THE THUNDERING HERD (Marshall University)
The emergence of Marshall University Thundering Herd football has been nothing short of spectacular.
By Greg Shepard
Published: Summer 2000
To many, Marshall does not conjure up much of anything let alone being counted among the nation’s elite football programs. Yet, here they were last January ranked 10th in the nation ahead of Penn State, Florida, etc. after a relatively easy 21-3 Motor City Bowl victory over BYU. Heisman finalist Chad Pennington led the Herd to a perfect 13-0 season elevating Coach Bob Pruett’s record to a nation leading career .926 winning percentage (50-4). Pretty incredible! What’s going on in those hills of Huntington, West Virginia? Let’s find out.
Coach Pruett revealed, “We have taken chances on some players but you can’t be programmed for failure in anything. Formulate a plan to exploit your strengths and manage your weaknesses. We have to thoroughly understand each player. If a player has a time management problem, we get him help. If they have communication skills, we exploit that.
“We also set very high goals and standards. We expect to play for the championship. Hopefully our players are offended if our goals are too low. I see our biggest challenge is to repeat a championship. We just can’t forget the steps that got us here. We have a formula. So we take advantage of our success and improve on it just a little bit.”
Marshall had great success before Coach Pruett’s arrival. Jim Donnan led the Herd to a 63-21 record from 1990 to 1995. However, Bob Pruett gave new meaning to the word “thundering.” Marshall achieved a perfect 15-0 record in Pruett’s first season in 1996 and a NCAA Division I- AA National Championship. The next year Marshall recorded the most wins ever by a first-year Division I-A school as they went 10-3 and a 29th national ranking. The 1998 campaign was even better as the Herd achieved a 12-1 record, their first bowl victory and a 27th national ranking. This set the stage for their undefeated record last season.
Coach Pruett learned by being in all kinds of trenches. He has had 14 years as a high school coach and has even been a head wrestling and golf coach in the state of Virginia. Coach Pruett not only played football at Marshall but lettered three times in wrestling and track. Now in his mid-fifties, Pruett is a man who has waited patiently for his chance to prove his mettle and this he has done by propelling Marshall into the national limelight.
Mike Jenkins has served as Marshall’s strength and conditioning coach for the last two years. Prior to that, I knew Coach Jenkins when he was at Weber State in Utah for three plus years. Coach Jenkins earned his Masters in exercise physiology at Texas A&M where he was also an assistant strength coach. He has a great passion for his job and says, “Football no longer only requires size and strength to succeed. You now have to add speed to that factor. Because of this, we try to create a faster, more explosive athlete here in the weight room. Through the workout program, we try to improve their 40-yard dash time and their vertical jump. Our primary focus is to get the athletes in shape as well as have them at the peak of their performance throughout the season.
“Our players get motivated when they come in and actually see themselves getting faster, more explosive, and it allows them to have a good time. That alone motivates players. They come in and feed off each other, they see the others getting bigger, faster and stronger. They just don’t want to get left behind.
“The most rewarding part of my job as a strength and conditioning coach is being able to watch the athletes perform on Saturdays after training them for nearly eight months. Game days are great.”
Marshall University is a state-supported university and traces its origins back to 1837. There are about 16,000 students including 4,000 graduate and medical students. Not only is the athletic program on the rise, so is the whole university. More than $150 million in physical improvements and expansion have taken place in the 1990’s. In addition, a 30,000-seat, state-of- the-art MU Football Stadium has been constructed so that the capacity can be expanded to 55,000. It features a modern scoreboard which stands 37 feet high and measures 54 feet long replete with video display capabilities.
One question I had to ask. Why the Thundering Herd? I thought buffalo roamed the great western plains not the hills of West Virginia. I was wrong. Apparently, way back, there were buffalo. The “Thundering Herd” of buffalo provided the natives with nearly every substance needed for human survival. The name was actually taken from the title of one of Zane Gray’s Old West novels and has been used by Marshall since 1919.
Two players represent the buffalo’s survival attributes. Paul Toviessi and Doug Hodges are an inspiration and they may help any reader have a desire to do a little better:
Paul is a first generation American. His parents came from the French speaking country of Benin which is just northwest of Nigeria in Africa. “My dad is fluent in four languages,” says Paul proudly.
Paul grew up in Alexandria, Virginia where he played three sports at West Potomac High School. He played football, basketball and was on the track team. Paul made the All-State team as a tight end and defensive end. As a senior, he was 6-6 and 215 pounds. Paul started to lift seriously as a 9th grader and by his senior year achieved the following marks: Bench-280, Squat-350, Dead Lift-315, 40- “at least a 4.4 or 4.5.” Now, at age 22, Paul can Bench 385, Squat 490, Hang Clean 319 and Vertical Jump 35 inches. He is majoring in Sports Management and Marketing and will graduate this summer.
Paul came to Marshall to play football with his best friend John Cooper. It turned out to be a great decision. “We win so much that we expect it now,” says Paul. “It’s a good feeling to win all the time.” Paul made first team All-MAC and was named Player-of-the-Week several times at his defensive end position. At 6-7 265 with his speed and quickness, Paul is a force that is hard to handle. “But I’m not big on awards,” asserted Paul. “The team is more important.
“I believe the secret of our success is that the coaches recruit well. We give a lot of athletes a chance. Some of my teammates come from poverty or a poor background. Marshall provides an opportunity to grow up and mature. I started out not going to class but then I changed. I had reconstructive knee surgery because of an injury during the second game of the 1998 season. I thought, ‘Man, I’m only one play away from never playing again.’ It made me realize that I had better go to class, get my grades and graduate. I know now that I’m not invincible . . . no one is.”
Paul has developed some strong convictions as a result of his experiences at Marshall. “Give it all you got in the classroom,” advises Paul. “Anything you put your name on make sure it’s quality. If you make a mistake, people will judge you on that. Find a role model. Mine is my dad. I have the utmost respect for him. He came to this country when he was 15 in poverty and no education. I have four sisters. One died but the other three have graduated from college or will graduate.
“My family is the most important thing in my life. I like to surround myself with people who really care for me. I have about three friends here at Marshall that I’d trust with my life. You can have all the money in the world but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have friends.
“Every time I come into the weight room or on the practice field, I want to get better everyday. I look at myself at the end of a workout or practice and the goal is to always get better.”
Doug Hodges is from Miami, Florida and attended Southwest Miami High School. There is no way Doug should be at Marshall or any other Division I school. He is listed on the program at 5- 10 but he is probably closer to 5-8. How can he play the safety position? I mean, you’d think Doug would be easy t