It has been nearly 50 years since a plane carrying the Marshall University football team crashed in West Virginia, killing all 75 people on board. Linked to ECU forever by the event, Marshall was on their way back to Huntington, West Virginia from Greenville, North Carolina and Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium after a 17-14 defeat in November of 1970.
Now, with a change to the upcoming football schedule that has the two schools playing on Aug. 29, the Pirates and Thundering Herd will be afforded an opportunity to honor and remember that tragedy so many years ago.
“What a special situation that we’re in, being the 50th year since the tragic plane crash up there in Huntington, West Virginia,” ECU head football coach Mike Houston said. “Just having the opportunity to honor those that were involved in that and also just remember all the positives that have come out of that.”
Originally scheduled for Sept. 5, the matchup between Marshall and ECU would have coincided with Labor Day and would have likely been relegated to an ESPN streaming platform.
Because of that, ECU Athletics Director Jon Gilbert and his staff set in motion a plan that would bring the most attention to the anniversary of such a terrible accident.
“We were talking about as a staff, how do we bring the most exposure to this game and to that 1970 Marshall team,” Gilbert said. “We felt like going to week zero and doing a waiver through the NCAA would bring us the most exposure.”
That increased exposure will come in the form of a linear ESPN broadcast instead of being shifted to a streaming service. While Gilbert iterated nothing is set in stone in terms of which channel the game will be carried on and at what time, he said the tragedy strikes close to home with him.
Having been to the memorial on Marshall’s campus several times, Gilbert and the Pirates now have the opportunity to welcome the Thundering Herd back to Dowdy-Ficklen for the first time since 2012.
“I want to be mindful of how we do this,” Gilbert said. “It’s really important for me that we do this the right way. Through my discussions with (Marshall Athletic Director) Mike Hamrick, who’s been really good to work with, we’re going to get both schools together at some point in the near future where we get to sit down together, probably us going to Huntington.”
Set to discuss the pregame festivities prior to Aug. 29, the process of moving this contest was set in order long ago.
A waiver submitted to the NCAA and the Football Oversight Committee was necessary, a process that ended on Thursday morning when it was finally approved. As part of the waiver and letter Gilbert sent to the NCAA, he included the names and biographies of all 75 members that passed away in the crash.
Of those members, four students-athletes were from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a fact that hits home to Gilbert after he spent 17 years at the University of Alabama. Even so, with the game moved up, it will both give ECU a chance to honor Marshall and potentially help with ticket sales.
“It’s a unique circumstance, they (the NCAA) do not pass these type waivers lightly,” Gilbert said. “I think it is a credit to Marshall University and that team and the way we’re going to honor that for this waiver to pass. I think it will be advantageous for our fan base that they won’t have to choose between a Labor Day weekend and a football game.”
As part of the contract between the two schools, ECU will provide around 4,000 tickets to Marshall, according to Gilbert. Additionally, tickets will be available to direct family members of the victims.
With this game moved up to week zero, the Pirates now have five Saturdays off during the 2020 football season. That is in addition to playing one of the first contests of the new campaign as the Pirates will now have the first true week of the season off before playing the University of South Carolina on Sept. 12.
Elevated to a national stage, however, the spotlight will not only shine on ECU and its football program, but also once again on the tragedy that struck the Marshall community so hard nearly half a century ago.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for East Carolina and this region and this institution to put its best foot forward in celebrating a school that had arguably the worst tragedy ever in the history of college athletics,” Gilbert said.