The recently-released “A Coach in Progress: Marshall Football—A Story of Survival and Revival” is the first-ever book to document the loss of the 75 sons and daughters of Marshall through the eyes of former Marshall assistant football coach, Red Dawson. Working with freelance journalist, Patrick Garbin, Dawson reveals what he previously would not discuss: the insurmountable obstacles, guilt and difficulties he faced following the 1970 plane crash.
Parthenon reporter Rob Engle had the opportunity to speak with Garbin about the book and what it was like working with Red Dawson.
What is “A Coach in Progress” about?
It’s a memoir of Red Dawson, primarily centered on the time he coached at Marshall, 1968 to 1972. Obviously, the tragedy is a huge part of that, which still has effects on him now. He still has survivor’s guilt—it’s better than it was 45 years ago—but he still has it.
The book contains what “We Are Marshall” does not: the difficulties Red had with rebuilding the Marshall football program. When the movie came out ten years ago, he was approached by several publishers to write a book, but he turned them down because he didn’t feel like he was ready to tell the story. When the time came, he called me straight up and said, “Hey, if I’m going to tell my story, I’m going to tell all of it.”
What was it that inspired this project?
That’s an interesting story. I live outside of Athens, Georgia and I work as writer for the University of Georgia’s football team. It just so happens that Red has a lifelong friend who he visits in Athens, named Rosie, who’s son approached me about Red. I was familiar with Red, primarily through the movie, and my friend told me Red was finally thinking about writing a book. He asked me if I was interested in at least sitting down and talking with Red and I definitely was. I met with him and the project just kind of grew from there.
What was it like working with Red Dawson?
I believe it was Matthew Fox in an interview who said Red was like John Wayne. It’s true; Red is like an old cowboy you’d see in a Western. When I was growing up, there was an old man in my neighborhood you didn’t want to mess with. We called him Old Man Strong. Red was like that. He’s very imposing and commanding.
I’ve had other book projects where people wanted to add stuff to it to make it sound better. So I wanted to let Red know that this would be a process, and we’d have to be careful and truthful about it. Before I could say a word, he said, “I don’t want any BS, I want to tell the 100 percent truth.” In other words, this was his one shot to tell everything.
When I heard that, I had total respect for him. We became fast friends. He’s the kind of person who commands respect. He’s truly a wonderful, honest man.
What is different about this version of the Marshall plane crash story?
Well, he was there. He was there prior to the crash. He was there when it happened and had to face this unbelievable tragedy. He was there immediately following the crash to rebuild the program. He was there for the whole operation.
Also, an interesting part of the book is what’s happened with Red from 1972 to present day, beside the survivor’s guilt he’s endured, but also how he walked away from the program. The book goes into how he’s since been brought back into the program and is now a major part of it.
I don’t think you’ll be able to find any book that can be told about the last 50 years of the Marshall football program as completely.
Being an outsider to the Marshall community, what was taking on this project like for you?
In a word, unbelievable. Typically, with huge universities, there are a lot of “fair weather” fans. I came to Huntington last year the weekend of the fountain ceremony and it was almost like apples and oranges when comparing Marshall with other fan bases—I saw fan base that was truly dedicated to it’s team. A fan base, many of who weren’t even alive when this tragedy happened, who seemed so heartfelt and unbelievably connected to the tragedy. I never imagined going the fountain ceremony and seeing so many young people, some of whom were crying. As Red said, “I don’t care who you are, if the fountain ceremony doesn’t move you, something’s wrong with you.”
I’ve experienced a lot of different college football atmospheres, but Huntington is something special and I think it has to do with the strength this community has built from tragedy.
In terms of the book, how did you and Red collaborate on the content?
I actually wrote it, but it’s all Red’s work. I did some of the background research, but the content is almost all from Red. It was a blessing that he was such an extensive note-taker with the details of what was happening at Marshall in the ’60s and ’70s, which helped him recount the story.
What is the ultimately take-away of “A Coach in Progress”?
The ultimately take-away is that Red wants to honor the 75 people who perished in the plane crash and this was his way of doing so. Sitting down and doing this project also helped his survivor’s guilt. In the grand scheme of things, it was his tribute to those 75 by telling the entire story, the entire truth. I think readers will recognize that.
Rob Engle can be contacted at [email protected]