Barely within the radar of the Bowl Championship Series rankings, Marshall University is likely to be the only undefeated Division I-A team not playing for a national championship this season. Given its nickname, the Thundering Herd is something of a misnomer. It is college football's quiet powerhouse.
Sort of a poor man's Virginia Tech.
With the schools' rise from mediocrity to dominance and their out-of-the-way locales -- Marshall is in Huntington, W. Va., more than 150 miles northwest of Virginia Tech's campus in Blacksburg, Va. -- there are many similarities between the two programs. From his perspective, Dr. J. Wade Gilley sees Marshall following the same plan to success as the Hokies did.
"They both struggled for many years and brought in experienced coaches who were alumni," said Gilley, a Virginia Tech graduate and the president of Marshall for eight years before leaving in August to become president of the University of Tennessee. "They both put a lot of money into their programs. And they both have a very strong fan base."
There is one notable difference that separates Marshall from any other college football program in the country -- its tragic history.
It was 29 years ago that 37 members of the football team were among the 75 passengers who died in an airplane crash near the school. The team was returning from a game at East Carolina. Each year since the crash, on Nov. 14, 1970, the university has held a memorial service for those who died in what is still considered the worst air disaster involving a sports team in U.S. history.
"From the ashes of that plane crash to where we are today is a miracle, and I thank God for that," coach Bobby Pruett said during this year's service.
After winning Division I-AA national championships under Jim Donnan in 1992 and under Pruett during his first season as head coach in 1996, the success has continued in Division I-A. Marshall went 10-3 its first season and 12-1 last year. Ranked 11th this week in the Associated Press poll, Marshall is 11-0 going into tomorrow night's Mid-American Conference championship game at home against Western Michigan.
The hiring of Pruett, a former defensive coordinator at Florida, was a popular move among alumni. But Pruett's 1996 championship team -- the first team ever to go 15-0 -- included Randy Moss, a transfer from Florida State whose arrival prompted a wide range of reactions. Moss, a native of Belle, W.Va., had pleaded guilty to two counts of battery while still in high school, following a racially motivated brawl. During his 30-day jail sentence, Moss tested positive for marijuana. Florida State revoked its scholarship. (Moss was later charged with domestic battery as a freshman at Marshall, but the charges were dropped.)
"I think he was very important," Gilley said of Moss, now a star with the Minnesota Vikings. "I think Marshall could have won the Division I-AA championship without Randy, but I doubt it would have been done in the same spectacular style. I also doubt that we would have been able to compete nationally the way we have. He was a positive force in bringing Marshall attention in terms of recruiting and in raising money."
Marshall fits the criteria to receive an invitation to one of the four BCS games, having at least nine victories against Division I-A opponents and placing among the top 12 teams in the BCS rankings. But with a strength-of-schedule ranking of 98th (out of 114) and an overall standing of 12th in this week's BCS rankings, the Thundering Herd will likely settle for another automatic bid to the Motor City Bowl should it win its third straight MAC title.
In two previous Motor City appearances, Marshall lost to Mississippi, 34-31, in 1997 and beat Louisville, 48-29, in 1998. Last year, the team was ranked 27th.
The likelihood of a return trip despite Marshall's improved ranking has left many players with a hollow feeling.
"I think we can play with anybody," said Gregg Kellett, a sophomore from Columbia who was lightly recruited by Division I-A programs out of Oakland Mills High and is now Marshall's starting tight end. "We were hoping to get into one of the BCS games and play Michigan or someone like that. A lot of people are down about it. It looks like we're stuck in the Motor City Bowl. We might even play Louisville, and we blew them out last year."
Said Pruett, whose team's 15-game winning streak is the longest in Division I-A: "Things have changed since we got here. It's not just the bowl you're playing in, but who you're playing. We could wind up with a Colorado or a BYU or a Georgia Tech. I've said before, we need a playoff. It's just a matter of politics. I've been through it on Division I-AA. It's easier to prepare a team for a playoff game than a bowl game. The blueprint is there."