‘From the ashes to the phoenix’

Adam Larck
Former Marshall University football coach Jack Lengyel spoke March 26 about his experiences at Marshall University at Eureka College.

During his talk March 27 at Eureka College, Jack Lengyel had a simple quote to explain the past 40 years of the football program.

“From the ashes to the phoenix,” he said.

He used this simple statement to explain how the Marshall University football program went from a recruiting scandal to losing almost the entire team in a plane crash in 1970, to rebuilding into the eventual powerhouse it became in the 1990s.

Lengyel, who took over as coach after the crash, was portrayed by Matthew McConaughey in the 2006 movie “We are Marshall.” His presentation started off with the trailer for the movie, which he says he only watches when he has to critique it with students.

“I haven’t watched it in a long time, but I see the trailer every time I speak and Nate’s trailer I always see,” Lengyel said. “I’ve been speaking at least once or twice a month over the last four years.

“It brings back good memories and tough memories, but I enjoy watching it.”

Lengyel also spoke earlier in the day at Washington High School.

Before getting into his time at Marshall and his career in football, Lengyel started the speech with some key tips to the Eureka College students there, including most of the college football and baseball teams.

During the introduction, he stressed to the audience members to look at your goals every year, choose your core values and make a plan on how to achieve them.

“Every person that’s been successful has a plan,” he said.

Life at Marshall

He then transitioned over to his time at Marshall, including the unrealistic goal he set of announcing that he wanted to go undefeated his first year during a press conference. He said he made the goal because he had to plan big.

After seeing that he had only three varsity players left on the team, as well as the equipment manager, he started using freshman to play positions and other athletes Marshall had.

Knowing that he would not be able to run his normal rushing offense, Lengyel asked Bobby Bowden if he could watch his team use the Houston Veer offense. Bowden agreed, so Lengyel spent three days going over every detail of the offense to implement it with his team.

Lengyel’s team, nicknamed the “Young Thundering Herd,” showed the offense off nicely in a home opening win against Xavier University, 15-13.

“It was a big first step for the team and the community, and it gave everyone hope,” he said.

While the team would only win one more game that year, the team never gave up hope, he said.

“That’s what perseverance is about,” Lengyel said.

He ended his presentation about Marshall with a video by one of the three varsity players, Nate Ruffin, as he wrote a letter to his former players catching them up on the recent activities with the football program. The video was shown during Marshall’s championship run in the 1990s on national TV.

Recently, he and his former players have started a tradition of going back each spring to turn on the memorial fountain that was dedicated to the team lost in the crash.

Liberties with the movie

After the presentation, Lengyel took questions from the audience, many of which focused on the movie made about him and the team.

He started off by answering the unasked question: Did McConaughey do a good job portraying him?

“For those of you that saw the movie, my sideburns weren’t that long, I never had a 5 o’clock shadow, and I did not dress like Bozo the Clown,” he jokingly said. “Matthew McConaughey took great liberties with my persona.”

Liberties were also taken with the final play of the game, which Lengyel said is the only thing that bothers him about the movie.

“What they did, which wasn’t the right play, was they ran a bootleg into the sideline, which is the 12th man,” he said. “Everybody looked at it and said, ‘If you’re on the 13-yard line you have to be the dumbest coach in America to run that play.’ So we threw the ball back to the wide side of the field and I told them that. They said, ‘Well, we’ll change it.’

“What they did to appease me is, the ball’s in the air, flashback, the ball’s in the air, flashback. You don’t remember the hell the play was when the ball gets down anyhow. So that’s how they appeased me. I was furious with them, but it worked out.”

Lengyel, who was a consultant on the movie set, said he almost was not even a part of it. After seeing the first script, he sent Warner Bros. back 17 pages of correction and said he did not want to be part of the movie because it did not honor the team.

Warner Bros. listed to his concerns and made a movie that helped many parents that lost students find closure to the situation, Lengyel said.

“Overall, they did a pretty good job,” he said.

He did add that after the movie, he was “besieged” by people asking when he would write a book about the true events.

“If I wrote a book and gave the true story, St. Troy’s not far enough for me,” he said. “I just let them write whatever they want to write. A lot of people have written things. What I would write would be more authentic, but why would I want to confuse everybody at this particular point. You write books and you’re going to piss half the people off about something. It is what it is and let it go.”

Life after Marshall

After leaving Marshall in 1974, Lengyel became the athletic director at Louisville, Missouri, Fresno State and the U.S. Naval Academy.

He also was the interim AD at Temple, Colorado and Eastern Kentucky, where he worked with currently Bradley president Joanne Glasser.

“She had just released her AD, and the chairman of the board called me,” Lengyel said.

He stayed at EKU for only six months before hiring Danny Hope for the school.

However, even after no longer being an AD, Lengyel said he is working harder than ever.

“I’m all over the country,” he said. “I still chair the awards committee for the National Football Foundation. I meet in Dallas and New York. I go to the American Football Coaches Convention.”

He is also a member of the board of trustees at the Naval Academy and United States Coast Academy, as well as the vice president of business development for XOS Digital.

He said that it is not hard to balance everything, though.

“It’s all about athletics. It’s football. I pick up the phone and say, ‘Would you guys get this frickin thing done,’” he said.