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MCGILL: Homecoming Brings Tight-Knit 1996 Title Team Together Again

Bob Pruett.
Oct. 15, 2016

By Chuck McGill

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – As the players from Marshall’s 1996 I-AA national championship team entered the Big Green room inside Joan C. Edwards Stadium on Friday night, there were plenty of smiles and handshakes and warm embraces.

“The hugs and the conversations are natural,” said Billy Lyon, a defensive lineman and captain for the 1996 football team. “It’s almost like you never left.”

The players are in town for the 20-year reunion of that title team, which finished 15-0 and won every game by double figures. The ’96 Herd, which captured the title in the program’s final season of I-AA (now known as FCS) competition, will be honored before Saturday’s game here in Huntington between Marshall (1-4, 0-1 Conference USA) and Florida Atlantic (1-5, 0-2 C-USA). Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.

On Marshall’s Homecoming weekend, the ’96 team gathered and reminisced.

“Time flies,” Lyon said. “It really does … to think about 20 years ago, what we were able to do.

“We weren’t going to be denied that year.”

The accomplishments for that Thundering Herd team are staggering. Marshall was nationally ranked No. 1 wire-to-wire, steamrolling 15 consecutive opponents en route to the program’s second national championship. Eight of the 15 wins came against nationally ranked competition, and the Herd scored a school-record 658 points and beat teams by an average of 30 points per game.

“We never really thought about it at the time,” said Aaron Ferguson, a former offensive lineman and captain who helped organize the reunion weekend. “Now you look back and you see how good we were. We always knew that we were going to win. We wanted to win and wanted to dominate.

“When you add a Randy Moss to a team like we already had coming back, we knew at that point it wasn’t about if we were going to win, it was about how bad we were going to beat the other team.”

Ferguson said the team practiced so hard that by the time the game rolled around "it was like a test and we already had all the answers."

This weekend’s reunion has drawn nearly 40 members of the 1996 national championship team, including Beckley native Mike Guilliams. He was a young lineman on that team, but said he and others in his recruiting class accelerated their development by playing so much that season.

“That ’96 teams was so good we got a lot of playing time,” said Guilliams, referring to the blowouts that often had starters resting in the fourth quarter.

The 1995 season ended with the bitter disappointment of a national championship game loss to Montana. Then Marshall experienced a coaching change, and Bob Pruett took over the program.

“A lot of times when you change staff people want to run players off,” Pruett said Friday night. “We were tackling people at the door because we wanted to keep them all."

The offense changed. The defense changed. The personnel did not. And the ambitions spurred by that title game loss to the Grizzlies became loftier. The Herd grew tighter as a team.

“I know it’s not easy for everybody to come around,” Ferguson said of the reunion weekend. “The relationship that we all have, having the success we had on the field, but it was more about the friendships off the field.

“We were all about each other more than we were about ourselves. That’s what we think led to our success."

The closest game that season was a 24-10 win at Appalachian State – a margin of two touchdowns. In the national championship game, Marshall held a 46-6 lead in the fourth quarter against defending national champion Montana, which was on a 21-game winning streak.

Overall, the Herd had 10 players on at least one All-American team at the end of the season, and 17 players – nearly the entire starting lineup – made all-conference.

“People say it’s the best I-AA team that ever existed,” Pruett said. “There’s not any I’ve seen better."

Here is a full list of the players expected to attend the reunion and Saturday’s game: Ryan More, Aaron Ferguson, Jarrod Keeley, Bert Scarbrough, Ricky Hall, Damone Williams, Doug Chapman, Mike Guilliams, Chris O’Neal, Tim Dempsey, Irv Dotson, Jamie Wilson, Billy Lyon, Andy Cowan, Javonne Darling, Tim Openlander, Billy Gregory, Jerrald Long, Jerry Clay, Albert Barber, LaVorn Colclough, Shauncey Wynn, Llow Turner, John Grace, Joe Zeglowitsch, Mike Webb, Ryan Lipscomb, Will Edwards, Eric Pinkerton, Mark Zban, Derrick Walker, Tuan Reynolds, Jeremy Eastwood, Melvin Cunningham and John White.