New movie depicts a coach's battle to rebuild a football program after a horrible tragedy

`By God, that's ... what happened'

December 11, 2006|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun reporter

Jack Lengyel began the 1971 season at Marshall University with a team made up almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores who'd never played a down of college football.

The coach's first order of business was to take them to nearby Spring Hill Cemetery in Huntington, W.Va.

At its highest point, overlooking the city, a memorial obelisk honors the 75 Marshall players, coaches, team boosters and university and city officials killed in a plane crash less than a year earlier.

The crash, which occurred as the team returned from an away game, made headlines across the world. Flags were lowered to half-staff in West Virginia and memorial events were staged at college football games nationwide the week after.

"These are the people you're playing for," Lengyel remembered saying. "We may not have many victories this year, but you will be building the foundation for the Marshall University football program and share in all the victories of the future."

Sitting last week in the Annapolis home where he lived nearly 15 years while working as Navy's athletic director, Lengyel added: "That was our goal and our mission."

His and the team's struggles to rebuild a Division I team almost from scratch after one of the worst tragedies in American sports is the subject of the film We Are Marshall, which will premiere tomorrow in Huntington and Dec. 22 nationwide.

The story, back then and in the movie, is about more than football.

"When I got there, I thought I was there to rebuild the football program after this terrible crash, but I quickly found out there was a void in the university and a void in the community as well," Lengyel said. "So getting over that makes this about more than the game, but about hope and faith and perseverance and love."

Like other recent football films based on true stories, including Remember the Titans and Invincible, this movie has its share of embellishments. For Lengyel, who now lives in Arizona, chief among them is that he is played by a lithe, shouting Matthew McConaughey.

"He's only the sexiest man alive," said Lengyel, 71. "When I was in college at Akron University, I won an award as the ugliest man on campus."

A self-described "keeper of things," Lengyel donated copies of collected pictures, writings and scrapbooks from his time at Marshall. He said McConaughey read it all before deciding to base his portrayal of Lengyel not on imitation but as an extension of himself.

Two studios had approached Marshall officials about retelling the team's story after the Nov. 14, 1970, crash, and Lengyel, who took part in the meetings, said they felt confident that Warner Bros. had the proper respect and reverence.

Dave Wellman, a spokesman for Marshall University, said historians, archivists and other consultants made every effort to stay true to the story. Lengyel said Warner Bros. used Huntington residents as extras, and community-based firefighters to film the crash scene in Atlanta.

"By the time they were done filming in Huntington," he recalled, "everyone was wearing green jerseys and hats," the colors of the Thundering Herd.

Before the crash, the Herd had only four winning seasons in 24 years. It had lost 27 straight games and had just been kicked out of the Mid-Atlantic Conference for violating NCAA rules.

Lengyel's teams went 9-33 during his four years there, but Marshall bounced back after moving temporarily to Division IIA, eventually becoming the winningest college football team in the 1990s.

Lengyel went on to fill supervisory positions at college athletic departments across the country, including at Louisville, Missouri and Fresno State, finally landing at the Naval Academy, where he stayed from 1988 to 2001. Both of his sons are Naval Academy graduates.

Although Navy didn't win quite as often during his tenure as it has in recent years, Lengyel proudly wears a giant ring that celebrates the football team's thrilling 42-38 win over California in the 1996 Aloha Bowl.

Dave Bethel, a 1979 academy graduate and varsity basketball player, said Lengyel was an "innovator" as athletic director, leading many renovations and revitalizing the Naval Academy Athletic Association.

"I've known him for 16 years, and all that time I never knew he was the guy who was brought in to resurrect Marshall's program," Bethel said. "Of all the great things he's done in his career, before this I think he was known for what he did at the Naval Academy."

Now Lengyel does consulting and works as vice president of XOS Technologies Inc., a Florida-based company that provides software and technology to Division I-A athletic departments.

Lengyel doesn't get nearly as animated talking about the present as he does about Marshall's first season after the crash, of which he seems to remember everything.

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