The Marshall bandwagon filled up quickly.
Thanks to a talented roster, vastly increased experience, one of the nation's best quarterbacks and a friendly schedule, the Thundering Herd enter the 2014 season as a dark-horse candidate for an undefeated season – and, as such, a challenger for an automatic bid to one of the major bowls associated with the College Football Playoff.
The program is dreaming big. A steady climb under coach Doc Holliday has led Marshall from irrelevance to the top of Conference USA, leading in turn to massive expectations: Championship or bust.
The conference championship wouldn't come as a surprise. Under Holliday, the program has quickly rehabbed and reinvigorated a roster depleted by subpar talent evaluation and development, creating an overall talent level nearly unmatched on the non-major level. There's even reason to believe this team has more than enough in the tank to roll through the season unscathed and head into the postseason as one of the very few undefeated teams in the country.
Holliday spoke by phone with USA TODAY Sports national college football writer Paul Myerberg about these heightened expectations, his team's biggest weakness, the playoff and the three things that could derail all good teams.
Q: There's some trendiness about Marshall right now, particularly with that bit of national dialogue shifting around the Thundering Herd's shot at an undefeated season. Have you sensed that at all from your vantage point?
A: There's no question. The expectations that people have for our football team are extremely high. During the 1990s and early 2000s, those expectations were the same way here – it was one of the winningest teams in college football. It's taken us a while to get back to where people are talking about us again. We need to embrace those expectations. We think it's a great thing, but we also understand that along with all of these extremely high expectations comes the responsibility to come to work every day. I like the way our team has approached it. We've got to continue to make sure that happens.
Q: As an outsider, I tend to split Marshall's history in two. There's the very painful part, with the plane crash the 1970s, and then there's program resurgence under Jim Donnan and Bob Pruett. Do you ever feel the need to educate the roster about where this program has been, both the ups and downs? Maybe use the dominant period more than a decade ago as, "Hey, we want to get back here again."
A: We work extremely hard to make sure that our players understand the history of Marshall football, and how painful a period, as you mentioned, in 1970, when that crash occurred, of having to start over. It took years and years and years to get to the point where it was winning championships. I've been a lot of places, I've told this many times, and I've had three jobs: I was at Florida, I was at N.C. State and I was at West Virginia for over 30-plus years. Those are all great places, but I've never been to a place where their football team means more to the fan base than what Marshall does because of what happened.
It's not the biggest fan base, it's not the biggest budget, it's not the biggest stadium, but the football program's really important to this community, the school, the state and the fan base because of what we've gone through. Those fans suffered through that for all those years and then they finally got to win championships. And when it disappeared, for over a decade they suffered again. To get it back to where they're proud of the football program again, to where people are talking about us in the same terms they were during that stretch in the 90s, early 2000s, they're excited again. I mean, where I go to speak, there's a packed house. They're just excited around here. It's a good feeling. We've got to work really hard to keep them excited.
Q: Is there something you've sensed that's changed with the program since you took over? Beyond an increase in talent level, which seems obvious, and an increased familiarity with the system, is there anything in specific that you believed has changed?
A: I think when you lose for that period of time – there was about a 10-year period there where this program didn't have a lot of success – you've got to change the culture. Last year, even though we were finishing up our third year there, going into our fourth year, we only had like two or three players that played that actually were here when I got here. So there was a total turnaround. We were extremely young for those first three years.
That being said, I mean, for 10 years this program found ways to lose games. I thought that change started to turn a bit last year with the leadership on this football team, from (Rakeem) Cato and all those guys. They were still young, they were still juniors, but the leadership took over. Those kids starting taking ownership of the football team. We're finding ways to win instead of ways to lose games.
So I think the culture changed because of that. It carried over to the bowl game, which was huge for us because anytime you can finish on a positive note, win 10 games, win the bowl game against an ACC, soon-to-be Big Ten team, it's going to give you momentum and confidence heading into the offseason and also camp. I've seen that carry over. And a lot of the leadership that stepped up a year ago is back. I like our football team at this point. I think they've taken ownership in it, which all good teams do. It's just important that we continue to prepare and make sure we're the most prepared team when we step out on Saturdays.
