In the late 1800s in the Western part of the United States lived a guy named John Henry Holliday, better knows as Doc. He was a friend of Wyatt Earp and had a very strange career path. He started as a dentist in Atlanta, and would up a professional gambler and gunfighter. He once saved Earp’s life in Texas, forging a friendship that would last for their lifetimes and result in the two teaming up in the famous shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.
Today in the Southwest part of West Virginia lives another “Doc” Holliday. This one waited forever to get his shot as a head football coach and begins his 10th season this Saturday as the Head Coach at Marshall University.
This John “Doc” Holliday is a native West Virginian who played linebacker in the mid to late 70s at West Virginia University where two of his coaches were future Pulaski County High School coach Joel Hicks and a young graduate assistant named Nick Saban. Holliday went right from playing into coaching at his alma mater for Don Nehlen. Along the way he’s had stops at Florida, and N.C. State. His career path appeared to be that of a career assistant known mostly as a recruiter. Everyone needed a “doctor” to get players, but no one wanted him to lead their program, not even the school for which he played.
But in 2010, Marshall hired Holliday as its head coach. The questions were obvious, is Holliday just a career assistant, or just a recruiter or could he actually lead a program?The questions lingered after his first 3 seasons, Holliday’s Marshall teams were just 17-20. In 2013, Marshall went 10-4 losing in the Conference USA Championship game, and in 2014 won the Conference USA title with a 13-1 record. Marshall followed that with a 10-3 season in 2015. After a dip to 3-9 in 2016, Marshall has won 8 and 9 games the past two seasons and Holliday enters 2019 with a career record of 70-46. Seems rather pedestrian, but consider that Holliday is leading Marshall while the school plays in the toughest league it’s ever been a part of.
Unfortunately, Marshall is probably best known for the tragic plane crash of November 14, 1970 which killed all of the players who made the trip to East Carolina, along with coaches, boosters, athletic director, sports information director and community leaders. There’s never been a school more intertwined with a city than Marshall is with Huntington, West Virginia and that’s at least due in part to the plane crash.
Hiring Holliday was a risk for Marshall. While he had plenty of connections to West Virginia, he had no natural connection to Marshall. Marshall has always – despite winning two Division I-AA (now FCS) championships in 1992 and 1996 – been something of the redheaded step child in the Mountain State. Marshall and its fans don’t just carry a chip on their shoulder, they have a gigantic bolder. They’ve always been convinced that they were on an equal footing with West Virginia, but that’s not what the results have shown. In 1997 Marshall and West Virginia played in Morgantown. Marshall had both future first-round NFL picks Chad Pennington and Randy Moss and still couldn’t beat the Mountaineers. From 2006 – 2012, Marshall and West Virginia played every year and West Virginia won all 7 meetings.
From from the 1970 crash, Marshall football has risen back to winning in the I-AA ranks, to I-A football to the Mid-American Conference where they won 4 championships, to now Conference USA. Conference USA isn’t about to be confused with the SEC, but it’s the highest level of football Marshall has ever played, joining the league in 2005. Holliday realizes that you can find players in West Virginia that can play in Conference USA, and he currently has 14 West Virginians on his roster. But, he’s also figured out that the talent resides in the Deep South. Holliday was a maestro at bringing talent from Florida to WVU while an assistant there and he’s continued to mine the Sunshine State. Marshall has 34 players on its roster from Florida. All total, Marshall has players from 19 states including 11 from Georgia, 6 from nearby Virginia and 7 from Ohio.
Marshall enters 2019 the favorite in its division of Conference USA. They have a non-conference schedule that includes rival Ohio, a trip to Boise State and its annoying Blue Carpet, and a home game against Cincinnati. Once confined to a rickety old stadium in Downtown Huntington, the Herd now plays in a facility on par with any in Conference USA, and better than most.
Marshall still hasn’t beaten a ranked opponent since beating Kansas State at home in 2003. Conference USA doesn’t generally provide many opportunities to beat ranked opponents, but there is a spot reserved in a New Year’s Six Bowl Game for the highest ranked team from the Group of Five. One win over Cincinnati, and a Conference USA championship and Marshall may just have its highest achievement ever in football and all they needed was the right prescription from the Doc.
Game of the Week – Week 1 typically has a number of interesting match-ups, but this isn’t a typical Week 1. Large point spreads abound. Clemson is a 36 point favorite over Georgia Tech, Wisconsin and Purdue are both double digits favorites in Road games as the Badgers head to Tampa for a Friday night game with South Florida and Purdue goes to Nevada. How bad is Oregon State. They are at home against Oklahoma State and are getting 15 points. Alabama is laying 34.5 points against Duke in Atlanta.
The Holy War resumes in Provo, Utah as BYU hosts Utah, a very popular pick to win the PAC-12, and Auburn and Oregon can and should be an interesting game,
But, I’ll take Oklahoma hosting Houston as the best game of the weekend. Oklahoma’s defense was a flaming pile of trash last year. Their offense can and should score points again as Oklahoma tries to make it three Heisman Trophies in a row for Oklahoma quarterbacks. It’s the debut of former West Virginia coach Dan Holgerson as the Head Coach at Houston and for all his faults, he can coach offensive football so expect plenty of points as this game occupies a prime-time spot on Sunday Night.
FCS Game of the Week – there’s one match-up between Top 25 teams as 21st ranked Elon heads up I-40 to face 24th ranked North Carolina A&T, but my pick is Southeast Missouri State hosting Southern Illinois. Let’s be honest, neither of those teams is going to win the FCS title and Southern Illinois probably won’t make the playoffs, but these two rivals separated by 45 miles and the Mississippi River meet again for the Wheel Trophy. It’s a trophy made from a real ships wheel – such as the ones who patrolled the Mississippi River back in the day. SEMO won last year in the trophies’ first year.
Division II and Division III won’t open until next weekend. It’s August, it’s hot, and there’s another damn Hurricane barreling toward Florida, but it’s College Football and that means all is once again right in the world.