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by Keith Morehouse & Dave Wellman

All you need to know to gear up for another exciting season of Thundering Herd Football

Marshall was supposed to be the wallflower. The Herd was to accept the invitation back into the Mid-American Conference party, find a chair on the sidelines somewhere, sit quietly and watch the Toledos and Miamis of the world show them how it’s done.

But Bob Pruett and his Thundering Herd spiked the punch and ruined the dance.

That 1997 football season must have had MAC officials wondering what kind of interloper they’d allowed back into the conference. Marshall, exiled from this very same league back in the late 60s for a myriad of recruiting violations, came back with a vengeance. Except for a stumble against powerful Miami of Ohio in Oxford, the Herd ran through its league schedule by an average score of 40-12. On November 15, a rainy afternoon in front of 32,012 fans at Marshall Stadium, the sound from the Ohio Bobcats was more of a whimper than a roar. A 27-0 win by Marshall, on a day when the best Ohio run was back to the bus, gave Marshall an East Division championship in the Mid-American Conference.

Three weeks later Marshall football’s history in the MAC came full circle — it went from the ridiculous to the surreal. The Toledo Rockets came to Huntington for the first ever Mid-American Conference Championship game between the East Division winner and the West Division winner. In a driving snowstorm only a Green Bay Packer fan could love, Marshall and Toledo played inside a packed igloo full of 28,012 fans. Marshall led only 7-3 at half-time, but clearly this was a snowball fight in Marshall’s freezer. Chad Pennington and Randy Moss hooked up for two touchdown passes, one an 86-yarder, and Marshall won 34-14. The Herd had won the MAC Championship in its first year back in Division I-A.

But Marshall wasn’t finished. There weren’t many renditions of "I’ll be home for Christmas" sung by the Herd football team. Marshall accepted an invitation to play in the first-ever Motor City Bowl on December 26. It was a classic matchup between Division I-A upstart Marshall and Mississippi, a school where tradition and bowls are taken for granted, and expected.

A national television audience watched the Herd and Ole Miss battle for four quarters and it didn’t end until Marshall’s Heisman candidate and All-American Randy Moss fumbled deep in Rebels territory as the time was expiring. Mississippi 34, Marshall 31.

That 10-3 season represented the most wins ever by a team after it jumped from Division I-AA to I-A. It was a season during which Marshall proved first to itself, then to the MAC, and finally to the nation, that the Herd felt right at home on the range of big time football.

The Marshall Plan

It was a cozy little gathering really. Just the media and Ohio Head Coach Jim Grobe sitting in a room at the Ohio University Southern Campus back in 1995. The discussion centered around Ohio’s chances in the MAC that season, but the talk would shift to Marshall and its entry into the conference in 1997. Grobe was at his clairvoyant best when he said, "I’m not sure the rest of the MAC knows this, but we’ve just let the fox in the hen house."

Was Jim Grobe prescient or did the rest of the MAC just think he was a bit color blind to the green and white? After all, he grew up in Huntington and was an assistant at Marshall along with Pruett back in the early 1980s.

Maybe three years later the league is prepared to listen.

"Marshall will be right up there again this year," Grobe says without a hint of an "I told you so" in his voice. "Everybody thinks Toledo will be dynamite again, along with Miami. Those three are above the rest of the league right now."

Of course all of the preseason predictions about Marshall’s season come to us now in the A.M. (After Moss). The best receiver in college football last season will showcase his considerable talents on Sundays in Minnesota. The Marshall plan won’t change much. "We’ll just have to find another way offensively," Coach Bob Pruett says. "Randy was never the only focus of our offense because he was only a sprained ankle away from sitting out. We’ll spread it around to a lot of different receivers like LaVorn Colclough, Nate Poole, Jerrald Long and Lanier Washington."

If you think Marshall’s vaunted air attack will be weaker, well don’t give it a passing thought. Quarterback Chad Pennington knows losing the mercurial one is a big loss, but he looks forward to shopping around a little bit in pass formation. "I think it’ll be exciting," Pennington says of his talented, yet overshadowed receiving corps. "In many ways, Randy gave me so much confidence, but I could also be lackadaisical at times. You’ll be surprised by some of the guys who’ll step up."

If Chapman and Turner sound like some kind of accounting firm, maybe it’s because of the numbers they bring to mind. Doug Chapman and Llow Turner combined to rush for more than 1,700 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, hardly worth it for defenses to concentrate solely on Marshall’s passing game.

The Herd does have to replace two of their escorts. Center John Wade was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars and longtime starter at guard Brian Reed is gone.

The defense, though faster than summer vacation, will be very young. The list of departures would fill an All-time Marshall defense list in some places. Middle linebacker Larry McCloud took his 152 tackles to graduation. With 14 sacks, end B.J. Cohen had quite a knack for trespassing into the enemy backfield. Marshall’s secondary gave up only 8 touchdown passes last year, but it’s a secondary this year without B.J. Summers, Thomas Maxwell, and Larry Moore.

