The State of the Program Entering I-A
Under George Chaump, who went 6-4-1 in his rookie season at the I-AA level after being hired from Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1986, Marshall would spend the following two seasons returning to heights it hadn’t seen in half a century. From 1966 to 1983, the Marshall football team failed to win more than four games in any given season – a streak of ignominy partially resulting from the 1970 plane crash that killed 37 football players among the 75 that perished, but also due to the fact that the head coaching position had become a revolving door where the school always ended up the loser in the equation. If the team lost, they were left firing yet another coach; and if the Herd had even a modicum of success, a more powerful program looking for a guy to lead a reclamation project quickly nabbed the coach up.
In 1987 the Herd went 10-5, reaching the NCAA Division I-AA National Championship Game before losing a 43-42 heartbreaker to Northeast Louisiana at Holt Arena in Pocatello, Idaho. They returned to the playoffs in 1988, but were upset 13-9 by Furman on their home turf in the quarterfinals. A 6-5 swoon in 1989 couldn’t prevent Navy from hiring him as their new head coach in 1990.
The coaching pipeline continued to hum as new athletic director Lee Moon convinced Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jim Donnan to head eastward for his first head coaching gig. Donnan became the third straight coach to start his career with a 6-5 season at Marshall, and like Chaump before him he would lead his team to the national title game in his second year. Like Chaump’s team, his squad would suffer defeat in a close 25-17 contest against Youngstown State.
The following 1992 season saw Donnan accomplish what no head coach previously had at Marshall – he led his squad to a national championship. Entering the postseason after an 8-3 regular season, the Herd rattled off four straight home victories for the title. On November 28 they knocked off Eastern Kentucky 44-0 in front of 16,598 fans. The following weekend Marshall survived a 35-21 challenge from Middle Tennessee State.
In the semifinals Marshall thundered to a 28-7 victory over Delaware to set up a rematch with Youngstown State and their 40-year-old head coach who was a rising star in college coaching circles – Jim Tressel. A year earlier Tressel had outdueled Donnan in Georgia. Now, showcasing the new Marshall University Stadium and enjoying the comforts of home, Donnan had the Herd fired up to prevent Tressel and the Penguins a second straight championship. On the 22nd anniversary of the plane crash that obliterated their roster, Marshall prevailed 31-28.
The unlikely hero of that night’s contest, Willy Merrick, was a soccer player at Marshall whose brother David served as the Herd’s placekicker. When David was suspended ahead of the national championship for violating team rules, Willy came in as an emergency replacement. After converting all four of his PAT attempts and with the game tied at 28 in the waning moments, Merrick was called upon to kick the only field goal attempt of his career. From 22 yards out, with ten seconds remaining on the clock in Huntington, Merrick became a local hero as his try sailed between the uprights and completed the fairy-tale turnaround for the long-suffering program.
Over the following three seasons Donnan would lead the team to two more championship games and to the semifinal in the third year. But when Donnan left for Athens to become the new head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, it fell to his successor Bob Pruett to reclaim the championship and lead Marshall back to the highest rung of the college football ladder.
His rookie season was more successful than any prior Marshall head coach. The former defensive coordinator during the school’s transition from I-A to I-AA football with the demotion of the Southern Conference in 1982, Pruett took advantage of the strong roster left behind by Donnan to lead the team to the first undefeated, untied finish in the team’s long history. Avenging their championship defeat in Donnan’s final campaign, Pruett’s charges trounced Montana 49-29 and averaged 48 points a game through their postseason run. In their final I-AA season, Marshall had acquitted itself and lived up to the hype.