HUNTINGTON – Doc Holliday may like Bing Crosby’s wartime holiday hit, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Who knows?
However, the Marshall football coach obviously doesn’t like the sentiment.
Holliday is headed right where he wants to be for Christmas – another bowl game. His Thundering Herd (9-3) faces Connecticut (6-6) in the St. Petersburg Bowl on Saturday at Tropicana Field.
“My own kids, if we were home for Christmas, something was wrong,” Holliday said after the Herd accepted its fourth bowl berth in his last five MU seasons. “That was a bad deal and it wasn’t a very good Christmas.
“So, having the opportunity to go on the road and be in a hotel and experience something special and enjoy Christmas together, it’s going to be great. Most of the (players’) families will be there — they will follow them there — and it’s going to be a lot of fun.
“It’s just what we do. It’s a part of it and I know one thing, I’d rather be there on Christmas rather than sitting at home and not going anywhere. It’s a good thing for us.”
Anyway, the St. Petersburg Bowl is Holliday’s 25th postseason game as a coach, dating to West Virginia’s 1981 Peach Bowl rout of Florida when he was a part-time assistant. As a WVU freshman linebacker in 1975, Holliday also was part of a Peach Bowl team that topped North Carolina State – his lone bowl as a player.
His bowl record as a coach at WVU, N.C. State, Florida and Marshall is 12-12, but the success has come mostly in recent times. Holliday is 3-0 as a head coach with the Herd and has won eight of his last 10 in the postseason after the Mountaineers lost eight bowl appearances in a row from 1987-98.
Holliday’s success includes a BCS National Championship in the 2006 season at Florida.
“There’s no such thing as a bad bowl,” Holliday opined. “They’re all great and the ones that you remember are the ones you win. There are a lot of things that are really positive about this bowl. No. 1, you get a chance to develop young players. You get a chance to get better as a team, and we get a chance to win 10 games in our season for the third straight year. And you get a chance to win four bowls out of the last five years.”
If bowl experience at the top of a coaching staff means anything, the Herd should be in good stead on Saturday at Tropicana Field.
Among Holliday, offensive coordinator Bill Legg and defensive coordinator Chuck Heater, the top three on the Herd staff have been part of 70 bowl teams in their playing and coaching careers.
Heater, 63, is the veteran, finishing his 40th season as a college assistant coach. He’s been to bowl games with 10 of the 12 schools he has coached and has been part of three staffs with national titles (Florida, 2006 and ’08; Notre Dame 1988).
He’s been on staffs that are 21-6 in bowls, and the ’88 title win to cap a 12-0 Fighting Irish season in the Fiesta Bowl came against a WVU team for which Holliday was the receivers coach.
Heater’s teams have won six straight bowls and nine of the last 10, and the St. Petersburg Bowl is his 17th different bowl game.
And consider the seasons when Heater was a Michigan running back. In 1971, he was on the Wolverines’ freshman team (freshman were ineligible for varsity competition then). That season, UM went to the Rose Bowl, losing to Stanford. In Heater’s three varsity seasons, Michigan went 30-2-1 – but no bowls.
The Big Ten had an exclusive agreement with the Rose to not play in other bowls, and Ohio State got the Rose berth three straight times by the league’s “no-repeat” rule, a Big Ten athletic directors’ vote and a win over Michigan.
As for the 53-year-old Legg, his postseason experience also is vast. The St. Pete Bowl is his 15th as a college assistant coach. He’s 7-6 as a full-time coach in bowls, plus had a Sun Bowl loss as a WVU graduate assistant in 1987. As a Mountaineers’ offensive lineman, Legg was 3-1 in bowls.
His coaching resume also includes two NCAA Division I-AA playoff games (1-1) in 1989 as an Eastern Illinois assistant coach.
So, Legg has 20 postseason games in his history … and in two stints as a Marshall assistant (2001-02, 2010-present), he’s 5-0 in bowls.
Holliday’s aforementioned remark about player development has rung true in recent weeks as the Herd prepared for the game against UConn.
By kickoff at 11 a.m. Saturday, the Herd will have gotten in 17 practices it wouldn’t have without a bowl bid.
“And you get to play a game, too,” Holliday said. “In spring practice, you only get 15 (practices).”
And those 15 include the spring-closing Green-White Game, a controlled scrimmage that isn’t anything resembling a bowl date.
“It’s a little bit of a myth there that everyone thinks you’ve got 15 team practices, but really you can go 20 if you want to,” Holliday said. “So, you can get as many as you want to get. It gives us the opportunity to develop young kids, and a part of our practices have been devoted to players that haven’t played a lot, and guys we’re trying to work with to improve heading into spring.”
On that note, the Herd coach said back in August that he didn’t figure the Herd – in Year 6 of Holliday’s program – would have to play as many true freshmen as in recent years because of player development and roster management.
He was on the money.
Entering the bowl game, the Herd has played only four true freshmen – starting quarterback Chase Litton, backup receivers Nick Mathews and Raylen Elzy and cornerback T.J. Griffin. Litton has made 10 starts. Mathews has played in nine games, with Griffin in six and Elzy four.
In 2014, Marshall played eight true freshmen, one more than in 2013.
Holliday said he expected more redshirt freshmen to see action, and that’s what has happened. Twelve second-year “rookies” saw time, led by defensive end Ryan Bee, who was Marshall’s lone Conference USA All-Freshman Team selection.
Redshirt freshman cornerback Chris Williams-Hall played only in the opening win over Purdue before being injured. Other redshirt frosh to play were offensive linemen Jordan Dowrey, Fred Binot and Nate Devers; defensive linemen Jason Smith and Nyquan Harris; linebackers Frankie Hernandez, Chase Hancock and Eli Gates; running back Keion Davis and tight end Kaleb Harris.
The flurry of future scheduling done in recent months by Herd Athletic Director Mike Hamrick has gotten a further boost this football postseason.
Of the 12 teams on Marshall future non-conference schedules through 2022, nine are playing in the 2015 bowl season – Akron, Appalachian State, Boise State, Cincinnati, Louisville, Navy, North Carolina State, Ohio and Pitt.
The three teams on future Herd schedules that missed this bowl season are East Carolina, Kent State and Miami (Ohio). ECU, which finished 5-7 in the AAC that produced eight bowl teams, missed a bowl for only the second time in a decade.