Mr. Robinson Meets HokieCentral
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 10/3/97
For those of you who don't frequent the message board, you may have missed a minor flap that occurred in the last two weeks because of an article written by Norfolk Virginian-Pilot sports columnist Tom Robinson.
Tom jumped on the bandwagon a couple of weeks ago and wrote an article criticizing Virginia Tech's out of conference football schedule (now there's an original thought). Naturally, a HokieCentral message board poster discovered the article and posted a link to it on the message board, and, well ... thanks to email and the Internet, let's just say that Tom received a little feedback from Hokie fans.
This led to an interesting, publicly played-out exchange between Hokie fans and a member of the media, the likes of which doesn't occur very often. And you know me - I love to listen to myself type, so I got involved in the fray, as well. I thought I would post Tom's articles and my email to him as a Special Feature for your enjoyment.
I'll present Tom's original article that led to all of the emails, his follow-up article, and my email to him.Even if They Go 11-0, Hokies Should Be Ashamed of Their Schedule
Tom Robinson, September 18, 1997
The Virginian-Pilot, Copyright 1997, Landmark Communications Inc.
You've figured it out. You don't need me to note that Virginia Tech's football team, its path lined with easy pickings, stands a huge chance of finishing a regular season unbeaten for the first time since 1954.
If it happens, it will be as good a reason to stamp an asterisk on a record since Milli Vanilli.
The Hokies (2-0) appear solid; fast and tenacious on defense, punishing on offense. They showcased themselves splendidly Saturday by dominating Syracuse at Lane Stadium.
Nine more similar performances and the Hokies will be 11-0 and looking at a prestigious Alliance Bowl date either in Tempe in the Fiesta or New Orleans in the Sugar.
The Orange Bowl, site of this year's presumed national championship game? Dream on.
Eleven wins and a Big East title won't get Tech within a sniff of Orange or a No. 1-ranking, for one good reason; a schedule that former athletic director Dave Braine, coach Frank Beamer and objective Hokie fans, if such things exist, ought to be ashamed of.
It reeks. How badly? This week, of 109 Division I schedules analyzed by the NCAA, Tech's schedule is ranked 92nd, the worst of all Big East teams. And of the 36 teams that played in bowl games last season, only Utah (96) and Navy (104) have weaker schedules.
The ratings, based on the combined record-to-date of a team's opponents, can change from week to week. Tech's has. It's already dipped from its lofty preseason standing of No. 84, when '96 final records were the gauge.
Which gets back to the point that no self-respecting national championship game would stoop to inviting someone who fattened up on such fodder, which will be identified in a moment.
Now, the Hokies can't help some of that. It's not their fault that the Big East is down this year. That it has only two teams, No. 18 Tech and No. 22 Miami, ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.
Tech can, however, do something about the lame non-league opposition it tries to pass off as legitimate competition. It chooses not to.
For their $132 per seat, Tech season-ticket holders will get Arkansas State, Miami of Ohio, Boston College (Big East), Alabama-Birmingham and Miami, Fla. (Big East) the rest of this year.
Remaining road games are league dates with Temple, West Virginia and Pittsburgh, and the annual season-ender against Virginia in Charlottesville.
Overall, it's a slate that will, even more than usual, challenge Beamer to new heights of creative exaggeration. I just pray not to lose lunch when he proclaims his respect for that feared Arkansas State defense.
It also won't exactly rocket Tech up the rankings. Even unbeaten, Tech might barely be in the Top 10 by the time the bowls arrive because, really, how much poll real estate is a romp over UAB worth?
With Syracuse dispatched, Miami and Virginia loom as most threatening to Tech, though West Virginia in Morgantown is no gimme.
But Tech will be expected to win each one, and to claim a berth in an Alliance Bowl for the third consecutive season. That will earn Tech and the Big East their multi-million dollar payouts, which obviously is what a no-risk schedule like this is all about.
To that end, Tech will have played the game perfectly. It will get rich and provide a happy junket for thousands of traveling Hokie-ites. But it will set Tech up for a long December of deserved ridicule for brazenly lining up lightweights to be squashed.
And Tech will be defenseless. Just like its schedule.The Reaction
As you can imagine, that column didn't sit well with Hokie fans.
Hokie fans are used to getting no support from the national press. It has become a habit and a frequent topic of discussion, and after a few years of this, we're starting to accept that the media isn't going to praise us, a la the 1995 Northwestern team. This year, now that the off-the-field troubles have ended, the national media has chosen instead to concentrate on Tech's poor out-of-conference football schedule. Hey, you either have to ignore the Hokies or criticize them. It's slowly being etched in stone in the ESPN studios in Bristol Connecticutt, as well as the office of Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese (but that's another story).
But when a member of the press in the state of Virginia unloads on the Hokies, it's a whole new ballgame. Particularly when the attack comes from the Norfolk/Hampton/VA Beach area. Hokies have become acutely aware that when it comes to that area of the state, Tech is the redheaded stepchild, while UVa is the beautiful blond media darling.
