Nov. 16, 2012
By Jack Bogaczyk
HUNTINGTON - You would figure that since he was not so long ago a star quarterback, Chad Pennington would know honest-to-goodness momentum when he sees it.
The former Marshall University and NFL standout said he felt just that Friday afternoon, and he didn't have to dig very deep to find it.
Pennington is a very involved co-chair for the Vision Campaign, in which the Thundering Herd athletic department and Big Green Foundation is seeking $20 million in private money toward $30 million in new facilities.
With the formal groundbreaking ceremony for the $8 million MU Veterans Memorial Soccer Complex scheduled to open next August, Pennington said the Herd's push for funding gets something to which he is very accustomed - a hike.
"Today, all of it took a big leap forward for me," Pennington said following the ceremony outside Gate C of Edwards Stadium - just below a giant photo of the 36-year-old ex-Herd QB. "I've been involved in the pictures, the drawings we have, some of the ideas, and going out and raising the money.
"But to be able to sit and talk with the architects and see and hear their vision, and have them ask our vision, and see the possibilities, the things that are actually going to happen, you can't put words to it.
"This is all going to be something when you drive down Fifth Avenue or Third Avenue, see the soccer complex and the rest of the facilities to come, for people that don't know about Marshall, they'll want to stop by the side of the road and check it out."
Herd Athletic Director Mike Hamrick said construction will begin soon on the soccer complex at the site of the former Veterans Memorial Field House where MU played basketball for several decades.
The $8 million project (including the cost to demolish the field house and site preparation) will be followed by construction of an indoor practice facility that will include a six-lane, 300-meter track; an academic center for student-athletes, a sports medicine research and treatment center and Marshall Athletics Hall of Fame.
"When construction on the soccer complex begins, that's going to make all the difference in the world," whose co-chair is new Los Angeles Lakers' Coach Mike D'Antoni. "I was asked today what would be the key in keeping the momentum going and what type of feedback have I received.
"Some I have received, or the feeling I get is that, `Well, I need to see something before I can give. We've talked about these kinds of facilities in the past and nothing's happened.' So, with the soccer stadium going first and the other things to follow, people will start to see it, and I think that will jumpstart the momentum again.
"We've got this first phase done. We know we've got another phase, a couple, to go, so I think once they see some of this going up, it's really going to get people involved."
Pennington warmly then wryly said that enhanced involvement could involve his co-chair, the former Herd hoops star who was scheduled to be present at Friday's groundbreaking until he landed his third NBA head coaching gig a few days earlier.
"We will politely forgive him for not being here," Pennington said. "Under any other circumstances we would not, but what a great opportunity for Mike, to be on center stage in Los Angeles and you can just tell in his voice he's extremely excited as well as his players are excited to have him there.
"So, I'm looking forward to watching him coach, and because he signed with the Lakers now (three years, $12 million), we can ask him for more money, too. So, it goes hand-in-hand."
Pennington said his selling point in seeking out potential donors for a project that will take Marshall to the forefront nationally in such facilities is "being part of a campaign that is unique in that it represents part of what we want to be as a university."
Asked if he has had any difficulty asking fellow alumni and MU supporters for big bucks, his "yes and no" response was candid.
"I tell people we want to provide a well-rounded experience for our student-athletes, and also for the community in general," Pennington said. "This all isn't just focused on one particular aspect of the university. It has every aspect of the university involved (athletics, academics, medicine). I think that's really unique.
"It's been harder to ask (potential donors to participate) in some respects because you do have to ask some of the same people who have been generously involved in fundraising in the past, but at the same time, this is such a unique project, it's something most people can't even wrap their minds around and grasp.
"That's the exciting part of it, to be able to go to potential donors and say, `You really want to be a part of this, this is history in the making.' It's something our area has never seen."
Pennington said he has moved his family to Lexington, Ky., but the Tennessee native in no way is devoting himself to the university in Bluegrass Country.
"Lexington ends up being a great geographical area for us, with my family being in Knoxville and my wife's (MU alumna Robin) family being in Madison, W.Va.," Pennington said. "It allows me to be more involved with Marshall now, being only two hours away, and it provides great schools for our kids and great medicals, so it just answered all of our questions about raising a family and all the questions we had about wanting to be involved with our families and our university. It's perfect."
He also keeps a close eye on his former college football program, which faces Houston on Saturday in a matchup of 4-6 teams on the Herd's Senior Day at Edwards Stadium.
"Here are my thoughts," the Herd starting QB of 1995 and the 1997-99 seasons said. "I'm sure the team's disappointed (in 4-6). I know I'm disappointed, and I know (Coach) Doc Holliday is disappointed. I talk to him regularly.
"But, there is still an opportunity here to win two games and make it to a bowl game and these seniors still have an opportunity to win three bowl games. Our class didn't do that. Rakeem Cato has an opportunity to win two bowl games in his first two years as quarterback. I only won two bowl games in my whole career here.
"There's a lot still that can be accomplished. So, instead of lamenting over what has happened, there's a big-time opportunity here to make it to a bowl game. We need to take advantage of that."
And Pennington wasn't shoveling anything when he said that.