Nov. 26, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Bob Pruett was wondering …
He will be at Joan C. Edwards Stadium on Friday. Who else … how many … will join him?
The former Marshall football coach said coach Doc Holliday’s fourth Thundering Herd team “has done its part; now, it’s time for the rest of us to do theirs.”
Marshall (8-3, 6-1) will meet East Carolina (9-2, 6-1) at noon Friday in a regular-season finale for the Conference USA East Division title. The winner moves on to the C-USA Championship Game on Dec. 7, a date that could be also played at “The Joan.”
Pruett, who guided the Thundering Herd to a Division I-AA national title; five straight bowl triumphs and a national ranking in three seasons from 1996-2004, said Holliday is returning the program to big success.
“When I talked to the team three weeks ago, I told them ‘November to remember,’” Pruett said. “I said, if they do their part, if they come out and play, this crowd will not let them lose a championship game in that stadium. At least I’ve never experienced it. Every single divisional, conference or playoff game we played here, we won (10-0).
“I can’t believe our crowd will not show up for this ballgame. We need the crowd to show up. The team will appreciate you being there. It’s been 11 years since we played a championship game here. I just think between us playing hard and our crowd showing up and if they do what I know they can -- and I know they will do -- I can’t foresee us not winning the division.
“And that could give us the conference championship game (at home) and it could put us into the Liberty Bowl, the biggest bowl we’ll have been to in the history of the school. We’d probably play an SEC opponent. And if all that’s not worth coming to see, I don’t know what is.”
In I-AA playoff, divisional or conference title games at Edwards Stadium, the Herd is 24-2, but the last of those was a 2002 Mid-American Conference title win over Toledo. Pruett said that absence of the biggest games should drive emotions, too.
“This team has done what Doc and his players said they wanted to do and they were going to do,” said the 70-year-old Pruett, who remains a prominent figure in the Huntington community. “They’re playing for a championship. That’s what Marshall is about. Everything’s right here -- division championship, conference championship, Liberty Bowl … even an 11-win season.
“If you look at it, certainly, you can look back and say what if we’d done this and what if we’d done this, but listen, the what ifs are all gone. There are a whole lot of teams in this country that could have gone undefeated this year, but they didn’t. Only a few are there, and some of them will lose before it’s over. That’s just the way it is. It’s very special. There aren’t going to be a lot of one-loss teams, either.”
Pruett said the Edwards Stadium atmosphere on Friday “could really set the tone for years to come.”
He still supports the Herd in many ways. He’s an M Club board member, a member of the Big Green, has an endowment with his wife, Elsie, with the Big Green.
“We can set the tone because we’ve got a good team, a young team and we’ve got a schedule next year where we could win every ballgame,” Pruett said. “So, let’s learn how to win a championship, and let’s all get together and be part of it.
“More importantly, our crowd needs to learn how to storm that field and tear down that goalpost – I’m not really advocating to do that – but we need that kind of feeling where they took that goalpost down the middle of Fourth Avenue like they did for the national championship game (1996), or when we were down 23-0 to Western Michigan and came back (to win 34-30, in 1999) or won that first MAC championship (’97) in the snow.
“Marshall needs that feeling again. This town needs that feeling again. For anyone, I don’t care what time that game is. If we played at 6 in the morning, our people should come and sit up there and support us. I’ve had too many good feelings, too many great things happen here.
“Listen, everything that everyone has asked for, they’ve put it together now. They’ve got the indoor facility, got everybody’s support in that way for this program. We didn’t have that, or at least presumed we didn’t have that or would never put it in place. But it’s in place now, and we’ve got the players, we’ve got the coaches, we’ve got the administrators, got the facilities and we’ve got the time and opportunity.
“So, now, I can guarantee you this. Our football team’s going to show up to play. Now, I challenge our fans to show up to root us to victory. If they don’t, then keep their rear ends off the chat lines, keep your rear ends off the phone and quit complaining, because you’ve got no complaint if you don’t show for this opportunity.”
At Herd games, Pruett often sits in Marshall Reynolds’ private box or stands on the sideline. He has two tickets in Section 114, row 49. He parks in space 396 in the West Lot. In other words, he’s there – somewhere.
He said he wants others to feel what he feels, and the Beckley native said it’s not related to his successful (94-23 record) coaching years with the Herd. He was a Herd end in the early ’60s, and held a single-game receiving record until Mike Barber broke it some 25 years later.
“What this means to me is not because I coached the program; it’s because I played here,” Pruett said. “This is my school. See, that’s what a lot of people don’t realize. I spent four years here (football from 1961-64, graduated in ’65). We had two baby boys when I graduated. We were married the first semester of my freshman year. This school gave me a chance to earn a living and live a wonderful, wonderful dream. I’m a player; I’m a fan right now.
“That’s all great in the past for me and great memories, but you add all that together and what it means to me is for us to be a champion again. I wear my Marshall green whether we win or lose, but it’s a lot more fun to wear that green when you’re relevant – know what I mean?
“And to be honest you, we got irrelevant for a while, and I think that hurt everybody, our fans, players, administrators – everybody, because they all wanted us to be successful. And that’s the reason I can’t fathom us not showing up to support our team with all this we have a chance to get back.
“We’ve spent how many years complaining about how we weren’t there, and this is our biggest game in years, so if they don’t come and support us now, they need to keep their mouths shut from now on, because they’ve got no beef.”
The Herd’s average attendance for five home games this season is 25,004 in 38,227-seat Edwards Stadium.
Asked what he liked about the Herd from a coach’s perspective, Pruett said it’s the advancement and attitude in Holliday’s program.
“They’ve gotten better, they’ve overcome some hurdles,” said Pruett, who has spoken to the team a few times this season, as recently as Monday. “Winning at Tulsa, that was a hurdle. People don’t realize getting over that for the first time, it’s tough. We’ve been better than them before, but we hadn’t done it.
“I think winning on the road was a big hurdle, having confidence in themselves. Our football team – we’ve really got to play. We really haven’t played as one. By that I mean one game the offense plays well and the defense well, but special teams might not play well. Or, maybe defense plays its best and the offense isn’t at its best. We haven’t put all the pieces together, but we’re close, real close.
“And I think that’s what we’ve gotten better about as the year’s gone on. We’ve beaten ECU in overtime here two years ago, lost in (double) overtime there last year, but we’re a better football team than we were then. They’re better, too. We’re good enough to win. The best players don’t make the best team, but the best team wins.
“We’ve got the best players. Now, we’ve got to be the best team.”
Pruett said the wait-and-see period for Herd fans needs to come to an end this week.
“A good fan of ours, back in ’99 or 2000, told me, ‘What I want to come and see is a top 25 team play.’ And I said every time you come to the stadium you’re seeing one. We’ve been ranked in the top 25 the last three years.
“We’ve got no excuse. I’m a fan now. I give back to the university; I’m like any other fan. I buy my tickets and I think if our people, our fans -- and I have to believe that they are our fans – if they’ll show up in force, they can help us.
“Our players are going to play hard and they’ll root us on to victory and put us back where we belong. This is a young team Doc has. We’ll win championships to come.
“We’ve got a good team, and our team’s going to show up, I promise you. Our crowd needs to show up.”