Marshall Movie Revives Near-Miss For Bowdens

by - Correspondent -

CLEMSON - As Clemson prepares for the Dec. 29 clash with Kentucky in the Music City Bowl, Hollywood is about to remind the Bowden family how lucky they really are.

On Friday, the motion picture "We Are Marshall" opens to a nationwide audience. The movie deals with the real-life story of the tragic 1970 plane crash which killed 75 Marshall University football players, coaches and boosters. The theme of the movie isn't so much the crash, but instead the struggle to keep the program alive and, at the same time, try to heal an entire community.

Jack Lengyel was the coach chosen to take on the rebuilding process, replacing coach Rick Tolley who perished in the crash.

But were it not for what proved to be a life-changing decision, Tolley might still be with us today and it could have been Bobby Bowden aboard the plane that fatal evening.

Bowden, an assistant coach at West Virginia since 1965, was offered the Marshall head coaching job in 1969. He declined the offer, choosing instead to stay at WVU where - a year later - he would take over the Mountaineer program and begin laying the foundation for his legendary coaching career.

But had he accepted the Marshall job?

"Y'all might be sitting here talking to someone else," son Tommy Bowden said after Wednesday's workout.

The Marshall tragedy is something the Bowden's hadn't discussed much in recent years, but when news of the movie came about some old memories resurfaced.

Tommy Bowden said Wednesday that he and his father had discussed the issue, but it had been years earlier.

"We talked about it a long, long time ago," he said. "I think he told us years afterwards, after the plane crashed, that he had an opportunity to go there as the head coach, which would have put him on that plane."

By the time preparation for the 1971 season began, Lengyel and his staff were looking for a simple, effective offense the young Thundering Herd could run. Bobby Bowden was running the veer at WVU at the time, and when Lengyel asked if he and his staff could study film of the Mountaineer offense - an unusual request even then - Bowden gave the Marshall coaches free reign of the film room.

WVU also wore Marshall stickers on the back of their helmets during the 1971 season, Bobby Bowden's way of memorializing those who died in the crash.

Perhaps Bowden was being kind. Or perhaps he had a deeper understanding of what exactly transpired.

After all, it wasn't the first time that Tommy's dad had a brush with disaster.

Back on Dec. 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge - which connected Point Pleasant, W.Va. to Kanauga, Ohio - suddenly collapsed into the Ohio River. At the time, 37 cars were crossing the bridge span. Thirty-one of them fell into the river with the bridge.

The death toll in the collapse was 46, with another nine seriously injured.

And once again, had it not been for what seemed like a simple decision, Bobby Bowden might not have been around to turn down the Marshall job.

"He was supposed to be on that (bridge)," Tommy said. "I think he made a decision, recruiting down there, to travel up the other side for some reason. So that's two catastrophies down in that area that he personally could have been involved with.

"But for some reason - Divine intervention - he chose another route."

Bowden said after practice that he hoped to see the movie sometime this weekend.


- The team went without pads during Wednesday's practice.

"We've hit pretty good the last couple of days," Bowden said.

- With graduation ceremonies set for Thursday, Bowden said the day's practice will take on the look of an early spring workout.

"There won't be many seniors around," he said. "It will be all underclassmen, just like it will be this spring. It will be interesting to see how they do."

- Speaking of academics, Bowden said he expected to have 100 percent retention of his players once all grades were issued. Apparently there was still a question about one of his players, whom he would not identify, but said that he expected everyone to be eligible.

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