Editor’s note: November 14 will mark the 50th anniversary of one of history’s worst accidents involving a sports team – the 1970 plane crash that killed 75 people, including 37 players on Marshall University’s Thundering Herd football team, five coaches, including head coach Rick Tolley who grew up in Mullens, two athletic trainers and the athletic director, along with 25 supporters, and the plane’s five crew members. The tragedy was re-told in the 2006 movie “We Are Marshall.” This story was initially published in conjunction with the release of the movie.
Rick Tolley had proven himself to be an outstanding athlete, established himself as a winning coach, and he was also “a very nice guy,” according to his family and friends.
Whatever future he had ended Nov. 14, 1970 when the chartered plane bringing Marshall University’s football team and supporters home from a game at East Carolina crashed near Tri-State Airport in Huntington. There were no survivors.
At the age of 30, Tolley became the youngest head football coach in the country.
In 1969, as Marshall’s acting coach, Tolley led the fledgling team to its first victory in three seasons, ending a 27-game losing streak.
“Rick was the one who brought the Marshall football program back,” explained Robert Tabscott, who grew up in Mullens and played ball with Tolley.
“He was a fine individual, a fine football player, a fine basketball player, and an outstanding baseball player,” Tabscott recalled.
“His sister, Peggy, was the head cheerleader at Mullens. His dad was superintendent at a coal operation in the area. They were good, solid people.
“Growing up in Mullens, we all knew each other. We were all good friends and we stayed in contact with each other,” he explained.
Tolley’s family moved to Mullens when he was in the eighth grade, in 1952; so his junior varsity and varsity years were spent playing as a Mullens Rebel, according to his older sister, Peggy Peery.
He graduated from Mullens High in 1957.
In the movie, “We Are Marshall,” Peery believes her brother comes across as a “drill sergeant.”
“That’s not the Rick I knew,” she emphasized. “He was a dedicated athlete and he wanted to win, but he was a very kind person. He just enjoyed life.”
Peery watched two early showings of the movie, and it stirred a lot of painful memories for her. The movie is now playing in theaters across the country.
“It was hard to watch, especially the first part with the team getting on the plane. They did show some of the scenes from the crash, that part was hard to take. The second time I watched it, it was a little easier.
“If I was just an observer, I think it would be a great movie. It just brings back a lot of those memories for me.”
“I remember the day of the funeral,” recalled Willie Akers, who also grew up in Mullens and played ball with Tolley.
Akers was a standout athlete at West Virginia University and coaching legend in Logan County.
“It was a sad day; they had the funeral in the high school gym.
“Of course, Rick was a kind of hero to the people in Mullens... It was a tough thing to happen.
“They were just a real, real nice family,” Akers said of the Tolleys.
“My mother heard about (the crash) on the radio and she called my sister-in-law,” Peery recalled of that November day.
“My sister-in-law didn’t know anything about it yet.
“My husband and I had gone to Princeton and on the way back to Tazewell (Va.), I had the strangest feeling. I was just on edge, I just felt something was very different.
“The minute we went through the door, the phone was ringing. It was my dad, and, of course, I knew what he was going to tell me.
“Of course, we left immediately for Mullens. I remember we had to take my mom to the emergency room that night,” she said.
“We left the next morning for Huntington.”
The next week, the family spent in Huntington, waiting for the young coach’s body to be recovered and identified.
“I remember Dad would get up early every morning and go to the airport and wait,” Peery said.
“The crash happened on Saturday, and Rick wasn’t identified until the following Friday.
“Rick was the last person to be identified,” she recalled. “He was identified through knee surgery he’d had.”
Tolley’s wife, Mary Jane Edmundson Tolley, wasn’t on the plane because their dog was sick.
“She’d stayed home with the dog,” Peery explained.
“My mom and dad weren’t on the plane only because there was a home game the next weekend. Or, they would have all been on the plane.”
Andrew and Pauline Tolley remained in Mullens until their deaths. She died in 1995; he passed away in 1998.
Mary Jane Tolley is a retired teacher and lives in Virginia; she never remarried.
Peery said her brother had spent the night at her home in March 1970, while on a recruiting trip in Tazewell.
“We stayed up half the night talking,” she said. “That was the last time he visited me in my home.”
A stand-out baseball player, Tolley was being recruited by the Pittsburgh Pirates, Peery said.
“It was different in those days, and they wouldn’t agree for him to go to college,” she explained.
“Our parents had always been so dedicated to both of us going to college, so he turned it down.”
Tolley graduated from Virginia Tech in 1961, where he played center and linebacker.
Peery said her brother had told her he would always wonder what would have happened had he followed the baseball career.
A Marshall graduate herself, Peery said she’d always been partial to Marshall and hoped her brother would be named head coach.
“Rick was the interim coach for a year. There had been some sort of scandal and the coach was fired,” she recalled. “Then they hired Rick.
“They had lost 27 games in a row. When Marshall won that first game, I knew that would secure Rick’s job as head coach.
“The next year, I remember thinking, if he’d only lost that first ball game, he’d be alive today. But, then again...
“He was only 30 years old, the youngest head coach in the nation at that time. I think he would have had a great career, if he’d lived.”