This is not just an irritation, it's important. Hampton High School, led by The Almighty Ronald Curry, has the best high school team in the nation and one of the best programs year in and year out. Their coach, Mike Smith, openly wears UVa hats and T-shirts in public, and it has been said that not only does he steer his players towards UVa, he steers them away from Virginia Tech.
Recently, when Smith's latest recruit of gold, Ronald Curry, verbally committed to UVa, he said something like, "Yeah, everyone around here is UVa fans. They all wanted me to go to UVa."
Meanwhile, at nearby Phoebus High School, every player wants to go to Penn State. Except for the ones who break tradition and go to UVa.
In other words, in one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country, in their own state, Tech has a serious image problem, or even worse, no image at all. The Hokies are a non-factor in that area of the state. Tech's publicly stated goal is to win a national championship, and that's a tall order when some of the best players in the state don't even know that you exist.
So when Tom Robinson's article appeared in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, it struck a nerve, and the pot boiled over. Hokie fans unloaded on him via email. What happened next was funny, sad, encouraging, and disheartening, all at once.
Tom wrote a follow-up article a week later, on September 25th.Response to Schedule Column: a Bunch of Hacked-off Hokies
Tom Robinson, September 25, 1997
The Virginian-Pilot, Copyright 1997, Landmark Communications Inc.
My new pen pal, a Virginia Tech football fan who happens to be Russian, advised me in a lengthy e-mail the other day that ``there is no point in beating the dead horse.''
I have taken this to heart. I will write no more on the Hokies' dead horse of a schedule, as I did last week, except to refer to the pointed response the column received from a herd of hacked-off Hokies.
"You are an (not a very nice name),'' declared one who signed his note, ``Love, An Unobjective Hokie Fan,'' though I suspect he didn't really mean the ``love'' part.
Meanwhile, it's been a month or more since my boss called me a ``nitwit,'' ``loser,'' and ``lowlife'' all in the same week, so that made me feel right at home.
Suffice to say that casting aspersions toward a school that has long suffered real and perceived media slights, local and national, is not the best way into a Hokie's heart.
More than two dozen Techsters wrote or called to rip me for:
Criticizing a state school.
Not explaining why Tech's schedule is so weak.
Insidiously boosting the despised Virginia Cavaliers by attacking Tech.
``(Virginia Tech) has been trying to get games against some bigger-name schools,'' wrote one correspondent. ``. . . these name schools don't want to come to Blacksburg and get their butts kicked by the best team in the Big East.''
I don't doubt the strength of Tech's team. My envisioning the Hokies' going 11-0 and playing in the Fiesta or Sugar Bowl should have said that.
The blasphemy came in suggesting that a perfect regular season would be tarnished by Tech's receiving no consideration for a ``national championship'' bowl game because of its schedule.
``Instead of promoting a great opportunity for Virginia sports fans, you would rather discredit a great achievement before it even happens,'' wrote a Dave Reynolds of Greensboro.
As for the schedule, there are plenty of reasons and/or excuses for why these things turn out as they do. However hard Tech tries to book more real games -- and here we go again, I guess -- maybe it needs to try harder.
Sorry. There are my pro-U.Va. leanings leaking through, which should interest the U.Va. people who grilled me recently for suggesting the Cavaliers move some basketball games to Norfolk instead of Richmond.
`Since we are routinely covered in the state media by U.Va. fans (yourself included), we don't set ourselves up any better by scheduling soft,'' confided Hokie Sandy Cormack.
``It's plainly obvious you're card-carrying Wahoos,'' wrote another Hokie reader, impugning the entire staff here at the Cavalier Daily.
Before I forget, one respondent had a question, which I quote verbatim and answer forthwith:
`is there a class that they give in journaslisn school to sport writers to be so negative about anything good.''
That's a funny thing. The journaslisn classes were always filled every time I tried to sign up, which was disappointing because I always wanted to be a trained journaslist.
Fortunately, I took a lot of English and speling classes. Which is good things to lurn, too.
However, I do want to thank the one anonymous Tech fan who offered me a fall-back position.
``Being close to the seashore,'' wrote Mr./Ms. Hokie, ``the salt air has obviously shrunken whatever brain you ever had.''
So that's why I keep losing my Wahoo membership card.Will Jumps In
There was no way I was going to let that go by without comment. When it became apparent to me that the emails from Hokie fans had gotten Mr. Robinson's attention, I started wondering what kind of reaction we were getting from him. His follow-up can either be intrepreted as laced with sarcasm or good humor - I'm not sure which.
I also wasn't sure whether the torrent of emails had correctly and clearly stated the points we Hokie fans would like to make to Mr. Robinson. My biggest concern, though, was that the emails had engendered the wrong kind of reaction in Tom Robinson. After all, sportswriters are people too (honest!), and people react defensively when attacked. I wondered if the flood of emails, which expressed the passion Hokie fans have for their team, had actually built up some resentment in a man who could do much damage, being a member of the media.
So I spent my lunch hour one day typing up a long email to Tom Robinson. He was kind enough to respond. Here are my email to him, and his response to me.
My Email to Tom Robinson
Regarding your article "Response to Tech schedule column: A bunch of hacked-off Hokies" ....
