It’s a sign of a lingering 2020 — a coach of the year on a division champion with a first-team all-conference quarterback gets sacked.
And arguably, it all makes sense.
On a personal level, I hate to see Doc Holliday not get his contract renewed after 11 years in Huntington. He coached the most games in program history, going 85-54 with three division titles and the 2014 Conference USA championship.
He leaves the program in better shape than he found it after the 2009 season, and put as much dedication into the program, school and community as anybody else. But a growing chunk of the fan base grew disgruntled with painful losses and failing to stockpile C-USA titles.
The first thing you must know: Marshall fans have no respect for this, the third iteration of Conference USA. Zero.
Louisiana Tech fans, they don’t respect your team. North Texas fans, ditto. Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, UTSA, Old Dominion, the same. Western Kentucky quickly earned the tag of newest rival, so that’s a little different.
But you get the picture.
A little background here: As Marshall was gashing the Mid-American Conference from the moment of its 1997 entry, fans, coaches and players alike had visions of jumping to C-USA — the Cincinnati/Louisville/TCU version. The Herd beat three C-USA teams in bowls, so why not?
That didn’t work out in the great conference earthquake of 2003, but Herd fans tolerated entry into a league that still featured Houston, Memphis and East Carolina.
They didn’t much care for the 22-37 record under Mark Snyder, who wasn’t ready to be a head coach, much less to take a team into a tougher league. The team speed in C-USA was different and the crowds were larger at times — the 2005 game at UTEP drew a legitimate full house of 51,500, still the largest crowd for an MU conference game.
It was at UTEP where the Snyder regime mercifully ended in 2009 with a 52-21 Miner rout. Despite being 6-6 and bowl-eligible for the first time, Snyder resigned under duress the next day — trust me, it was justified.
As Doc arrived and began to build a championship team, the earth moved again and you know what happened to C-USA. Funny thing is, the Herd sent out C-USA defector ECU with a 59-24 spanking in a 2013 winner-takes-division game.
That was the Herd’s best game under Holliday, period. An improbable 17-13 win over Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville in 2011 and the 52-23 stomping of MAC champ Northern Illinois in the 2014 Boca Raton Bowl were among other highlights.
As was the 2014 championship game, a 26-23 win over Louisiana Tech. But Doc’s detractors throw an asterisk on that one — the Bulldogs had several players lose eligibility when grades came out.
I refuse to do that, for it disrespects one of Marshall’s better outfits, a 13-1 squad that was as much fun as it was talented. Rakeem Cato, who needed some tough love and much polishing, turned into one of MU’s great quarterbacks. He was one of the most imaginative dual threat QBs in C-USA history, regardless of era.
The underrated factor was Holliday rebuilding his staff after the 2012 season. He still had offensive coordinator Bill Legg, but had to replace almost everyone else — and rebuild a defense that gave up about 10,000 points in 2012. Luring Chuck Heater as defensive coordinator was his most brilliant hire.
But 2014 was Holliday’s only C-USA title, which is the No. 1 sticking point.
The 2015 squad was 10-3, but nobody was beating high-powered Western Kentucky. Everything collapsed 2016 — by November, I was covering the worst MU team since 1982.
Holliday did an admirable job bringing the team back in 2017, despite a painful 1-4 stretch run. Chase Litton threw a bunch of interceptions against FIU and FAU, and then the Herd lost 9-7 at UTSA. Then a mishandled extra-point snap cost the Herd a trip to overtime against Southern Miss.
The UTSA game enraged fans, though I warned them that points weren’t going to be easy (defensive lineman Marcus Davenport went to the Saints in the first round of the 2018 draft). I thought the Herd redeemed itself by beating Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl, Holliday’s fifth of six bowl wins.
2018 and 2019 were near-misses, punctuated by the 2019 loss at Charlotte. The 49ers had talent (linebacker Alex Highsmith is having a fine rookie year in Pittsburgh) and wanted badly to beat former coach and Marshall DC Brad Lambert, but championship teams gut out those games.
The Herd failed miserably in the fourth quarter, and the howling got louder. “Charlotte?” they screamed.
As for 2020, falling from a No. 15 ranking to getting skunked by Rice, losing the championship game at home to UAB and falling to Buffalo was the last straw.
Alas, the Top 25 ranking was pandemic-induced fool’s gold. The 17-7 win over Appalachian State was nice, but the original 2020 schedule would have presented a more accurate picture — the Herd had Pitt and Boise State on the program’s best home schedule, and East Carolina and Ohio on the road.
Wells had a fine season overall and may be a star under the new coaching staff, but he wasn’t first-team material. Instead of being baptized in a difficult September, he enjoyed a glorified 7-on-7 drill against Eastern Kentucky to start the season, and got to play UMass as well.
Against Rice, UAB and Buffalo, the passing game disintegrated into something that looked like random throws to wherever. At a school boasting Randy Moss, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich, scoring 23 points in three games isn’t going to cut it with the fans.
Nor should it.
How much was Holliday’s fault? He was accused of shackling his offensive coordinator, playing too much for field position instead of launching a vertical attack. I buy that in some instances — for example, I am certain he slammed on the brakes in that Charlotte game after an early turnover in the rain.
I have a few other beefs. His insertion of a freshman running back in what should have been a monumental upset of West Virginia was his worst coaching move, as the resulting fumble cracked the door open for an NFL QB and his two NFL receivers to rally.
The Herd had more than a few dismissals from the program, and there were strange cases of players leaving early for the NFL draft when they had no prayer of being selected. To his credit, Doc never apologized for the dismissals — he always said, “You can’t hide here.”
I also thought he didn’t recruit enough superstar-level talent, and the NFL draft reflects that. Of players he recruited, only four have been drafted, though I think Neville Hewitt (Jets linebacker) should have been. None went higher than the fifth round.
But realistically, Holliday’s teams probably should have won one more championship, and another division title beyond that. I’m not going to channel the Herd’s glory era of 1991-2002 and, unlike some fans, I see there are 13 other C-USA schools that give football scholarships. Even in the dregs of the FBS, winning isn’t automatic.
I’ll throw it down a little further by setting the over-under for the next 11 years: two league championships.
You read that right. T-W-O.
And if the MU administration botches this hire, I’ll take the under. And the Doc Holliday era will look a little better, tough ending aside.