Waiting All Our Lives

By Will Stewart, 12/23/99

In the minutes following the 1995 Sugar Bowl, I was probably the only Hokie fan in the Superdome who felt a twinge of sadness.

It came as I was walking out of the Dome. We Hokie fans had all been celebrating the victory, watching the players parade around the field, wave to the fans, and in some cases, even jump into the stands to celebrate with them.

It was indeed a magical moment. Despite all the nay-saying, the criticism and doubt from the national media, and despite our own insecurities, the Hokies had done it. They hadnít just played in a Sugar Bowl, they had won it.

My sadness came as I exited the stands. Before entering the tunnel, I remember taking one last look behind me at the cavernous interior of that huge dome, and staring at the scoreboard one more time: Virginia Tech 28, Texas 10.

And I remember thinking, crystal clear: We canít do much better than this. And actually, we may never do this well again.

It was a sobering thought. Just two years earlier, in 1993, the Hokies had played in their first bowl game in seven years, the Independence Bowl, and had won it. The celebration that victory set off in the stands was like none that had been seen in nearly a decade in Tech football. It was just the Independence Bowl, but we felt as if we were on top of the world.

And then, just a scant two years later, the Hokies had made the Independence Bowl seem almost insignificant by winning the Sugar Bowl. The Sugar Bowl. Bryan Stillís punt return and Jim Druckenmillerís bomb to Still had outshined "The Kick" from the 1986 Peach Bowl and Antonio Banksís blocked field goal return in the 1993 Independence Bowl. Winning the Sugar Bowl dwarfed the accomplishments of Tech football teams that had gone before that awesome 1995 football team, making them pale by comparison.

And it struck me that each time the Tech program achieved something new, each time it reached new heights, that was one more goal that was behind it, and the new goals and accomplishments that the team could set for itself dwindled in number as they increased in magnitude.

The Hokies had won the Sugar Bowl, and I remember thinking that the only goals left were to (a) play for a national championship, and (b) win a national championship. For a team whose fan base once went nuts when the team just got invited to a bowl, the thought that only a national championship game could help us soar to new heights was a bit depressing.

Yet, just four years later, here we are, playing for that national championship. And suddenly, oddly, the 1995 Sugar Bowl itself seems smaller in magnitude. Funny how a national championship game will do that to you.

Surprised? Not Really.

One of the questions that I keep getting asked is, "Did you ever think youíd live to see the day that Virginia Tech went undefeated and played for the national championship? Did you ever think they could do it?"

Well, honestly? Yes.

Time and distance from that 1995 Sugar Bowl has changed my thinking quite a bit. After the 1995 season, I had the feeling that perhaps I had just witnessed a one-of-a-kind season, never to be repeated. I thought that Tech had been the beneficiary of a very rare senior-laden defense and an unheralded but phenomenal clutch quarterback, Jim Druckenmiller. It wasnít unreasonable to think that the Hokies would never see a defense like that and a quarterback like that again.

The 1995 Hokies narrowly missed going undefeated. They were a few dropped passes away from beating Boston College in the season opener (a 20-14 loss), and following that game, the Hokies lost a 16-0 affair to Cincinnati, a team they should have beaten. Make no mistake, the Bearcats whipped the Hokies fair and square that day, but if that game had been replayed at the end of the year, it would have been a trip to the woodshed for Cincinnati.

But 1995 was not a one-shot deal. In the three years following that team, in 1996-1998, the Hokies would narrowly miss going undefeated twice more, in the 1996 season (when a collapse at Syracuse was the only blemish on a 10-1 season) and in the 1998 season (when Tech lost three games that it led in the fourth quarter on the way to going 8-3).

So, in all honesty, you had to figure that it was only a matter of time and fate before the Hokies would go undefeated.

Sure, you say, but going undefeated is only one part of the equation. Did you think that the Hokies would actually get high enough in the rankings to play for the national championship?

That, too, was not unthinkable. In 1990, a pretty good UVa team started the season ranked somewhere around #15, and a mere five games into the season, a strange sequence of losses by higher-ranked teams vaulted the 5-0 Cavaliers into a #1 ranking. So, stranger things have happened. If the Hoos could make a run from #15 to #1 in just five weeks, surely the Hokies, with the right sequence of events, could make that same run up the rankings over the course of a full season.