"Defensively, we’ve got a lot of ground to gain," Pruett says. "If we can hang in there early, we can be competitive later on."

Names like Rogers Beckett, Girardie Mercer, Paul Toviessi, and John Grace will dominate defensive headlines this season. "We played with West Virginia and Mississippi," safety Rogers Beckett says. "But if anything they proved to be a little stronger than we were. This year, we’ll be young, but talented."

Herd Games

"The price of poker keeps going up," Coach Bob Pruett is fond of saying as his program continues to get bigger and better. The ante’s up this year as well with a trip to South Carolina planned after the opener at Akron and a home game against Division I-AA Troy State. Columbia on a Saturday can be a cauldron, but no less intimidating than Morgantown or West Point. "Playing against the West Virginias and the Mississippis will help us get ready for that one," Pennington says.

But it’ll be red October when Miami comes to town on the 3rd. "They whipped us pretty bad there (45-21) last year," Beckett says, "Hopefully, we’ll return the favor on them this time around."

A week later the second annual "Battle of the Bell" will be fought between close rivals Ohio and Marshall. This time, the war’s in Athens, and students there plan to make life miserable for their southern visitors.

The pundits think this can be another good year for the Herd which stampeded into Division I-A last season. Athlon Magazine has Marshall winning the east division of the Mid-American Conference in one of its publications, and Miami winning it in another. E.F. Alexander writes for CBS Sportsline, "Now that Marshall has established itself as the top power in the Mid-American Conference, the next step will be to maintain this level of power."

There still may be nonbelievers among the teams in the MAC, that Marshall is still out of its league, but if there are, they’re not coaches in the MAC.

"Marshall has raised the bar in this league," Toledo coach Gary Pinkel said last year.

Marshall’s program has made itself at home in its first year back in the conference. The skeptics who used to refer to the school as "the stepchild" of the MAC must be wondering who sent that invitation anyway. Cinderella has plans again this year, and it’s not even close to midnight.

Passer Pennington

Summers in East Tennessee can be quite relaxing really. Maybe spend some time golfing or fishing, or for the more ultra-adventurous, how does Dollywood sound? Chad Pennington was not interested. "I got after it big time," Pennington said.

"It" was training camp, set up for and run by Chad Pennington himself. No one else around, and no dues to pay, at least in the monetary sense. Home is Knoxville, Tennessee, but for Chad Pennington, this was no time for a little R&R. Why not take it easy, Chad? This is a guy who led the nation with 42 touchdown passes last season — 3 more than Heisman finalist Peyton Manning. This is the guy who’s first team All Mid-American conference at quarterback. Pennington was the guy who was The Washington Post comeback player of the year (he was redshirted in 1996).

"There’s always room for improvement," Pennington says in his matter-of-fact style. "I’ve been working on my footwork and my strength and trying to become more elusive." That’s all the enemy coaches need to hear, that Chad Pennington’s trying to get better.

"They talked about Randy Moss going pro last year," Ohio coach Jim Grobe said. "I wish Chad would have gone too." Marshall’s junior-to-be is being hyped as a candidate for the Heisman Trophy in a slick pre-season brochure.

But nationally, Pennington’s name is not listed among the best in the land with Cade McNown of UCLA, or Brock Huard from Washington, or Tim Couch of Kentucky, or even Duante Culpepper from Central Florida. Pennington might get more national notoriety from a witness protection program, but that’s exactly the way he wants it.

"When I think of the Heisman Trophy," Pennington says, "I think of someone being at the pinnacle of his college football career, and I’m not there yet." Who says?

"I think he’s the best I’ve been associated with," Pruett says, "and I’ve seen some good ones, including Danny Wuerffel at Florida, and he knows a little about the Heisman Trophy."

Jim Grobe agrees. "I think Chad’s one of the best I’ve seen and I saw some pretty good ones at Air Force," Grobe says. "He’s everything you’d want in a quarterback — great character, a team leader, sets a great example, and he just loves football."

Off the field he is a gentleman and a scholar, recognized as a GTE Academic All-American. He says the right things not because they sound good on paper, but because he means them.

"I’ve never met a player so smart," Marshall safety Rogers Beckett says. "He makes all the right decisions."

All the decisions Pennington makes these days involve school and football, in that order. He’s working on a journalism degree all the while hoping that he’s in football for the long haul, and that means playing on Sundays.

"I wake up thinking about it and I go to bed thinking about playing at the next level," Pennington says in his wise-beyond-his-years way. "I have big goals."

This year’s goals are very simple for Chad Pennington. They consist of one more drive, one more completion, one more win. His thoughts reflect back to two painful losses in his final two games of the season as Marshall’s quarterback.

