East Carolina and Marshall have had some tremendous battles through the years, but the series was marred by disaster decades before the players who will decide the pending outcome were born.
The Pirates (0-1) host the Thundering Herd (1-0) on Saturday at 4 p.m. (ESPNU) in ECU’s first home game of 2023.
Another Marshall team made the journey to Greenville in 1970 and what ensued was one of the greatest tragedies ever in sports.
The misfortune that transpired is described in ECU Chronicles, Our History:
“In their last home game of the season, played on November 14, 1970, the Pirates, then a dismal 1-7, faced the Thundering Herd of Marshall University, 3-5. The Pirates won the game, 17-14, with a final 24-yard field goal by Tony Guzzo. But then came shattering news: the chartered Southern Airways DC-9 jet carrying Marshall’s 37 players, eight coaches, 25 boosters, and a five-person flight crew had crashed on its approach to the airport in Huntington, W.Va. All 75 on board were killed. The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) declared it the deadliest air accident in American athletic history.
“Upon hearing of the tragedy, ECU head coach Mike McGee commented, “The tragedy is beyond belief.” He informed the Pirate team of the terrible news and then assembled the players at 2:00 am for a brief memorial service. McGee later announced that the families of the deceased players would be sent a copy of the game film, the last in which their sons played. ECU players, haunted by memories of the game – shoulder blocks, handshakes, grins, and grimaces, still very real in their minds – recalled the now deceased Thundering Herd players with profound sympathy and heartfelt prayers. Dr. Leo W. Jenkins expressed his condolences stating, “We are deeply grieved and our prayers go out to their families and friends.” ECU SGA President Bob Whitley announced the creation of a Marshall Memorial Fund to place a bronze memorial plaque at Ficklen Stadium. Clarence Stasavich, in shock, recalled how he had personally seen the Marshall coach off, suggesting as he departed that the teams play again the following year. Then, according to memories that haunted Stasavich, he wished him a good flight. The Greenville and ECU communities were speechless, having just hosted the Marshall visitors and then suddenly faced with grieving over their inexplicable deaths.
“Following the end of the 1970 season, McGee, after only one year at ECU, resigned to become head coach at Duke University. In a solemn ceremony held on November 8, 2006, at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, the bronze memorial for the Marshall players and their supporters was at last unveiled. The unforgettable tragedy has fatefully paired the two universities, their teams, and their communities, even in gridiron rivalry, in sharing, at every match, grief over the senseless, catastrophic human loss that occurred in November 1970.”
As it says in Ecclesiastes, there is a time for everything. Grief still tinges ECU-Marshall, but the series also has had its times for celebration, too.
A 2001 bowl game in Mobile matched future NFL quarterbacks Byron Leftwich for Marshall and David Garrard of the Pirates. ECU led 24-0 in the second quarter but was topped, 64-61, in double overtime as the Herd had a 649-492 lead in total yards.
Another comeback in 2021 is a better memory for Pirate Nation.
ECU was facing an 0-3 start in Mike Houston’s third season after losses to Appalachian State and South Carolina. The chances of a signature win looked slim with the Herd leading, 38-21, at home with under eight minutes remaining. Holton Ahlers had a 5-yard scoring run and caught a 27-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Snead. Rahjai Harris scored the winning TD on a 1-yard run with 55 seconds to go.
The comeback helped the Pirates change course for a 7-5 season and an unfulfilled bowl matchup with Boston College.
ECU holds an 11-5 series lead against Marshall.
The Herd was scheduled to come to ECU in 2020 in what would have been a 50th anniversary recognition of the fatal flight in 1970 but that contest was canceled due to COVID issues.
Marshall returns instead three years later — or 53 years after the Pirates became inexorably linked to the flight that went down on a mountainside as it descended to Huntington.
As seriously as football is taken, it should be remembered that it is not life and death. The sad circumstances of 1970 are a reminder.