Q: Do you think your team has any weaknesses? In Conference USA, at least – and I'm knocking on wood as I say this – you don't seem to have any weaknesses. Do you think there's a weak link in here that could theoretically mean the difference between 10-4 and 13-1, or 14-0?
A: Well, I think the biggest thing is I like our football team. I think we're a whole lot better. I think our offensive line is finally getting to the point where it is. The weakness here is no different than the weakness at anywhere in the country: You worry about depth. You worry about depth at all the positions. You just hope that the young kids come along and develop, because with the 85 scholarships the way they are right now, it's important that throughout the year … football's a tough game, it's a long season. You could end up with some guys banged up, and some other guys need to step up and get the job done. So the biggest worry for me is to make sure that those young kids are continuing to get developed so when their number's called they ready to go to play.
Q: How do you handle that during the year? Is it something you consider on a weekly basis, as in, "We need to start getting some young guys snaps to prepare for 2015, 2016?"
A: Believe me, I'm not worried about 2015 right now. Of course, every day in practice you're going to work the twos, and you're going to work to get them better. And then you talk about going to depend on some young kids coming in. Around here, you work to earn your stripes, the opportunity to play. Especially on special teams. There are going to be some young players that are going to have to step out and get it done on special teams to earn the right to play on offense and defense. Like I say, as a head football coach you always worry, you know that. You never have enough players.
I tell the team every day, you know, when you think you've a shot at being pretty good, there are three things that can destroy you as a football team. Number one is complacency. When you think you've arrived, you can get beat. You get better or worse, you don't stay the same. So you've got to go work every day and get better. And we talk about selfishness and guys that get more concerned about themselves than they do the team, do something off the field or somewhere that affects the team in a negative way. We've got to eliminate that part of it.
Then the third thing we talk about is accountability. Every day we come to work. We hold each other accountable to get better as a football team, whether it's on or off the field. If we can do those three things, if we continue to work extremely hard as a team, then we've got a chance.
Q: I was going to ask what you said to the team this preseason, since this camp has probably been different than all the rest, but that seems to be your message.
A: That's what I've told the team since spring. I knew we had a shot. I think what our team has done, our coaches, is we've embraced these expectations. All of us. We've embraced it. We like that people are talking about us in the terms that they are. But we've worked extremely hard with the leadership on this football and the coaching staff to make sure that our kids understand that the expectations come along with the responsibility to make sure we don't get complacent, selfish or don't hold each other accountable every day – to reach our goals and dreams. Because if you don't, those expectations will go out the window pretty quick.
Q: Do you ever say the word playoff?
A: You know, I don't. I don't. I think early on, the first meeting we had, we talked about our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal, you talk about at the first meeting, is to go to win a championship. It's the goal we have every year. And if we don't reach that goal then … Last year we won 10 games and beat Maryland. It was a good year, not a great year, because we didn't win the conference championship. So our ultimate goal here every year is to go win conference championships. We talk in those terms, and it's the last time we talk about it.
At that point, you know, we play Miami (Ohio) now. That's all we're concerned about. If you look beyond Miami, chances are those goals and dreams are out the window. After we play Miami we'll look at the next one. That's ultimately our goal, and I think at the end of the day, you look up at the end of the year to see where you are, and if we can be part of that conversation …
I think, to be honest, everyone says you've got the Power Five now and whatever they're calling this Group of Five or whatever the other group is, we're probably … I'm not just talking about the (American Athletic Conference) or the Mountain West or the Mid-American or whatever, at least now we have a seat at the table, which we've never really had before. The highest-rated team of those five has an opportunity to have a seat at the table. I think we're better off now than we've ever been, because now we really have an opportunity if we can take care of business. Not to say Marshall, but anybody in those other leagues.
