Matthew McConaughey has his wildish good looks.
Jack Lengyel had only his words.
Immortalized in the film “We Are Marshall,” Lengyel spoke to the Maryville College football team Saturday morning before the homecoming game against Methodist University. In a cafeteria filled with Maryville players, coaches and select media, every eye and ear was intently focused on each word Lengyel had to offer.
Lengyel, portrayed by the charismatic McConaughey in the movie, is best known for reviving the Marshall football program after one of the worst aerial tragedies in athletics. In 1970, Southwest Airlines Flight 932 crashed into a hill short of the Tri-State Airport in Wayne County, W. Va., killing all 75 people on board, including 37 Marshall University football players and eight coaches, including head coach Rick Tolley.
As depicted in the film, Lengyel took the helm after two other coaches passed on the vacancy, resurrecting the program with several walk-ons and players from other sports.
Lengyel would spend four years at Marshall before resigning and moving on. Eventually, he landed at the University of Missouri in 1981, where he was an associate director of athletics. At the same time, a young Tony Ierulli, now the head coach at Maryville, took a position as an assistant defensive line coach at Missouri.
“Back when I was a nobody in my first season coaching, [Lengyel] always came by to check up on me,” Ierulli said. “He always made me feel important and that just shows what type of guy he is.”
Saturday, Lengyel spoke of his time at the College of Wooster and of the parallels between the Ohio school and Maryville, two Division III programs who both sport the Scots mascot.
“The similarities are frightening,” Lengyel told the Maryville squad as he spoke of how he changed the mascot from a Scottish terrier to a warrior, how the school had bagpipes blaring for each home game and how much the Maryville campus reminded him of the Wooster campus.
Lengyel told of how his job at Wooster was one of his favorite positions because, like Maryville, “It is about the tradition and the fundamental issues of college football.”
“You play football. You may not have a scholarship. You’re getting an education. You’re getting great interaction with your friends,” Lengyel said. “You’re not only learning in the classroom, but you’re learning on the football field. The football field is taking those lessons and integrating them into your character and integrity.
“You will remember these days for the rest of your life.”
Who better to relay that message to Maryville players than a man who has had a long and distinguished career in collegiate athletics. Lengyel has been active for a half century since he began coaching at Akron University in 1957.
He spent time the last 50 years at schools on many levels, including Wooster, Fresno State University, the United States Naval Academy, the University of Louisville, the University of Colorado, Temple University, Missouri and, his best known position, Marshall.