Goodbye and Good Riddance
By Will Stewart, HokieCentral.com, 3/9/00

It's hard to figure out what's more difficult to stomach: yet another blowout loss to Temple, or the constant Temple love-in on ESPN that we had to sit through to witness it.

This is how far Tech basketball has fallen. With the Owls leading Tech 36-22 at half time, the ESPN producers and announcers summarily dismissed the Hokies and ratcheted up their Temple Owl smooch-fest. As the second half began, ESPN brought Bill Cosby out of the stands to yuck it up with their announcers, and those same announcers cranked up the volume on their praise of Temple guard Pepe Sanchez from merely shrill to unbearable.

Fourteen points is a deficit that can be overcome in twenty minutes, but that didn't stop the ESPN announcers from drooling non-stop over Temple. Every minor play that Temple made was a "great" play, or a "smart" play, but every play Tech made, such as a breakaway dunk by Jon Smith on a great lob from Rolan Roberts, was merely a breakdown by the bullet-proof Owls.

A second-half one-on-three drive by Brendan Dunlop for a basket in the lane earned no mention at all, but if Sanchez had made the same play, they wouldn't have stopped talking about it for at least two minutes.

The "We Love Temple" crescendo finally came to a halt when ESPN announcer Jay Bilas saw a bench shot of the Tech coaching staff on his monitor and took it as an opportunity to embark on a run down of the vital statistics of the entire staff -- where they played, when they graduated, etc., etc. Meanwhile, the five guys on the floor for the Hokies were pretty much ignored, despite the fact that they continued to play hard the whole game.

For an ESPN broadcast team supposedly comprised of neutral professionals, it was embarrassing to watch, and at times, infuriating. If the Hokies, by some miracle, had put on a comeback, the announcers would have been totally caught off guard.

But that's life for Tech basketball these days. Let's face it. I knew Tech wasn't going to come back. You knew Tech wasn't going to come back. ESPN knew it, too.

As we watch Tech struggle to make something positive of their season, it's aggravating to see the Hokies as others view them: insignificant. And it points out just how far Tech men's basketball has to go before anyone, including many Hokie fans, will care.

The Hokies came into the Atlantic 10 with a bang but will leave with a whimper. When Tech tipped off A-10 play in late 1995, they were the defending NIT champions. They won the Atlantic 10 West handily with a 13-3 record and went on to the NCAA's.

They leave having won just three Atlantic 10 tournament games in five years, with all three of those wins coming against Fordham. The Hokies haven't sniffed the upper level of the Atlantic 10 West in the years since the 1995-1996 season, and this year's modest 16-15 record is their first winning season in that stretch.

It has been four years -- a long time -- since 10,052 Tech fans filled Cassell Coliseum to see a clash between #1 ranked UMass and #10 Virginia Tech. Back then, the Atlantic 10 had some spice to it for Tech fans, with UMass and their dislikable coach John Calipari, and GW with their beat-em-up-first-and-ask-questions-later style under head coach Mike Jarvis. Xavier was an up-and-coming team with an exciting run-and-gun style, and along the way, St. Joe's won over 20 games and made the Sweet 16 one year. Their coach, Phil Martelli, was a quote machine, too.

Since then, as Big East membership came closer to reality and the Hokies kept losing games and players, Tech fans lost interest in the lame-duck Atlantic 10. With outspoken coaches John Chaney and Bob Hill gracing the A-10, it has always been more of a sportswriter's paradise than something the typical Tech fan would be interested in.

I for one, will not miss the Atlantic 10. Not one bit. I still reminisce about the old Metro days, but I assure you, as 2000 turns into 2001 and beyond, I will never be caught kicking back and saying things like, "Remember that St. Bonaventure game back in '97.?"

(Okay, that's a bit of a lie. I will never forget the Hokie Bird making fun of the St. Joe's flapping Hawk mascot in the spring of 1996 during half time. I almost busted a gut laughing at him. That I will remember. But that's it.)

What a way to end life in the Atlantic 10, watching the Temple Owls once again make short work of Tech, casually slapping them aside with another 20 point victory. How typical, and how fitting that it will be our last memory of Tech in the Atlantic 10.

The immediate future will not be much brighter. The Hokies will get hammered in the Big East for a while. The degree of hammering will depend upon how much talent Ricky Stokes can recruit to play in Tech's new league, and whether or not Dennis Mims returns to Tech next year for his junior and senior seasons. But at least there will be hope, and perhaps, after ten years of nomadic conference membership, Tech fans, players, and media will look around at the Big East and start to understand that it is truly home, not a way-station on the evolution of Tech hoops.

The crowds should start to get a little larger, and somewhere along the way, maybe within the next five years, a pretty good Tech team will pull off a big upset in Cassell against a highly-ranked Big East team. That and a 20-win season with some postseason play will do wonders to rekindle Tech basketball and give life back to an empty Cassell Coliseum.

We've done our time in limbo, suffering through five mostly somnambulant years in this ill-fitting conference. It's time to move on and to try to rebuild the mess that has become Virginia Tech hoops. I don't know about you, but when the turnaround finally does happen, I'll still be there with the team, blinking back the glare from the spotlight as it returns to Tech basketball, and wondering if it can really be true.

So long, Atlantic 10. We hardly knew you, thank God. Time to whip out the paint, boys, and replace those A-10 logos on the Cassell Coliseum floor with Big East logos. We've got a long way to go, so we'd better get started now.

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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