CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Dan D’Antoni was a 23-year-old assistant with the Marshall basketball program in 1970, and a babysitter, too. He was at the home of a friend and team physician for the Thundering Herd when a plane carrying members of the Wichita State football team crashed in Colorado.
As they watched the news unfold, and learned of the 31 lives lost, Dr. Ray Hagley turned to D’Antoni and said: “You really don’t know how tragic this is going to be unless you live there.”
Six weeks later, D’Antoni was watching some of Hagley’s six children when television and radio broadcasts were interrupted for a report that the plane carrying the Marshall football team had crashed near campus, killing all 75 aboard. Among them were Hagley and his wife. Their children were suddenly orphans.
D’Antoni eventually left Marshall, and an athletic department ripped apart by pain and loss, only to return in 2014 to lead the Thundering Herd. As fate would have it, the program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament in 31 years means a game against Wichita State on Friday in San Diego.
“We certainly experienced the same type of tragedy,” D’Antoni recalled this week.
The meaning of the schools’ first matchup in men’s basketball (they never played in football) is hardly lost on supports and alumni of two schools forever linked by tragedy. The bracket release on Sunday brought back reminders of the bonds forged by them in the days and weeks after the crashes, their struggles to rebuild and the awful memories that will never go away.
“To be 18 years old and to be part of two human tragedies was a heavy burden,” said John Potts, a kicker on the 1970 Shockers team who, like other freshmen, was ineligible to play at the time.
That meant he was home in Wichita when one of the school’s two planes went down.
“Once we were made aware of the Marshall plane going down,” Potts said, “we were all stunned, and it was hard to believe it was happening all over again. We were just a few weeks removed from laying all of our teammates, coaches, staff, faculty members and supporters to rest.”
The crashes were separated by a mere 43 days and 1,300 miles.
It was a clear Oct. 2 when the two planes carrying Wichita State’s team took off from Denver, headed for a game at Utah State. The plane nicknamed “Black” took the planned route north and arrived safely, while the “Gold” plane carrying the starters, university officials and boosters took a detour that the pilots thought would give their passengers a more scenic view.
The plane was unable to pull out of a canyon west of Denver , near tiny Silver Plume. It crashed into a hillside, killing 14 starters and more than a dozen others.
“The events on that mountainside left an indelible mark on all of us,” said Bud Moore, whose brother, Bill, was a tight end killed in the crash. “The disbelief and totally lost feeling we all experienced was and still is a hurdle you never quite clear. You attempt it over and over again but you always seem to fall just a little short. We all struggled to find any kind of explanation.
“Then the next day — 43 days after our horrible accident — it happened again.”
It was a rainy, foggy Nov. 14 night when Marshall’s chartered jet, returning from a game against East Carolina, went down short of the Tri-State Airport runway. The plane burst into flames, leaving a charred swath of trees in what remains the deadliest crash involving a sports team in U.S. history.
Both schools lost their athletic directors, head coaches and so many bright futures.
“Those very challenging days 48 years ago ring clearly in both our universities every day,” Moore said. “For me, it was a time of total confusion, looking for an answer was next to impossible.”
Jim Rhatigan was watching television in his Wichita home when the school’s dean of students saw a news flash about the Marshall crash. He tracked down his counterpart at the school, Constantine Curris, and offered his insight on how his own school had dealt with the crash.
They discussed grief counseling and support services. They talked about a memorial that was being planned at Wichita State, and one that Curris would eventually plan at Marshall.
“I knew some things we had done very well in connection with our crash, and some things we’d done not so well, having had no practice or experience with this,” Rhatigan said. “I was able to help him a great deal. We never did meet in the real sense, but I feel like we were connected for life.”
Just as the schools were bonded forever.
“The very fact that he reached out, and was someone who had experienced what we were experiencing, gave us a lot of comfort as we thought about what we needed to do or what we could do given the extraordinary grief that swallowed the campus and the community,” said Curris, who went on to become the president at Murray State, Northern Iowa and Clemson.
Marshall assistant coach Red Dawson, one of the figures in the Hollywood film “We Are Marshall” detailing the crash, had driven to the East Carolina game because of a recruiting trip. He was heading home when he learned that the Thundering Herd’s plane had crashed.
The following offseason, Dawson went to a national coaching convention. He recalled talking at length with some of his counterparts at Wichita State, and how they leaned on each other for support.
“They couldn’t have been nicer,” said Dawson, who remained with Marshall for another year before the pain and guilt drove him from the game. “It’s taken me a long time to get somewhere thinking about it as history rather than reality.”
D’Antoni had to leave town, too, after helping his family find a new home for the Hagley children. The crash and its aftermath “didn’t wear well,” he said, recalling his many lost friends.
He would spend three decades coaching high school basketball in South Carolina, then joined his younger brother, veteran NBA coach Mike D’Antoni, on the bench as an assistant for nine seasons.
D’Antoni took his first college head coaching job four years ago, at the age of 66, summoned back to Huntington by a school that left him with so many mixed emotions. And while they no doubt presented a challenge, so did the job he inherited, taking over a program that had gone through seven coaches since last making the NCAA Tournament in 1987.
One of the assistant coaches during the intervening years happened to be current Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, adding another layer of coincidence — or kismet — to the Thundering Herd’s game against the Shockers in the opening round of the East Regional.
Those close to both programs are aware of their shared histories, the heartbreak six weeks apart that threatened to unravel their entire athletic departments. Wichita State ended up dropping football in 1986 after 18 losing seasons in a 20-year span. But they also recall with pride how they held things together, and how the schools’ support of each other made a difference.
“March Madness is always exciting,” D’Antoni said. “To be a part of it makes it even better.”
Skretta reported from Wichita, Kansas.
More AP college basketball: https://collegebasketball.ap.org; https://twitter.com/AP_Top25 and http://apne.ws/SYS9Fwu