In 1996, Montana beat Marshall 22-20 for the Division I-AA championship even though Pennington was just a freshman, and last year, the Herd suffered that frustrating loss to Ole Miss in the Motor City Bowl.

You wonder what motivates him. A 10-win season yet he doesn’t rest on his laurels. He threw more touchdown passes than any sophomore in NCAA history yet he’s not bragging to friends about that every day.

"No matter who you are, or what you do for a living, you should strive to do it better than anyone else," Pennington says, and that is why he initiated his own summer work program. It’s why his day is dedicated to work when play would be so much more fun.

"That’s just the way he is," Pruett says. "He would just as soon be a Rhodes Scholar than he would a Heisman Trophy winner."

So that explains Chad Pennington’s long hot summer in Tennessee and West Virginia. Life is no beach when there’s work to be done. The only reward he expects, is success. He seems to know the way.

The Next Generation

The sign in front of the school reads, "Meadows Elementary, home of the Wildcats," but inside you’ll find this is the home where fans of the buffalo roam. In Vickie Caldwell’s fifth grade class, everyone’s a Monday morning quarterback. "We usually talk about Marshall football whenever she leaves the room," Patrick Clark says.

If he did his football homework he might realize he doesn’t have to whisper. Mrs. Caldwell’s husband is a former Marshall football player.

That’s why in the fall this school takes on a different shade, a green and white tint. On any given Friday, you can’t see into a classroom without looking past a "Go Marshall" sign. For 12 year old Dima Sergeev, a native of Russia, this Marshall stuff was all foreign to him. "In Russia, they like soccer, and they call soccer football." But even Dima, whose favorite player is quarterback Chad Pennington, has turned green with envy. "Football over here is a kick."

There’s another sign that sits in the shadow of Meadows Elementary which greets visitors when they come to town from Interstate 64. It proudly boasts of Marshall’s two football national championships — a sign of the times here that they take for granted. The students at Meadows are children of the 90s. They know of championships, not losing seasons. They’ve seen celebrations in the streets, not news reports of a plane crash. The bad stuff happened in their parents’ lifetimes.

"I know a long time ago, they weren’t very good," Michael Niday says. But now they’re good enough that the students go where the Herd roams.

Katelyn Copley went to the Marshall-West Virginia game last year with classmate Alyssa Cassidy.

"I thought it was neat," Katelyn says. "We were in the lead once and it was fun to see so many Herd fans there."

Alyssa is a well traveled fan herself at the ripe age of 11. She also went to the Marshall game at Ball State.

"Everywhere you looked, you saw tailgaters," Alyssa said. "People had their faces painted green and there were more Marshall fans than there were for Ball State."

They are well-versed on Herd football. They know Marshall went to the Motor City Bowl last year, or "The Showdown in Motown" as Patrick Atkinson called it. It’s elementary really, you grow up in Huntington, you grow up with the Herd.

"I don’t know if I’ll go to college here or not," 11 year old Katie Abraham says, "but I’ll always be a Marshall fan."

It’s three days before summer vacation and soon this school is quiet. The calendar says school starts on August 26. But, it also says, "Marshall vs. Akron" on September 5. Wonder which date they’re more excited about?

Suiting Up

There are only two rules of fashion that Herd fans should follow to ensure they arrive in style at the stadium: one, green is the "in" color this season and, two, always buy items marked "Officially Licensed Collegiate Products." Why? Otherwise, the money you spend never benefits MU. "There are a lot of people who print T-Shirts who don’t pay their royalty fee," notes Stadium Bookstore owner Jim Morgan. "At our store, 7.5 percent of the cost of the garment goes to MU." Some of the other stores in the region who sell licensed products include Ocean Graphics, Glenn’s, Dan’s, Zide’s and J.C. Penney. But there is more than just shirts and jackets on the market today. Herd fans can choose from anything ranging from green and white toilet seats to specialty MU pastas. So, as you can see, purchasing officially licensed products will make you look good and feel good, darling....

Pruett prepared to lead Herd to the next level

His near-spotless record of 25 victories in 28 games, two championships and numerous coach-of-the-year awards, speaks for itself. So Marshall University football Coach Bobby Pruett talks little about such on-the-field accomplishments. But ask Pruett about his return home, to Huntington and MU, and his eyes light up.

"Sometimes I’m afraid I’m going to wake up and pinch myself and find out this is not happening," he says. "To be able to come back, the reception we got, the things that have happened, it’s been wonderful."

Just like he dreamed for more than three decades and, perhaps, even better. "When I left here in 1965, my goal and dream was to come back," he says. "I don’t know how anyone could have envisioned the success and things that have happened. The fellowship, being back home, being back at our university, it’s certainly been a good two years."

