Nov. 25, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – One more time …
When Marshall and East Carolina meet Friday afternoon at Edwards Stadium, it’s only the 15th time the schools will have faced off in a football game.
It seems like there have been many more than that.
Maybe that’s because so much of what has occurred in the series has been so significant, and this Thanksgiving Friday noon kickoff will be no exception – a Conference USA East Division title game.
The winner goes to the conference championship game a week later at home or in Texas, with a shot at the last C-USA berth in the Liberty Bowl before the Memphis, Tenn., game moves to an SEC-Big 12 arrangement.
The loser on Black Friday goes shopping for its own bowl bid.
ECU (9-2, 6-1) goes on to life in the American Athletic Conference next season. The Thundering Herd (8-3, 6-1), its once-feared program getting right again with Coach Doc Holliday, hopes to become a perennial C-USA title contender.
It is the last time ECU and Marshall will play for the foreseeable future, although Herd Athletic Director Mike Hamrick – he previously spent eight years as the Pirates’ AD – said discussions are underway for a home-and-home renewal somewhere down the line.
“It will be sad,” Hamrick said. “We’re sorry to see them leaving the conference. They have such a class program, and we do too, and we have such a history, Marshall and East Carolina, in many ways.
“And our fans here at Marshall tell me when they have gone to East Carolina, they’ve been treated so well, and all my friends from East Carolina who have come up here the last couple of times have told me the same thing about Herd fans.
“So, it’s kind of rare, in this day and age when there’s not a whole lot of sportsmanship -- or as much as you’d like to see -- it’s really special when these teams get together.”
Obviously, the signature moment in this series wasn’t a game.
It was postgame, when, in 1970, following the last meeting in a four-year, home-and-home series, the Marshall team plane -- returning from a 17-14 loss in Greenville, N.C. -- crashed and took 75 lives.
The schools had played four straight years before the tragedy, but never resumed a perennial series until the Herd joined ECU in C-USA, in 2005. But although the last two have come down to the final play – including the Pirates’ 65-59 double-overtime win last season that determined a bowl bid on both sides – the most memorable game was in 2001.
It was the only one not played in Greenville or Huntington, as Herd quarterback Byron Leftwich led his team from a 38-8 halftime deficit to a 64-61 double-overtime triumph in the GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
Many of the all-time NCAA postseason records were set in that game, and remain intact today.
That, however, isn’t the game Hamrick remembers best. It’s one before he was the AD at both schools, one he played in as a junior outside linebacker for the Herd – a 45-0 ECU triumph at Ficklen Stadium in 1978.
It was the first Herd-Pirates game since the plane crash, and it was in Greenville, N.C.
That Herd team finished 1-10, and Coach Frank Ellwood already had been fired the previous week. All the losses came in a row after a 17-0 opening win at Toledo – where current Herd defensive coordinator Chuck Heater was a third-year assistant coach.
That ECU team went 9-3, winning the third Independence Bowl, 35-13, over Louisiana Tech.
Hamrick had a big game – 12 tackles, including two sacks, three solos, seven first hits. Current ECU Coach Ruffin McNeill was the Pirates’ starting strong safety.
Those facts are not what Hamrick recalls most from that Nov. 18, 1978 day.
“We were flying back, scared to death,” Hamrick said. “It was a night game, last game of the season, and we got beat pretty good. They were a really good team. Pat Dye (later at Auburn) was their coach.
“We flew back into Huntington, the weather wasn’t good, and you could hear a pin drop on that plane. We were all thinking of the same thing (the 1970 crash). It was foggy with a little bit of rain. And that was my first experience with East Carolina.”
In 1995, Hamrick became the ECU athletic director, and in eight years there, he did what he’s been doing the last four years at his alma mater – building and enhancing facilities. The Pirates did $46 million-plus in improvements under Hamrick’s watch.
“The only other Marshall-East Carolina game I was involved with was the (2001 GMAC) bowl game,” Hamrick said. “We – and ‘we’ then was East Carolina – led 38-8 at halftime. The rest is history on that.
“Then I came back here (after six years at UNLV), and we were both in Conference USA and played in 2009 and the years since. We’ve had great games.”
ECU has been where Marshall wants to go – in C-USA football success, in enhancing a program with great facilities. Had Marshall built back in 1999 what it’s constructing now, the last decade in which the Herd has been playing catch-up might have been much different.
In 2006, East Carolina erected and dedicated a bronze marker outside the Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium visitors’ locker room, in memory of the 1970 Marshall plane crash. There has been a good vibe throughout a series the Pirates lead 10-4 … but one that seems closer than that off the field.
“Their fan support is phenomenal,” Hamrick said of a school he knows well, and one that averaged 43,985 per home game this season – or 14,240 more per game than C-USA’s next best home draw, UTSA in the Alamodome. “I spent 8 years there, went to lot of bowl games.
“One of the best bowl games I’ve ever seen is probably that (GMAC Bowl) … talk about a game swinging from one half to the other!
“It’s obviously been a very good series and one that people want to see. TV obviously thinks that, too. CBS Sports Network has taken the game for the last week of the season three straight years, and on a holiday Friday for the second year in a row.”
It’s going to be a while before the teams play again, it appears. East Carolina’s schedule is undergoing a facelift, obviously, with its entrance into the AAC, and the Pirate non-league dates are pretty much locked up through 2018.
Twelve of the 14 Herd-Pirate games have been played in November. The exceptions are that wild GMAC Bowl and an Oct. 3 date the Pirates won here in 2009.
Maybe the Herd can go to Greenville in 2019 or 2021.
Perhaps the Pirates could visit Marshall in 2020 – in particular on Nov. 14, 2020 – a Saturday and the 50th anniversary of the Marshall plane tragedy.
How fitting would that be?
Two of the last five ECU-Marshall games have gone into OT. Another has gone down to the last play in regulation. Now, there’s a date for a division championship, a C-USA place the Herd hasn’t been before, a place where the Pirates never will be again.
“This is a very special game for a lot of reasons,” said Hamrick, who has seen it from both sides, “and we need our fans to fill every seat we have. A game -- a series -- like this doesn’t come along every day.”