Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD — Is it possible to use a football game as inspiration for a state whose most important natural resource is under attack.  
Why not? Who would have expected Marshall to win the GMAC Bowl in 2001, trailing 38-8 at halftime.  
How about the Thundering Herd themselves?  
Bob Pruett, who compiled a remarkable 94-23 mark in nine seasons at Marshall, was in Bluefield on Tuesday to speak at the Rotary Club. He was asked about some of his more memorable games, and the Herd coming back to beat East Carolina 64-61 in double overtime was certainly one of those.  
“I looked at each of them and said, ‘Don’t you quit’. I told them here is how we are going to win the game,” Pruett said. “I said you’ve got to have faith, it’s got to be a strong faith, you’ve got to really, really believe in your system, in your coaches and the assistant coaches and yourself and your teammate that he can do what he is supposed to do.  
“So many guys are trying to do their job and if you’re not doing your job, you’ve got to believe in every aspect of our program. It’s got to a strong faith, it’s got to be really strong.” 
It was. Marshall rallied to tie the score at 55 with seven seconds left to play, but missed the extra point. Not a problem. The Herd persevered, winning in the second extra period.  
Pruett used that example of a team coming back from apparently insurmountable odds as what could happen in West Virginia, where the coal industry is — as Pruett said — ‘under attack’ from many directions, especially from possible government legislation.  
“We’re in tough times, but you know what, the people of West Virginia are tough people, they’re great people,” Pruett said. “They toe the track and never quit trying, and that is what I think is going to happen. 
“We’ll fight through these things. We’re all a team, we have to believe in it, and it can’t be half way.” 
In nine seasons at Marshall — from 1996-2004, Pruett won 94 games — including the 1996 Division I-AA national championship, the year before the Herd moved to Division I and the Mid-American Conference.  
“All of games are special because you had a special group of kids, and you have the memories,” said Pruett, who has been married for 48 years. “I remember the national championship game in ‘96, it was on my wedding anniversary so that is sort of special.” 
Just being at Marshall was special. A native of Beckley, and a 1965 graduate of the school, Pruett served as an assistant at Marshall, Wake Forest, Mississippi and Florida before finally returning to Huntington in ‘96 when Jim Donnan departed for Georgia.  
Among Pruett’s other accomplishments at Marshall was five MAC titles — including four in a row from 1997-2000 — three Motor City Bowl crowns from ‘98-00, and two GMAC Bowl championships.  
He also had three Heisman Trophy candidates, including Chad Pennington, Randy Moss and Byron Leftwich.  
“God blessed me and let me be a football coach. I had the privilege to be here and live a dream,” said Pruett, who had two undefeated seasons, 15-0 in ‘96, and 13-0 in ‘99, along with six years with at least 11 wins. “In 1965, I graduated from Marshall and my sole desire was to come back and be the head football coach there.  
“That is pretty special, I got to live my dream and many special things happened there. I had a lot of great athletes, a lot of great coaches and a lot of great people and had a lot of fun.”  
Still, through all those seasons of accomplishments, the most improbable may have been the GMAC Bowl win over East Carolina. He still remembers walking off the field at halftime of that game, trailing by 30 points, and a word of advice from offensive line coach and Fellowship of Christian Athletes leader Mark McKale.  
“He came walking up to me and grabbed me by the arm and he said, ‘Coach, no matter what, be positive’,” Pruett said.  
He added, “I told the guys just don’t quit, we were able to come back and win that ball game. It was the biggest comeback in bowl history and one of the top 10 comebacks in all sports by ESPN. We were able to come back... 
“The Good Lord helped us or something happened, or the folks at East Carolina really helped us, but we were able to come back and win the ball game.” 
Pruett said he simply tried change the mindset of his team.  
“The people that work for you have to strongly believe in your plan and your program and what you’re doing, and if you don’t, you are sort of programmed for failure,” Pruett said. “What we had in the first half of that game, we were programmed for failure because we weren’t doing our job, but it’s like anything else, it is correctable. 
“Your plan and your structure and what you do, if you believe in it strongly and the people that work for you believe in it strongly, you’ve got a good chance to be successful.” 
Sure enough. Down 55-49 late in the game, the Herd overcame more insurmountable odds. Well, maybe not.  
“It was a neat ball game because we tied the score, we were on the 30-yard line, 30 seconds to go and third and 30,” Pruett said. “Leftwich hit an out-cut and then we went down and scored with seven seconds to go and tied it up 55-55. 
“Our kicker went out there and he missed the extra point so we had to go to overtime and we were able to win it in overtime. That was certainly a win that we can all reflect and relate to, but what it does tell me about athletics is you have to strongly believe in what you are doing.”  
That’s why Pruett is a part of Friends of Coal, a branch of the West Virginia Coal Association, which tries to promote the importance of coal not only in West Virginia, but across the nation.  
“I love this state and that is where I am coming from and that is what I care about,” Pruett said. “I care about the state that I love, the people that I care about, the people who made it great for me to come back home and fulfill and live my dreams.”  
Still an avid Marshall fan, Pruett thinks the Herd will be competitive with West Virginia when the rivals meet in the Friends of Coal Bowl on Oct. 17.  
“All that time of joking about WVU and Marshall and that sort of thing, I think that helped us generate this game,” said Pruett, of the seven-game series between the clubs that started in 2006. “Hopefully we’ll be a little more competitive up there this year and I think we will be, it will be a lot of fun.”