most productive quarterback in the program’s history, Prince McJunkins.
But it was WSU’s only winning season in a 14-year span. WSU was soon tagged with an NCAA probation for recruiting violations.
“If Marshall or Wichita State is playing in an arena they can’t compete in, they’re never going to get good enough to get their head above water,” Pruett said. “Every time they get their head above water, somebody dunks ‘em. That seems to me maybe what was wrong with Wichita State. They were playing people they weren’t ready for. And couldn’t get ready for.”
Florida State 59, WSU 3.
Arizona State 52, WSU 6.
Illinois State 17, WSU 10.
That last score was the last Shocker home football game played. If someone tells you they were there, be skeptical. A mere 4,223 fans watched the game in Cessna Stadium, which seated 31,500.
And that was the problem with Shocker football. That, and red ink. The athletic department lost approximately $700,000 because of football in 1986.
James Rhatigan, who was WSU’s dean of students during the crash and now the senior vice president, agrees with Ahlberg that the crash wasn’t the end of Shocker football.
“The reason we don’t have football anymore,” Rhatigan said,”is that it lost too damn much money.”
* * *
Rhatigan will be in the Duerksen Fine Arts Center on Monday, the 30th anniversary of the crash, for a memorial service honoring the WSU victims and their families.
Ahlberg said he will probably be there, although as of Friday he hadn’t been formally invited and wasn’t even sure when it was.
Some think WSU shouldn’t do memorials anymore, that they unnecessarily bring up bad memories and that it’s time to move on.
Others think WSU doesn’t do enough, and that the services should be extended.
Rhatigan realizes the university can’t please everybody. He’s content with a modest service and a river of tears. Most of the victims of the WSU crash in the Colorado mountains have been dead longer than they were alive.
But as each anniversary passes, the memorials never get any easier for Rhatigan.
He says his biggest regret about how the university handled the aftermath was catering to the remaining players’ emotional needs.
“There weren’t any grievance counselors back then,” Rhatigan said. “The perception was that football players are big, tough guys. What we forgot is that underneath they were hurting young people. Many of these guys had a roommate killed, and we just weren’t prepared to handle it. How could we have been?”
It wasn’t any easier on Marshall.
* * *
On the doomed Marshall plane was sports information director Gene Morehouse, who left behind six children, including the 9-year-old boy who would one day replace him as radio voice of the Herd.
Not only did Keith Morehouse attend Marshall and eventually pick up his father’s fallen microphone, he married a girl whose parents died in the crash.
The Morehouse family will be heavily involved in Marshall’s memorial service next month, which will include the unveiling of a bronze statue. At about the same time, ESPN and PBS will air documentaries about the crash and Marshall’s triumph of will.
“For a long time, those memorials were pretty bad,” Morehouse said. “But I think the community can handle it more now because the team is better. I don’t know if there’s a correlation there. But it seems like when the football team got better, people were able to deal with the crash a little bit better, if that makes any sense.
“It is a source of pride. I think Marshall enjoys telling the story. We were rock bottom, obviously. And look where we are now.”
Huntington’s population was approximately 100,000 in 1970. It has since dwindled to nearly half that.
The town and the college are so closely related that the fire hydrants are painted in the school colors of green and white. There is a street named Marshall Memorial Boulevard.
“You’ve never seen a town with so much pride in its college,” said Woodrum, the athletic department historian. “It’s almost like a town rallying around its high school.”
So Marshall’s memorial will have much more of a celebration feel than WSU, which has so few good memories of football.
Which isn’t to say there won’t be mourning at Marshall. Just less gloom.
“I think hopefully we’ve got closure to that,” Pruett said. “We felt that it was a turning point in the Marshall program. Those people are looking down on the Marshall football team and smiling today. That’s the way we look at it. We don’t dwell on it. But we hold it in reverence and honor what has taken place.
“And we pray to God it doesn’t happen again.”
And that’s why Marshall was able to keep things in perspective after having its 18-game winning streak the nation’s longest at that time, snapped with a loss at Michigan State last month.
Returning on Marshall’s flight that night were 164 people – players, coaches, fans and crew members. And when the airplane touched ground at Tri-State, the same small airport that was marked by tragedy 30 years ago, the passengers did the same thing they’ve done after every flight since then.