Q: You can look at it one of two ways: You get a seat at the table but it may be harder than ever for a non-major team to actually win a championship. But I can see where this new format is a positive for teams outside the major structure.
A: I'll give you an example. I think it was (1999), Marshall ended up 10th in the country. Bottom line, they were 10th in the country and ended up in the Motor City Bowl. You know what I mean? And that's not going to happen again. Just to use that as an example. I mean, now if you end up at that particular point you're going to end up in one of the major bowls. I think having a seat at the table is a good thing for all of us.
Q: You've been in a situation like this with similar expectations, whether at West Virginia or Florida. Do you think with this team there will be a moment when this team gets wide-eyed at the magnitude of it all? Would you be prepared for that?
A: Well, my defensive coordinator, Chuck Heater, has won three national championships. I've got a lot of experience on this staff. I've got multiple coaches that have won multiple national championships at the highest level. We all understand that games are not won on Saturdays. They're won in the weight room, in how you prepare during the week. Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Just go out there every day and prepare like you should prepare and normally the games take care of themselves. We understand what it takes. Myself, my staff, a lot of us have been there. It's our job just to make sure that we continue to take these kids out so on Saturdays we are the most prepared team. We've worked extremely hard to get that done.
Q: I'm sure you've seen remarks about the schedule. I know it's out of your control – just play the teams that are there, win games, so on. But does it bother you that critics could question the schedule if your team does make a charge toward an undefeated season?
A: I don't concern myself with anything I can't control. This football team, two years ago we went and beat Louisville at Louisville. When Cato was a freshman and (Teddy) Bridgewater was a freshman, and they won the Big East championship. We've gone on the road and done that. That being said, Louisville was supposed to come back here and play us this year. That was on our schedule. And because of what's happened with all the conference realignment and all that, they're playing Notre Dame. We had to move our game with Louisville.
We've played Ohio State. I've played them all. I think two years ago we went to a bowl game, the year we beat Louisville, we had the seventh-toughest schedule in America. So we've played good people. But we can't control that. We're just going to go out and play them one at a time and worry about we can control. At the end of the year we'll see about where we're at. Like I said, I don't spend a whole lot of time worrying about things like that, thing you can't control.
Q: So Hurricane, W.Va., your hometown: Is that closer to Marshall or your alma mater, West Virginia?
A: It's closer. I'm 20 minutes from here. Twenty-five minutes from here.
Q: Did you have a choice in terms of your allegiance? Was there some family reason that you gravitated toward West Virginia, or did you grow up a Marshall fan?
A: You know, Marshall was right here, and to be honest with you, Marshall didn't recruit me. That being said, I wasn't a great high school player. Wasn't that I liked West Virginia better than Marshall or anything right there, it's just that at that point I had the opportunity to go there and had some friends at West Virginia and that type of thing. Like I said, I grew up 20 minutes from Marshall and I think I was 12 or 13 when the crash occurred. Was well aware of all that. The tradition down here … When I was at Florida with Urban (Meyer), I ended up buying my sister's house on the farm I grew up on.
Q: So despite your close proximity to Marshall, you were never indoctrinated with some animosity toward West Virginia. And vice versa, since you spend more than three decades playing for or coaching with the Mountaineers.
A: Yeah, you know, there was a time there when I was at West Virginia that both teams were really successful. In 1997, I think, we played and Chad (Pennington) was the quarterback. Randy Moss was the wideout. They had us down with about three minutes to go and I was the coach at West Virginia, and they probably had better players than us, but both teams were really successful in the 90s and early 2000s. It's a positive thing for the state.
The state of West Virginia, the fans are super. The transition that I've been able to make is, number one, West Virginia's a great state, a proud state, the people are really proud of their football programs. I've known all these people. It's a smaller state. I mean, I've known the Marshall people as well as the West Virginia people throughout my life. So the transition for me was easy. And we've even been able to convert a couple of those West Virginia guys to Marshall guys now.