HUNTINGTON – Why would a small, private college with school colors of black, gold and white have such a green-tinted feeling in it’s spanking new athletic building on campus?
Well, the football ties between Ferrum College and Marshall University are deep … historic … and emotional.
Those bonds are tinged with sweat and tears.
Ferrum — located about 35 miles southwest of Roanoke, Va., in the Blue Ridge Mountains — lost seven alumni and a former coach when the Marshall football team plane crashed en route home from East Carolina in November 1970, taking 75 lives.
Rick Tolley, a Mullens, W.Va. native and the Thundering Herd’s head coach, previously had been an assistant to Ferrum Coach Hank Norton, who is a Huntington native.
Norton, who as a coach was as tough as a $2 steak, went 244-77-11 at Ferrum from 1960-93, winning four national Junior College titles between 1965 and ‘77.
Tolley had left Ferrum for an assistant’s job at Wake Forest before being hired at MU, as an assistant on the staff of head coach Perry Moss in 1968.
The seven players who died were junior college transfers to Marshall from Ferrum, which in 1985 moved to a four-year program in NCAA Division III.
“That day just devastated us all,” said Dan Danko, the starting fullback for Ferrum’s 1968 national title team and a teammate of the seven players who died.
“It’s one of those things that when it happens, you just don’t believe it.
“Sometimes I still think I don’t want to believe it.”
The seven Ferrum/Marshall players who died in the crash were Tom Brown, David Griffith, Pat Norrell, Bob Patterson, Art Shannon, Jerry Stainback and Tom Zborill.
Norton said an eighth former Ferrum player with the 1970 Herd, Gary Morgan, wasn’t on the East Carolina trip because of a bad wrist injury.
“We lost more than any school that day, besides Marshall,” said Norton, still a very sharp 85, who in retirement lives in Deltaville, Va. and is an avid angler on his yard-side Chesapeake Bay.
“And Rick Tolley was my best friend. I gave him his first football coaching job, his first coaching job other than baseball.
“I did his eulogy in Mullens.”
Ferrum has honored what it calls the “Marshall 8” since 1971, when Norton’s storied JUCO program founded the Big Green Award, which still is presented to the Ferrum football player “who best demonstrates the qualities of courage, hustle and desire as a role model for teammates” in memory of the Tolley and the seven Marshall players who died in the air disaster.
The second winner of that Big Green Award, in 1972, was a Huntington native, former Pony Express player at Huntington High and at Virginia, and future Marshall assistant coach, Jim Grobe, who was on the staff of head coach Sonny Randle for five years.
Grobe, also formerly the head coach at Ohio U. football and is now the Wake Forest head coach, and is the father of new MU men’s golf coach, Matt Grobe.
Marshall’s presence has been felt over the years in other ways in Ferrum athletics, too.
The small weight room in Swartz Gymnasium was long ago labeled the “Big Green Room.”
The school’s first athletics Hall of Fame class, in 1994, included the Marshall 8.
Now, however, the Thundering Herd’s tragedy, history and memories have a new place of honor and recollection at Ferrum.
The $5.5 million Hank Norton Athletic Center was dedicated three months ago, and the 29,000-square foot athletic building is filled with remembrances of the Marshall 8.
The weight room, moved from the gym, is the new Big Green Room.
The Big Green Award will be presented for the 42nd season this year. A plaque — with an inscription, “May They Be in God’s Hands for Eternity” — and photos of the Marshall 8 and their NJCAA title rings superimposed hangs in the new Hall of Fame section in the Norton Center.
Besides these dedications, the new Norton Center football locker room is named for Tolley. His portrait, in a Ferrum coaching shirt, hangs on the wall.
And the Panthers’ head football coach’s office — currently occupied by former Ferrum linebacker David Harper — also is dedicated to the Marshall 8.
John Cougill, a guard and defensive end on the ’68 Ferrum title team and now a Richmond realtor, said that his teammates contributed about 95 percent of about $28,000 for the naming opportunity to put the Marshall 8 name on the head football coach’s office.
“Those guys, that team, was a special bunch of guys,” Cougill said.
“The Marshall plane crash was a difficult thing for us. It still is. That tragedy stays with us.
“At Ferrum, back then, the football players did everything together.
“We were roommates, teammates, and playing football for Hank was pretty tough. We really relied on one another for a lot, just to get through things.
“One thing that motivated us, our group, was that although there was a Big Green Room and other things about Marshall and the connection (the Herd has) at Ferrum before, I didn’t think we, as a team, had taken the initiative to say, ‘Those guys were part of us.’
“Now, we have.”
Stainback, a Herd linebacker whose final game before his death was a 22-tackle performance in the 17-14 loss to the Pirates, was Cougill’s roommate.
Danko, from Pocahontas, Va., in the coalfields near Bluefield, and now the director of the Scott Co. (Va.) Public Service Authority, said Stainback was his best friend at Ferrum.
Danko said the Ferrum-Marshall connection “has always been there since the crash, but in the Norton Center, it’s a wonderful place for people to come and learn more about the Marshall 8.
“It’s also a facility that will make a difference at Ferrum, so it’s a great dedication to those guys. It’s beyond my expectations, really.”
Danko said that when the “We Are … Marshall” movie was shown at Ferrum, he spoke to a group about just how deep the Ferrum/Marshall connections were.
Now, he said he is preparing a pamphlet that he wants to make available in the Norton Center, detailing the Ferrum/Marshall connections of more than four decades ago.
“It’s a new chance to show what Ferrum and Marshall have in common,” Danko said. “I think it can close that link for a lot of people.
“In those days when we played, your parents just dropped you off, and if you played football at Ferrum, you just tried to survive.
“Hank ran us a lot, it was a sweatbox, and you’d see guys leaving the next morning, going over the hill with their suitcases. They were done.
“We had great teams, but I’ve always told people we didn’t win anything on talent, but on fear.
“That just made us all closer, and that’s why we miss those guys who died at Marshall.”
Some of Norton’s JUCO title teams gather once annually at his home, and the retired coach says, “You’d think, after all of these years, things would fade.
“But it’s amazing. They were kids of great character. Now, they’re men in their sixties. They just stay together.
“I think what happened at Marshall is a big part of that.”
One of Cougill’s and Danko’s ’68 teammates, Horace Green, still refuses to get on a plane because of what happened to his former teammates on Nov. 14, 1970.
Cougill and Danko came to Huntington with about 15 other 1968 Ferrum teammates in 2007, to see Marshall’s football home game against New Hampshire.
The son of one of their FC teammates, former Georgia Tech All-American Renzo “Rock” Perdoni, was playing for the Wildcats.
It was Cougill’s first trip to the home of their late teammates. Danko had made the trip to Marshall previously, he said.
“We went to the (Spring Hill) cemetery to see the memorial to the crash victims while we were there, as a group,” said Danko, who chaired the Ferrum Hall of Fame committee in its inaugural year, when the Marshall 8 was inducted.
“Doing that, it was tough, but it was good.”
Cougill said that visit — “it was a difficult thing to do, because of the emotions,” he said — rekindled more than thoughts of football for a team that went 10-0 with seven games on the road, and won a national title.
“The crash, the guys who died, that brings us back together always in an inseparable way,” Cougill said.
“I’ve thought for years about them. Every day, for a long time, about 20 years, something would pop into your head … you could see their faces, their smiles, hear their voices. It’s still all there on and off.
“The connection for us and Ferrum with Marshall will always be there.”