Marshall plane crash has connection to NCAA matchup

Marshall University basketball players huddle before their victory against Southern Miss in the Conference USA tournament. (WCHS/WVAH)

The story of ashes to glory has been a common one on Marshall University’s campus since 75 people associated with the Herd football team were killed in a plane crash in November 1970.

It’s a story that has come back around thanks to a matchup with Wichita State University in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Just 44 days before Marshall’s plane crash, half of Wichita State’s football team suffered the same fate. Wichita State's crash killed 31 people, including 14 players.

“It was a horrific experience for everyone,” said James Rhatigan, who was dean of students at Wichita State when its plane crashed into a Colorado mountainside.

Rhatigan said while members of the campus were still dealing with their grief, he saw a news flash on television about Marshall’s crash. The bulletin hit him and Marshall fans such as Woody Woodrum almost simultaneously.

"47 children lost at least one parent. 25 or so lost both,” Woodrum said. “You think about that number. It's staggering, and how they coped with it I don't know."

Rhatigan got on the phone just after the Herd lost nearly its entire team to share advice he wished he never had to give.

“Our tragedy was so new, so we had done some things extremely well after our crash, and we had done some things not so well not having an opportunity to prepare," he said.

Wichita State also shared its money.

University President Clark Ahlberg decided to split the funds raised from a nationally televised fundraiser they had been planning for weeks called Night of Stars.

“He said we’re not going to be able to do this without Marshall,” Rhatigan said.

Both universities have followed very different paths since their crashes.

Wichita disbanded its football program in 1986, while Marshall became the winningest team of the 1990s playing 1-AA football.

When the Herd and the Shockers meet as enemies on the court on Friday, there will be an unspoken historic bond linking them, no matter which team comes out on top.

“Once you’re a member of this family, you’re a member,” Woodrum said.

Tipoff is at 1:30 p.m. Friday.

Marshall enters the competition as an underdog against Wichita State.

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