CHAPMANVILLE — There was a lot of talk about Marshall University football bringing back its swagger during Wednesday’s Marshall University Coaches Caravan event and golf outing at the Logan Country Club in Chapmanville.
Following the tragic plane crash in 1970, Marshall’s football team had the worst record of any major college team in the nation.
The Herd rebounded in the 1980s and then won two Division I-AA national championships in 1992 and 1996 before making the leap to 1-A ball and the Mid-American Conference.
Marshall won five MAC titles from 1997-2002 and made the further leap up to Conference USA in 2005.
The Herd, though, lost some of that swagger as the program sagged from 2005-09 after legendary coach Bob Pruett had retired.
Doc Holliday, however, has brought back some of that old Marshall swagger.
In two years under Holliday, the Herd looks to be heading in the right direction.
Last season, Marshall was 7-6 and second in the Conference USA’s East Division. It was all topped off with a 20-10 win over Florida International University (FIU) in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl at St. Petersburg, Fla., as Marshall improved to 7-3 overall in bowl games.
“I have had the opportunity to be your football coach for two years. We can and will win championships,” Holliday said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we are recruiting the kind of athletes that we need to compete in this conference and win this conference.”
Part of improving Marshall’s football program is improvement in the athletics program in general.
Marshall has laid out a plan.
It’s entitled “The Vision Campaign.”
In it, Marshall University, led by such sports dignitaries as Chad Pennington and Mike D’Antoni, are pushing for a brand new indoor football practice facility and other upgrades. Currently, Marshall has no indoor practice field, making it difficult to prepare for games in cold weather months, such as a lead-up to a bowl game in December or January.
Also, a Hall of Fame Atrium, an academic center, a sports medicine research center and a new soccer complex are planned.
Inside the indoor football facility there will also be a running track for Marshall’s track and field teams. The 100-yard field would also be ideal for Marshall baseball and softball teams to practice during cold winter months.
“(Marshall Athletics Director) Mike Hamrick talked about the vision campaign. Today, it’s so important for kids to walk in and see the facilities,” Holliday said. “We would be able to elevate our recruiting. It’s a dream that we will like to see be a reality. Failure is not an option as Mike mentioned.”
Holliday said he has Logan County roots.
“It’s always great to get back down to Logan County,” Holliday said. “My dad spent some time at Omar. I had the opportunity to spend some time at Omar where my family grew up. I actually worked in the mines at Sharples in the 70s. I have great respect for this area and I love coming down here. I really enjoy the people.”
As far as the football team goes, Marshall’s prospects look good this season.
The Herd return eight returning starters on offense, including quarterback Rakeem Cato and also five starters on defense.
Marshall is set to open the season on Sept. 1 at No. 17 West Virginia. The Herd lost last year 34-13 to the Mountaineers in a game which was shortened by a severe thunderstorm.
The Herd then hosts FCS team Western Carolina before hosting former MAC rival Ohio — a team it lost to by a 44-7 score last year in Athens, Ohio. Then it’s off to play at Rice and at the Big Ten’s Purdue before the meat of the Conference USA schedule gets under way.
Marshall has seven of its 12 games at home this season.
Six of Marshall’s opponents — Ohio, Purdue, WVU, Tulsa, Southern Miss and Houston — played in bowl games last season and five of them won.
WVU routed Clemson 70-33 in the Orange Bowl, while Ohio won 24-23 over Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Purdue took a 37-32 win over Western Michigan in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl, while Southern Miss prevailed 24-17 over Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl and Houston was a 30-14 winner over Penn State in the TicketCity Bowl in Dallas.
Tulsa lost 24-21 to BYU in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Marshall enjoyed success last year despite playing the 13th-toughest non-BCS schedule in the nation, according to one ratings system.
“We took a step in the right direction a year ago,” Holliday said. “Our goal is to win the conference championship. Every year we expect that to happen. Our football team took a step last year and now we have to take the next step.”
Holliday said the win in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl has carried over. The bowl’s championship trophy was on display in front of the Logan Country Club’s podium.
“One thing that we have coming out of that bowl win is momentum,” he said. “Our team has a bounce in their step and they have confidence and that swagger that Mike is talking about. It carried into our winter program and into spring ball. And with every kid that we have recruited, it has carried over to our freshmen with our summer program. The wins will come because of what we’re doing right now. We’re excited about it.”
Last season, Cato was 182-for-304 passing for 2,059 yards with 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also ran for another 170 nets yards.
“It always starts with your quarterback,” Holliday said. “When I was at Florida we had a guy by the name of Tebow. When we were at NC State we had Philip Rivers. At Marshall, we had Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich. That’s where it starts and for the first time in three years I feel good about that position. Cato has won more games than anybody coming back this year in our league. He went on the road and won at Louisville and won over Southern Miss and East Carolina. He also went on the road, so to speak, and won the bowl game. The experience that he gained last year in those 13 games was invaluable. He’s still got a lot of work to do, though.”
Marshall returns 13 offensive linemen and five running backs, including Tron Martinez, who ran 160 times for 692 yards and three touchdowns last year. Also returning in the backfield is Travon Van, who rushed for 614 yards and three scores in 2011.
“We feel really good about the tailback position,” Holliday said.
Aaron Dobson, who caught 49 passes for 668 yards and 12 touchdowns, is back to lead the Marshall receiving corps.
“He became a lot more consistent and made some big plays last year,” Holliday said.
Five starters are back on defense — DT Marques Aiken, DE Jeremiah Taylor, MLB Jermaine Holmes, CB Darryl Roberts and SS Devin Arrington.
Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha — a pair of transfers who played in the Boston College secondary — are also new to the Herd.
Marshall, though, lost defensive end Vinny Curry, who was taken 59th in the NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. Nose tackle Delvin Johnson, who had 42 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss last year for Marshall, recently signed as a free agent by the Washington Redskins. Free safety Omar Brown was also lost. He signed a free agent deal recently with the Baltimore Ravens.
“Defensively, our secondary is solid,” he said. “We added the two transfers from BC. They are seniors and they will give us some senior leadership. I like what those two kids bring. The biggest issue on defense last year was with our second level players but we’re a lot more athletic at linebacker. Our defensive line has more depth. You can’t replace Vinny Curry. He did a lot for our program. I’ve never seen a defensive lineman dominate a game like he did a couple of games last year. In the Rice game, he almost singlehandedly won that game for us.”
Holliday also said his special teams are solid.
“I’m excited where we are with our kicking game,” he said. “The reason we won seven games last year was because of our special teams. I keep telling our kids that if you keep blocking punts you have a 90 percent chance of winning every game that you play. Guess what? We blocked six punts in six different games and won every one of them. Our kicking game is in the top three in every category and we had two young kickers with very strong legs.”
Holliday said he hopes the momentum carries over to this fall.
“I’m excited about the direction of the program,” he said. “There’s a lot of momentum and I’m proud to be the football coach. This year, we’ve got six home games. Last year, we only had five, so we’re going in the right direction. Six good teams are coming in there but we need all of you to show up and bring your buddies.”
— More on the Marshall Coaches Caravan in Sunday’s sports.