Growing Pains, Title Shots, and a Lunch Pail
by Lakota Hokie, 1/7/02
Little more than 15 years ago, I entered Virginia Tech, already a Hokie fan, but ready to engulf myself in the glory that is college football. The previous year, the best player ever to wear a Hokie uniform (in my opinion) had won the Outland Trophy and was embarking on what would become a legendary NFL career. In stark contrast, the football team Bruce Smith left behind was starting a long climb to respectability, annual dominance and a chance to become one of the elite programs in the nation.
December of 1986 brought about a significant change in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech hired one of its own, former defensive back Frank Beamer, and right away the new coach set his sights on building his beloved Hokies into a national power. After struggling through a 2-9 campaign in 1987, many questioned the choice of Beamer as coach, including yours truly. Over the next four seasons, a talented, tough Virginia Tech squad would continue to struggle, amassing a 20-23-1 record and no bowl games. There were some moments, most memorable a stunning first-half domination of then-#1 Florida State, but they were fleeting and left one wondering if Tech would ever get over the hump. These are the growing pains that any team must endure while they are trying to build a lasting program, growing pains that I was too young to understand and too frustrated to endure. I wanted Beamer out!!!
Fortunately, the next season brought membership into the Big East conference, with additional television exposure and annual bowl tie-ins. Fans were treated to perhaps the most entertaining, yet frustrating season yet under Coach Beamer. The personality of the team truly emerged, as did the label "chokies", as Tech led every game yet finished 2-8-1. The defense was beginning to show annual dominance (not just against the run) and the offense was one year away from joining the D. The next season would begin a run that is still intact, as the Hokies finished 9-3, including a 45-20 pasting of Indiana in the Independence Bowl. Ever the skeptic, I can remember sitting in PK’s before the game, predicting an Indiana win, on the radio, no less.
Since that season, Frank Beamer slowly molded his team into a perennial contender, winning 2 Big East titles and claiming a Sugar Bowl title after the 1995 season. Nationally, Va. Tech was beginning to garner more attention and even the media were beginning to give Tech its due. After bowl losses in ’96 and ’97, something special started to gel, as the 1998 team finished with a 9-3 record, a victory over Alabama in the Music City Bowl and a star QB waiting for his chance the next season.
Every true Hokie knows that 1999 was the magical sort of year that launches a program to the top of the ranks. Michael Vick dazzled the nation with both his passing and his running, while the defense allowed a paltry 10.5 pts/game during the regular season. At West Virginia, a highlight-reel run by Vick, followed by a clutch kick by Shayne Graham, ensured Tech their first undefeated regular season, undisputed Big East title and a shot at the national crown against Florida State.
New Orleans on any night is a lively, exotic locale, but the days leading up to the Sugar Bowl were indeed magical. Everyone survived the Y2K scare, the Seminole fans were fantastic and the atmosphere was electric. Florida State had been to the title game before (and won) but the Virginia Tech fans were wandering down Bourbon Street almost in a haze, thrilled but stunned to be fighting for a national title. The days leading up to the game were so special, most didn’t want the game to arrive…somehow, like seeing your newborn child for the first time, you knew this moment would NEVER return.
When the game indeed arrived, the Hokies made everyone proud and put quite a scare into the favored Seminoles. The turning point came in the 4th quarter, a play that I will never forget. Florida State went for a first down on 4th and about 3, from around their own 40. The momentum was with Tech, as they had stormed back from an early deficit and seemed practically unstoppable on offense. However, as we all know, FSU won that gamble, and with it, the game. One play, in a season of thousands, probably determined the national championship.
Since then, Tech has won 11 games again, dominated Clemson in last year’s Gator Bowl, and landed another prized recruit, the "best" high-school running back, Kevin Jones. The departure of Vick, the loss of Lee Suggs and the graduation of several excellent defensive stars left Tech with "only" an 8-4 campaign in 2001, including a well-fought loss in the Gator Bowl to those same Seminoles.
However, I may be more proud of this year’s team than any since I first walked the campus in Blacksburg, since Tech first made the right decision in bringing Frank Beamer back to his alma matter. The work ethic that has always been synonymous with Beamerball truly showed this season, as a less-talented group of athletes played with heart and determination and performed well both on and off the field. Broadcast journalists love to mention the lunch pail that Tech carries to every game; the icon that signifies a willingness to do whatever it takes to improve.
Fifteen years after I began my time at Virginia Tech, the world has changed, and the football program is now expected to win and win big, every season. Rabid fans hang on every word posted about the latest recruit, hoping the next Michael Vick will lead us back to the heady days of New Orleans. While I, too, hope for the most talented athletes, I somewhat prefer the days of old, when Tech molded those "marginal" players into stars (see John Engelberger, Corey Moore, etc…).
As long as the lunch pail remains both a symbolic and realistic representation of the way Virginia Tech approaches the game, I could care less whom we land in future classes. Marcus Vick or Marcus Camby. Patrick Dosh or Patrick Duffy. Work hard, endure some growing pains and we just might get another title shot.