Holliday brought Marshall football back to respectability

AP photoMarshall players and coach Doc Holliday celebrate after their 31-28 victory over Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl Dec. 16, 2017, in Albuquerque, N.M. The Thundering Herd closed out the 2020 season with three straight losses after dropping Friday's Camellia Bowl 17-10 to Buffalo. The question now is, will Holliday return? His contract expires June 30, 2021.

A few days ago, while going over Doc Holliday's achievements in 11 seasons as Marshall's head football coach, I was reminded that his current contract is nearing its end.

That's always news, of course. In this case, it bears more significance because of the way the 2020 season ended for the Thundering Herd.

There's no way to sugarcoat what happened. The Herd started the year 7-0, averaging 37.4 points and 450.3 yards per game along the way. Marshall was ranked as high as 15th in the Associated Press Top 25 after a 42-14 win over Middle Tennessee on Nov. 14.

That was the last time Marshall won a game. Inexplicably, it was as if the team that won its first seven games never existed. At least not offensively. The defense never really faltered, although it appeared to be more susceptible to the run during the three-game losing streak.

The offense, meanwhile, bore no resemblance to the one that once seemed unstoppable. First-year starting quarterback Grant Wells went from unexpected superstar to struggling freshman. His 18 touchdown passes led Conference USA, but 16 came in those first seven games.

His struggles led to the team's struggles. The Herd scored just 23 points over the final three games, including a 20-0 home loss to Rice. Wells threw five of his nine interceptions in that game alone, and he was 0-of-10 passing in the first half of the C-USA championship game against UAB as the Herd trailed 9-0 at halftime.

In the bowl loss to Buffalo, Wells was 13-of-20 for 114 yards with no interceptions, but no touchdowns either.

It's typical for freshman quarterbacks to struggle, but the trials normally come at the start of the season, not seven games in. As coaches often say, freshmen really aren't freshmen anymore that late in the season.

But this collapse was too monumental to pin on one player, which is why it has proven too much for Herd fans to accept. The bottom doesn't just fall out because the quarterback has a few bad games.

Covid-19 undoubtedly had an impact. Game cancellations and postponements hit even before the season started and never relented. The Herd went three weeks without playing between the Middle Tennessee game and the loss to Rice. Then the game against Charlotte a week later was canceled, only adding to the inconsistency.

Still, someone has to take the blame for everything in today's world, and many fingers have been pointed in Holliday's direction. He's a college football coach; it comes with the territory.

Holliday, whose contract expires on June 30, 2021, was asked about his future after the bowl game.

“At the end of the day, Mike (Hamrick, Director of Athletics) and I will sit down at some point and figure out what’s going on, but right now, I hadn’t even thought about it, to be honest,” Holliday told Grant Traylor of the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington.

The critics have been out in full force, naturally. They point to the Herd only playing for three conference championships — losing twice — in 11 seasons under Holliday. They make reference to his lack of success in November and December in recent seasons.

But, like it or not, a three-game losing streak — brutal as it may have been — doesn't take away from the program's overall success under the Hurricane native.

Holliday has coached the Herd to 85 wins, trailing only Beckley native Bob Pruett for most in school history. His 139 total games coached and 77 wins over FBS opponents are the most for the program.

He has only one losing record in conference play and is 6-2 overall in bowl games. He's had three losing seasons overall, but two of those came in his first three seasons as he was working to bring the program back to respectability after a disastrous five seasons in which Marshall was a combined 23-37.

Starting with his fourth season, Holliday has led Marshall to a 68-34 record, including three straight 10-win seasons from 2013-2015. The lack of conference championships is understandably frustrating, especially from a team that at one time seemed to be playing the game as a mere formality. In the 1990s, if felt like the Herd could win simply by signing the contract.

But that was a long time ago, and that type of sustained dominance is uncommon. To expect it every year is to be misguided and unrealistic.

College football fans want desperately for their teams to win, and there of course is nothing wrong with that. But two mistakes they seem to make is believing they know more than the coach and that they are more vested in the program than the coaches and players. It's easy to be an expert for three hours on a fall Saturday when you miss all the heavy lifting the other six days of the week.

One losing season out of the last eight can't be dismissed. Going into each year knowing you have a chance is better than the alternative.

We all want to be winners, and that's what Marshall football has been under Holliday.

Email: gfauber@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @GaryFauber

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