It Could Be Worse ... Just Look South
by Jim Alderson, 11/26/02
It is a Tech team battered both physically and emotionally that staggers to the end of a season that suddenly canít mercifully end soon enough. The bright promise shown as late as late October has given way to the grim reality of wrenching losses and the demonstration that this young group of Hokies is indeed a year away.
Things do not get any easier, as this Saturday a youthful coterie of Hoos saunters into Lane fresh off that awesome demonstration of the power of the Weauxf Gods [I would imagine Ralph Friedgen has compared the Hoos to Duke for the last time], led by the Marshall Ney of football coaches and looking for serious payback. The Commuter lot will be magically transformed into a cross between a Bordeaux village and a Volvo dealership [the LSU fans the Hoos ain't] and the fake ticket scalpers will have to bone up on the rate of currency exchange between dollars and francs. Viva la rivalitť!
We have been treated to the dubious lessons of humility, and contemplate a bowl trip spent admiring bank buildings and NASCAR shops, although I would still prefer WVU play Clemson in what could be called the Burning Tire Bowl. Tech is 8-3 and coming off three straight defeats in the same regular season for the first time since 1992, leading one to ponder that 2012 may be another rough year. Amid all the wailing and gnashing of teeth from some who consider Top Ten rankings a birthright [the Gator doesnít seem so bad, now], I would point out that things could be a lot worse, and last weekend I got to see exactly how much.
Saturday I traveled to Durham to observe the Duke-North Carolina football game. They were both 2-9, winless in the ACC and playing for last place in a conference that, following Florida Stateís losing their way into the conference championship, can best be described as mediocre [even in the worst of the Syracuse years, the BE never attempted to foist off on the BCS a champion that is likely to have five losses]. Through their play, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels clearly demonstrated why they were at the bottom of the ACC.
Attending a game at Dukeís Wallace Wade Stadium is a far, far different proposition than watching one at Tech. There is none of the meticulous detail that goes into a Tech game, such as menu planning, coordinating arrival times to dodge traffic jams, snatching the best RV spot, purchasing liquor, etc.
Speaking of the latter, we were invited last Wednesday to a tailgate run by someone who shall only be known as Hokie Jay, who committed the unpardonable offense of running out of Wild Turkey seconds after we arrived. He obviously greatly underestimated the amounts my group can put away. He did send an underling to Gables to purchase more, and it was waiting for us afterwards when, given the result, we all had a great desire to hit the bottle. Tailgate Rule #1, Jay: Buy the liquor BEFORE the game.
At Duke, football game day means driving in a couple of hours before game time and purchasing one of the $10 tickets, real ones sold at the box office rather than fakes in the parking lot -- the pickings are much better for scalpers at Tech.
The crowd was a huge one for Duke. Usually the number of people who show up for Duke football games can fit comfortably in the SEZ, but Saturday they had nearly a full house, about thirty thousand [Memo to Temple - it is far better to have even a small on-campus stadium that is yours]. It was a sedate bunch, too, producing none of the charged atmosphere we have come to take for granted at Lane. The concept of standing and cheering throughout the contest is an alien one there, too; it had been a long time since I watched a football game while seated and surrounded by people in like attitudes. The ambiance was very much like that at a football game played between two basketball schools; I have been in both Cameron and the Dean Dome during Duke - Carolina basketball games, and things are a lot different.
The game was close but could hardly be described as a good one. It is being charitable to call it lousy football. These two schools, although separate and joined only by eight miles of suburban umbilical cord, have taken completely different approaches to football to achieve the same result, at least this year.
For two decades, Duke ran its football program in the same manner as Tech has recently treated menís basketball, as an afterthought. It shows. Like Virginia Tech's menís basketball, Duke football was an underfunded operation that had little chance of competing. That situation is changing. They recently opened a new football facility, the Yoh Center, that looks very much like Merryman, as it should, since Duke officials while planning it traveled to Tech and toured and studied Merryman. It compares quite favorably to the basketball center that was built several years ago and declared off limits to football players by Coach K.
Duke coach Carl Franks has also been given the same leeway in Dukeís strict academic standards that Coach K has enjoyed for over a decade, and he has at least a fighting chance at recruiting some decent players. Improvement, if it comes, is in the future, however, and for now Franks is fielding a squad almost totally devoid of talent. The Duke team is small, painfully slow, and lacks experience. This is a combination that produces a record of 2-32 over the last three seasons. I didnít see one player on the field for Duke that I thought could make Techís two-deep. Duke is a bad football team that would be very much at home at the bottom of the Big East.
Things are different at North Carolina. The Tar Heels are one of the richest athletic departments in the country, possessing a budget of which our own AD can only dream. They arenít shy about spending it, either. Former coach Mack Brown was given every thing he requested except for fans, and he responded by building a powerhouse. Mack left for a place where football is something other than a diversion before the start of basketball practice, and the powerhouse he spent a decade building was torn down in less than half the time. John Bunting has just completed his second year at Carolina. His first was a successful one, an 8-5 record and bowl win, events that caused Tar Heels forget all about who almost became their coach in 2000.
But Bunting has now learned exactly what it means to follow Carl Torbush, the fired coach who saw no reason whatsoever to recruit linemen on either side of the ball. Carolina has terrible lines, and as I watched them being man-handled by the least physically-imposing team in the ACC, I couldnít help but speculate on the success that would be achieved against them by guys named Suggs, Jones, Adibi and Lewis. Things would be a lot different than they were in '97.
There is also the question of John Buntingís program management, specifically that of his staff. Carolina had better athletes than Duke, particular at the skill positions, where they were much faster than anybody Franks could array against them. They seemed to have little idea of how to utilize their advantage, however, and were forced into staging a late comeback in order to defeat a team that was simply not in their league talent-wise.
Bunting suffered staff upheaval after his first year, with two, including highly-regarded DC John Tenuta, bolting town the instant the season ended. OC Gary Tranquill is still around, however, and I had a '94 flashback as I noticed things havenít changed much and he was still attempting to fit round pegs of talent into the square holes of his offensive system. Those that griped about Rickey Bustle and register the same complaints about Bryan Stinespring should feel relief that Yoda is no longer around.
Things could very well change at Duke and Carolina that would make their annual season-ending football clash acquire a bit more importance than determining who finishes last in the ACC. Carl Franks may now be able to recruit some players to give him a chance at competing, and John Bunting might be able to gain control of his staff and produce some all-important continuity. For now, however, watching these two teams, who finished with a combined 5-19 and 0-14 against the other seven ACC teams, served mainly to remind me that things could be a hell of a lot worse at Tech.
Jim Alderson,who first made his mark with his biting political commentary on the A-Line email newsletter, also brings a unique, sarcastic, and well-informed perspective on college sports, particularly (1) Virginia Tech sports and (2) ACC sports. While Hokie fans currently have very little use for subject number 2, Alderson is an entertaining and informative columnist on subject number 1. For even more fun, visit Jim's A-Line home page.