Did I think going 11-0 and reaching the championship game was likely? Well, I wonít say that. Iím too much of a cynic, and I fully believed that the system, with its new BCS ranking, was skewed against the Hokies. Thankfully, Iíve been proven wrong.

I liken it to making a half court shot in basketball. Have you ever thrown a ball into a basket from half court? Maybe, maybe not. Think you could do it? Well, sure, given enough chances.

Well, itís 1999, and the Hokie football team has been given enough chances. And they finally nailed it. And theyíre going to New Orleans to play for the national championship. Likely? Not really. Doable? Certainly. And theyíve done it, after getting close and failing three times in the previous four years.

High Expectations

The thing is, ever since I entered Virginia Tech as a freshman in the Fall of 1983, I can remember the high expectations that my friends and I had for Virginia Tech athletics, and for football in particular.

I canít speak for Hokies who are older than I, but once I got an up close look at Virginia Techís football stadium, its basketball coliseum, and the university in general, I didnít see anything to make me think that Virginia Tech could never achieve at the highest levels. The word "canít" was never in my vocabulary as a fan.

That admittedly naÔve perception was helped by the fact that I had never seen a really big-time athletic program up close. I grew up in Charlottesville, back when UVa football truly stunk, and Lane Stadium and Cassell Coliseum were both superior to the UVa facilities that I had gone to while growing up. If I had attended a game at, say, Michigan or Tennessee at a young age, for example, my first thought upon entering Lane Stadium may have been "Wow, this is small!" and I may have had a better feel for Techís place vis-ŗ-vis the big money, tradition-laden college programs across the country. Ah, yes, sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Instead, in my innocence, I saw an athletics department and football program that seemed to have everything it needed to succeed.

As I learned over the years, I was wrong. The Hokies needed a larger fan base, more money, better in-state media coverage, and most importantly, conference affiliation. Those were the true barriers to top-level football success. And one by one, those barriers have been knocked down.

Virginia Tech still has a long way to go to match the sheer dollars generated by Big 10 and SEC schools, but the Hokies now have enough revenue that they can succeed at the highest levels. Maybe Tech isnít ready yet to be there year after year like Florida State, Tennessee, Nebraska, and the like, but Tech is now close enough that the right combination of players, coaches, and circumstances can lead to a national championship shot, as it has done this year.

But the point is, I have always felt that the Hokies had the basic tools to do what they have finally done. The only exception to "always" having the tools in place was the issue of conference membership, a problem that was taken care of back in 1991.

I was never one to say never with regards to the Hokiesí chances to be a true power in collegiate football, and Iíll be the first to admit that I didnít think it would happen this soon, but I thought it could happen, particularly once the Hokies got into the Big East Conference.

Waiting All Our Lives

It does seem as if it has taken a long time, though, particularly when you consider that I have been following Hokie football closely for 17 years now. So I canít even begin to imagine what itís like for Hokies who have followed the team since the 70ís, 60ís, 50ís, or even earlier.

Tech history professor Bud Robertson once called Tech athletics a "sleeping giant," and I think that even as the Hokies struggled throughout the years to wake up, we all felt that eventually, Virginia Tech would wake up.

As a sidebar, I think the Hokies are still a sleeping giant in basketball, as well (sleeping? Actually, theyíre positively passed out cold right now). Donít be surprised if Big East membership eventually does for the Hokie menís basketball team what it did for the football team. Preposterous? No. But just sit and think to yourself how incredible it would be to have the basketball team playing for a national championship in thirteen years, and it will give you some idea of what Frank Beamer has done for the football team in thirteen seasons.

The challenge for the football team now is to stay on top. The Hokies have a lot of momentum and are starting to dominate the state media and state football recruiting, but anything could upset the delicate balance and bring it all crashing down: the departure of a key assistant coach, perhaps, or UVa's George Welsh retiring and UVa replacing him with a staff of top-notch recruiters who start to whip the Hokies on the recruiting trail.

But for now, enjoy the ride. Frank Beamer, his staff, the players, and the fans have worked hard to get us here, so revel in it. And although itís true that it may never happen again, donít make the same mistake I made back in 1995 of thinking that the Hokies had perhaps peaked. Otherwise, when youíre walking out of the Superdome on January 4th, you might feel a misplaced and unjustified twinge of sadness.

Will Stewart is the founder and General Manager of HokieCentral.com.  He writes the News and Notes section, game previews, and game reports for HC, and he contributes a column when time permits.

          

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