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Former Marshall coach carries on Thundering Herd legacy

By Drew Hetzer
On November 16, 2010

A coach of the Young Thundering Herd continues to carry on the legacy of Marshall University's football program.

Mickey Jackson took over the responsibility of coaching the receivers for the Young Thundering Herd after the tragic plane crash on Nov. 14, 1970 that killed the 75 people on board.

Jackson is now the president of Marshall University's National Alumni Association.

"I've been a member of the board for about six years, and I'm really looking forward to continue leading this outstanding group and fulfill the mission of the university," he said.

During an interview, he stressed the importance of the university and the community to carry on the legacy of Marshall University football.

On Oct. 29, Jackson helped plant a 50-year time capsule inside the outer walls of Marshall University's Foundation Hall.

"I won't be around when they open the time capsule in 2060," Jackson said. "We talk now in terms of social media, with e-mails, texts, Facebook and personal broadcasts, so we don't know where this is going and how it will play into the future. We have a small window of opportunity to get more people involved."

According to a Marshall University news release, the capsule contained several letters, a "We Are Marshall" DVD, a copy of Marshall Magazine, student and alumni predictions for 2060, a cell phone, an MUID card and other items related to the university.

"Anybody that enters the program has to understand who they represent and what the program is all about," he said. "It's a great story about the people, community and university picking themselves up and throwing themselves back into the fight, despite the tragic event that occurred. It shows a great deal of courage, perseverance and determination."

Jackson said members of the Marshall University football program still visit the Spring Hill Cemetery, where most of the team is buried.

"The tradition first started with the Young Thundering Herd, when we went up to the gravesite where most of the team was buried," he said. "Six of them could not be properly identified and separated, so they share a common grave there. Also at that same spot in 2001, former teammate Nate Ruffin, who lost his battle with cancer, had requested his body be brought back to Huntington so he could be buried with his teammates."

Ruffin was a running back for the 1970 Thundering Herd who injured his arm two weeks prior to the game and was absent in the fatal flight to Greenville, N.C.

The Nate Ruffin Lounge in Marshall University's Foundation Hall was named as a tribute for his dedication to Marshall University, Jackson said.

It was Ruffin's devotion to the team that made him work so hard, Jackson said.

"It is important for players of yesterday and today to remember because we keep that as a record of appreciation for what they've done for our school and community," he said. "I think that's just a small token of the true value of what they had accomplished. The true loss to the university, community and the country will never be determined because of the great potential this group of people had."

Jackson joined the Marshall football staff in September of 1970 to coach with head coach Rick Tolley, but was absent from the game the Herd lost to East Carolina.

"Coach Carl Kokor and I took the assignment to scout Ohio University," he said. "After the game, we were feeling pretty good about the notes we had taken and could possibly put together a report that would beat Ohio University. We did find out by radio, unfortunately, that we had lost our game against East Carolina."

Jackson said it was shortly after the initial broadcast when another announced a plane had crashed in Huntington.

"Suddenly, we heard about a plane being down in Huntington," he said. "Not realizing for sure about what we heard, we tried to stop and call back home from a service station. The circuits were busy. Then, finally, we got through, and our worst dream was confirmed. The plane was down, and it was the Marshall University football team and coaching staff."

Jackson said the weather conditions were poor, with fog and rain.

"It was certainly a long night for us," he said.

Jackson said they finally arrived to Huntington around 5 a.m. and went straight to the football office.

"For about the next three to four months, our primary job was to try to maintain some order and to help keep the student athletes that we did have to stay in school and get their work done," he said. "It was three more months of people going through a lot of pain and suffering. The university and community were in mourning, so we had a full-time job dealing with those types of situations."

Jackson said those who remained began to help rebuild a new team.

Jack Lengyel, head coach for the Young Thundering Herd, said when he first transferred from Wooster College to Huntington, he thought he was just rebuilding a football team.

"I quickly found out it wasn't just a team, but a community," Lengyel said.

"Just that sudden loss was devastating for everyone," Jackson said. "There were just so many great folks on the plane that we remember. Coach Tolley gave me my first college start as a college coach, and without that opportunity, I would have missed the chance to coach some of the best running backs in the country."

He said one particular running back who stood out was Terry Gardner, a freshman for the Young Thundering Herd from Portsmouth, Ohio.

"We had strongly recruited him, and one of the recruiting advantages is he was able to play varsity the next year, unlike other schools," Jackson said. "Working with him and seeing him score a winning touchdown for Marshall University brought a lot of joy."

Jackson said his association with other head coaches opened up new coaching opportunities after coaching at Marshall.

"I learned so much form coach Tolley and then stayed on to work with Jack Lengyel to coach the Young Thundering Herd, Dick Crum at Miami of Ohio, Woody Hayes at Ohio State."

"Mickey was a tremendous coach," Lengyel said. "My wife and I are godparents to one of him and his wife's children. He was a son of Marshall. He played here and was an outstanding player and coach for us.

"When Woody Hayes called me and said he was thinking about hiring him, I told him you should hire him," he said.

Lengyel said at Ohio State Jackson went on to coach Archie Griffith, who was the only two-time Heisman trophy winner in the history of NCAA football.

Jackson said after having a position at Ohio State he decided to retire from coaching.

"I haven't coached a game since not even little league," he said. "I miss the close personal relationship with the players, but coaching is a full-time commitment. I don't believe there is such a thing as a part-time coach. You have to really be committed to do a fair job at it."

Drew Hetzer can be contacted at

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