First of all, let me apologize for any Hokie fans who insulted you or made demeaning comments about you personally. That is uncalled for, and is a completely inappropriate way to express unhappiness with the article you wrote about Tech's schedule.
Second, let me tell you that I know "Russian Hokie" personally, and he is a very funny, very likable person. I hope his good humor and charm has come through in the emails you have been exchanging with him.
Third, let me attempt to shed some light on what the barrage of emails was about:
Any criticism of Virginia Tech's out of conference schedule is certainly warranted. After all, it's lame. But that criticism must be balanced out by investigative reporting concerning WHY the schedule is bad. It's a complex issue and a complex sequence of events that led the Hokies to this point, spearheaded by Dave Braine's philosophy of easy scheduling. But I don't want to get into those details. Suffice to say that Hokies would have preferred a more balanced approach, as opposed to something that sounded like an attack.
There are many positive things going on at Virginia Tech with regards to the football team. Any number of the players provide remarkable human-interest stories: Shawn Scales, Steve Tate, Korey Irby, John Engelberger, Ken Oxendine ... all of them and more are positive role models and interesting stories.
In addition, you have a compelling story about a great coach (Frank Beamer) who works for peanuts and turns down more lucrative offers from other, more storied programs because he is dedicated to building a great program at Virginia Tech, his alma mater. And he has done exactly that. The Hokies, as you well know, have risen from the depths of obscurity to two straight Alliance Bowls (soon to be three?).
You also have the story of an athletic program that is taking great strides in building facilities and improving the so-called "Olympic sports." Virginia Tech is in full compliance with Title IX requirements, one of just a handful of universities who can say that.
If you had been at the Syracuse/Virginia Tech game a couple of weeks ago, Tom (were you?), you would have been blown away by the emotion and energy generated by the crowd and the football team in their 31-3 victory. THAT'S a story worth writing.
This is a football team that graduated 13 starters, was picked by everyone to do absolutely nothing this year, and yet has started out 3-0 and is staring down the barrel of yet ANOTHER Alliance Bowl, in a year that was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Obviously, the coaches and players at Virginia Tech are doing something right, and that's an interesting story in and of itself.
Instead, Hokie fans are understandably baffled that with all these compelling stories available, you chose to write an acerbic article criticizing the football schedule. The article appears to be the work of someone based far away from Blacksburg who knows very little about the Virginia Tech players, coaches, and program, and for some unknown reason chose to criticize one small, flawed part of what has become a great football program.
As passionate and proud fans of our university and football team, we can't understand what it takes to "get ahead" where the media is concerned. We have built a winning record, overcome MASSIVE off-field troubles, and created a solid program ready to take the national stage. And instead of concentrating on all this, the media (the national media, mind you, not just you) has chosen to jump on the "weak schedule" bandwagon. It's very frustrating to do so much RIGHT and have everyone concentrate on the one thing that needs improvement.
It's like looking at Cindy Crawford and saying, "Ooh, gross, look at that mole on her face!"
We don't understand why schools like Northwestern are wholeheartedly embraced by the media while Virginia Tech is either ignored or criticized. Recently, even our conference commissioner has made disparaging remarks about us, pining about how we're not the "glamour team" of the conference and how our great performance in the conference "does not reflect well on the league as a whole."
I could go on and on, Tom, but I'll just sum it up by saying that it's frustrating, and it's driving us all a little crazy. So that's why you got the flood of email.
Let me close by inviting you by my web site (http://www.hokiecentral.com) to have a look around, but be warned - we're anti-media there, so bring your thick skin with you! Let me also challenge you to take a good hard look at the Virginia Tech football program, maybe make a visit to Blacksburg, and write about something positive that you see or learn. There's a thousand great stories available surrounding the Virginia Tech athletic program - pick one and go with it (but please don't write another article about Sharon McCloskey. That's been done to death!).
-- Will Stewart
Thanks for the educational message. You bet, I was at that Syracuse game and wrote a glowing column on what I saw as the virtually flawless play of Al Clark. That could be the only time I see Tech this year, though -- a colleague has the Miami and Virginia games -- but going to W. Va. is still a possibility. I covered a few games last year, including the Orange Bowl. So I know the kind of adversity Tech had to overcome last year, and I give it its due for what it has done, and could do, this year.
I'll check out your web site. Someone else mentioned that to me, too.
And yes, I appreciated the message from the Russian Hokie. Very polite.
Tom.The End of the Matter
Now that all is said and done, it's hard to determine what the overall outcome of the exchange was. Did Mr. Robinson learn anything new? Will he be more or less likely to write about the Hokies in the future, and if he does, will he be more or less likely to write something positive? Does it really matter? (I think so, but you may not).
Whatever the outcome, as I said before, this story is an unusual one, because it's a public exchange between a writer and his audience, so I thought it was worth recapping here.
I hope that somewhere in all the confusion, insults, encouragement, and argument, that Tom Robinson did come away with one basic, irrefutable fact: Hokie fans are nuts. They're extremely proud of their school and their team, and although that pride comes out in various forms with various measures of success, it's there nonetheless. And it's part of why we're so successful on the football field.
Now, what's Lee Corso's email address?