CHARLESTON — Randy Moss’ path to Marshall University was far from a straight one.
He originally signed a letter of intent to Notre Dame out of DuPont High School, but the university’s admissions office rejected his application. His next stop was Florida State, to join a receiving corps that included future consensus All-American Peter Warrick. That was short lived after a positive marijuana test forced coach Bobby Bowden to cut ties with Moss his redshirt year.
In summer 1996, Moss arrived in Huntington, kind of a surprising move for an athlete of Moss’ caliber. The Thundering Herd was not just a good team in what was then known as NCAA Division I-AA. It was one of the best. From 1991-95, the Herd won one I-AA national title and finished runner-up in three other seasons. Still, at that time, Huntington didn’t enjoy the same spotlight as South Bend or Tallahassee.
Moss helped change that. In his two seasons there, he brought the Herd national attention, led it to another I-AA crown and then helped usher the program into Division I-A. That tour of duty helped catapult Moss into the NFL and, on Saturday, he’ll become just the second former Marshall player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, joining Farmington,
PRO FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME
At Canton, Ohio
Class of 2018: Wide receiver Randy Moss, contributor Bobby Beathard, linebacker Robert Brazile, safety Brian Dawkins, guard Jerry Kramer, linebacker Ray Lewis, wide receiver Terrell Owens and linebacker Brian Urlacher.
Enshrinement: 7 p.m. Saturday
TV: ESPN and NFL Network
West Virginia’s Frank “Gunner” Gatski.
Look deeper at the decision, and it wasn’t too surprising that former Marshall head coach Bob Pruett landed Moss in Huntington. Both are native West Virginians, Moss from Rand and Pruett from Beckley. Pruett recruited Moss out of high school when Pruett was the defensive coordinator at the University of Florida. Moss actually took one of his three official visits to Gainesville, so a relationship already had been formed.
It might have looked odd from the outside, but Pruett said it was a perfect fit.
“This was a natural fit for Randy,” Pruett said. “He could transfer down and not have to sit out. And he could still get into Division I football and get a chance to play WVU (in 1997). It was just a win-win. The cards fell good. It was a good deal for all of us.”
Keith Morehouse, the WSAZ-TV sports director who began doing Marshall television play-by-play in 1996, first learned of Moss’ impending arrival from Pruett at a golf outing.
“I just said, ‘Wow, really?’” he said. “The legend of Randy Moss had already existed, but to know he was coming to Marshall to play... it kind of just set up for him. But it didn’t really hit you until you saw him in practice. Then you realized what kind of talent he was.”
Pruett’s Marshall offenses were focused on the “X” receiver, the split end who generally is the No. 1 receiver in most offenses. In Moss, Pruett had the ultimate “X.”
“We felt that our guy was going to be better than the opponent’s guy,” Pruett said. “So if there was one guy covering him, we’d check out of whatever we had and throw our guy the ball. We’d make them take another guy out of the box and we’re playing 10-on-9.”
Moss sprinted up the Marshall career receiving charts in the two years he was there. As of now, he is tied for ninth in career receptions (168), fifth in career yards (3,467) and first in career touchdowns (53). He put together the two most prolific touchdown-catching seasons in team history, 28 in 1996 and 25 in 1997. Receivers haven’t been able in four years to reach what Moss did in just two.
Morehouse said calling Marshall games with Moss was like calling a highlight reel every week. Everyone has seen the catch where Moss hurdled an Army player on a 90-yard touchdown run, but Morehouse said the better catch that day was his other touchdown, when he leaped over a defender to snatch a ball, made a second defender crash into the first and ran for a 79-yard score. He remembers stopping in a restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, following Moss’ program-record five-touchdown game against Ball State and watching the highlights with his voice broadcast over the televisions.
That, like much of what Moss did at Marshall, was pretty surreal.
“It was astonishing how good he was each Saturday,” Morehouse said. “He just did things that were otherworldly as opposed to what I’d seen anyone in football do, personally.”
The receiver’s blend of physical attributes — the 6-foot-4 frame, the sub-4.3 second 40-yard dash, the ridiculous vertical leap — were only part of what led to those record-setting numbers. Pruett said Moss’ football knowledge also stood out. He remembered Moss heading into meetings with notebooks crammed with information on each defensive back he’d have to face.
“He was a student of the game,” Pruett said. “What people didn’t realize and realize now that he’s on TV is that he’s a student of the game. Randy’s very, very intelligent. I think that was at one time with some people a very underrated trait. But I think that myth has been erased.”
With Moss on the field, the Thundering Herd climbed back to the I-AA mountaintop, winning the title in its final year in the classification with a 15-0 record. In 1997, Marshall opened its latest Division I-A era with a Mid-American Conference championship and a 10-3 record. That earned Moss some individual accolades as well. He won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top college receiver and was one of four finalists invited to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation.
There have been plenty of sunny days for Marshall since then. It won four more MAC titles and one Conference USA title. The Herd featured two more Heisman finalists in quarterbacks Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich.
One of the cornerstones of that run, Pruett said, was the near-walk-on from Rand.
“I think Randy, certainly, helped set the stage for that,” Pruett said. “He came and played and got great recognition. If you think back through that whole process, a lot of young athletes looked at that and he formed the foundation that sort of set us apart and helped us get to where we got.”