Pruett, a native of Beckley, W.Va., and a 1965 Marshall graduate and former Thundering Herd player, is preparing his team for its second season in the Mid-American Conference and its third under his guidance. The campaign begins September 5 when MU visits Akron at 7 p.m.

Don’t look for Pruett, his coaches or his players to rest on their laurels even though, as he says, "Our fans can be very proud of Marshall University and what it’s accomplished. But, we’re very realistic," Pruett says. "To continue this takes a lot of hard work and a lot of commitment from a great number of people."

The pressure to win, and win big, is great at MU, where fans like the fact that their team has the winningest NCAA program in the 90s, and has posted 14 consecutive winning seasons. The nation, Pruett says, has taken notice of the Herd during his brief tenure.

"Whatever our recognition was at the time (of his arrival), it has doubled to tripled," Pruett says. "I don’t want to take the credit. The credit needs to go to all the coaches and players that were here prior to me, and all the hard work of the media and the town."

Some people, though, think Pruett deserves at least a little credit. "He’s done an excellent job at Marshall," says Florida coach Steve Spurrier, Pruett’s former boss, who visited Huntington this spring. "He’s a fine man and a great coach."

It didn’t take Marshall long to establish itself as a power in the Mid-American Conference after years in Division I-AA competition. The Herd won the MAC championship last season and battled Mississippi tough in the Motor City Bowl in Detroit before losing, 34-31.

"We talked about the price of poker going up when we entered the MAC," Pruett says. "Now that we’re in the league, we’re the top dog and everybody in the league is shooting at us."

They’re shooting, for sure, but hard work by the Herd will keep those shots off target, Pruett hopes. "That’s the thing that I’m trying to work the hardest at — to make sure that we continue to grow," he says. "Certainly, our name recognition is very, very good. What we need to do now is put a couple of good years on top of it to let everybody know that it wasn’t a flash in the pan."

The future, though, "is very ambitious," Pruett says, with the likes of Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Clemson, Michigan State and Florida on the Herd’s road schedule. As far as the home slate goes, Pruett is trying to get some big-name teams to take on the Herd such as "Georgia, LSU, Kentucky, Pittsburgh, people like that," Pruett says.

To get those teams here, Pruett says more seats must be added to Marshall Stadium, which currently holds 30,000. "We don’t want to stay where we are," Pruett says. "We want to see how far we can take the program." Plans call for 10,000 to 15,000 seats being added to the stadium, possibly as soon as 2001.

"We’re very happy where we are, but I think there’s a chance that in 2000 or 2001 there might be a reshuffling by the NCAA," Pruett says. "If they top off the top 75 programs, we want to be in that 75."

In the meantime, Pruett continues to coach the Herd and plan for the future, although "you never say never," he says, about moving on to another school.

"But, I’m not out actively pursuing another job," Pruett insists. He’s too busy living out his dream.

Tailgate Time

Marshall University football fans like to arrive early and stay late for Thundering Herd home games. But that hardly means they spend more time than necessary inside the stadium.

Herd fans swarm to nearby lots hours before kickoff to take part in an old football tradition — tailgating. As Marshall football has improved with 14 consecutive winning seasons, so has its fans’ passion for tailgating.

A year ago, the Herd not only won the Mid-American Conference championship in its first year back in the league, but also would have claimed the league’s tailgating title — if there was one.

"They can’t even come close to tailgating and being as faithful as Marshall fans," said MU devout tailgater Clyde Fuller of Huntington, referring to fans of other MAC schools. "But that’s good, Marshall fans are sort of leading the way."

Many Herd fans spend far more hours cooking, preparing and eating food such as metts, soups, chili, hot dogs and sweets at their tailgating spots than they spend watching the game. For a 7 p.m. game, Fuller and his pals arrive at Lot G across from Cam Henderson Center around 7:30 in the morning. "Breakfast is at 8," he said. "We have Clyde McMuffins."

Fuller said a couple of officials from Akron University passed by their tailgate party last fall and wondered "how much we’d charge" to come to Akron and show their fans how to tailgate.

Many of Marshall’s tailgaters set up shop in the large parking lot west of the stadium, while others do the same at lots south of the stadium and across Third Avenue from the stadium.

Of course, not all Herd fans come out early to tailgate in the parking lots surrounding the stadium. Many go to local bars and restaurants, such as Mycroft’s, Tavern Off the Green II, Yesterday’s, Gino’s Pub, MacIntosh’s and BW-3 in downtown Huntington, to eat, party and socialize before the game.

The tailgating continues for many after the game when the fans return to their spots in the lots to finish off the food and drink. Others, though, pack the nearby bars and restaurants, often spilling onto sidewalks in front of Mycroft’s, Tavern Off The Green II and Yesterday’s to celebrate a Herd victory. They have a blast but often pay the price the following morning....

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