Basketball at a Football School
by Jim Alderson, 2/27/02

I had the opportunity to attend last Saturdayís Tech-Providence game, a pleasant excursion that included the annual Hokie Celebration. I do not often find myself hanging out with the Hokie Bird in the Bowman Room munching on some really good barbecue, sipping Fosterís tapped by Hokie Man (thankfully wearing a shirt) and chatting with, among others, the Athletic Director and Offensive and Recruiting coordinators, getting the skinny on all sorts of interesting stuff (Tech is probably not going to pass 75-80 times per game this year), comments that all seemed to be prefaced with "I donít want to see this on the Internet." And, again, I was unable to obtain that coveted exclusive TSL interview with Frank Beamer, due in no small part to the Coach not being there. Oh, well.

A notion that occurred to me at halftime, after we had moved at a fast trot from Cassell back to the bar for more Foster's and were gazing out the windows of the Bowman Room, was that the view was dominated by the imposing sight of the Lane Stadium addition looming over the South end zone. I felt very glad I was not one of the construction workers charged with setting those concrete forms at that height, and then remarked that viewing the millions of dollars spent attempting to meet the huge demand for football tickets after a half spent in a lightly-populated basketball arena really drove home that Virginia Tech is a football school.

The seed had been planted earlier as we strolled around the Merryman Center. We were admiring Mike Gentryís playroom when a group of high school students touring campus happened by. They expressed that they were quite impressed by what they had seen, until one of their group asked, "Where is the basketball stuff?" Good question.

No question, football comes first at Tech. The halls of Merryman are a testament to the success of Frank Beamerís team. We have all read stories of the positive influence it wields as a football recruiting tool. I do wonder, however, what runs through the mind of a basketball recruit as he enters Merryman and sees the blown-up reproduction of that Sports Illustrated photograph of the West Stands during the 99 Tech-BC game, or the huge shot of Beamer exulting after that unbeaten regular season-capping win. I daresay a different scene greets basketball recruits at Georgetown, for instance, and Ricky Stokes hasnít won too many recruiting battles against Craig Esherick, either.

The overwhelming impression given is that basketball is an afterthought at Tech, driven home not only by the Merryman dťcor, but by noticing that after you pass the palatial suite of offices occupied by Frank Beamer, one has to search really hard to find those of Ricky Stokes located, appropriately enough, at the end of a dead-end hall in Jamerson. I donít imagine that is lost on too many basketball recruits, either.

Coach Stokes is up against a lot of things at Tech. He is attempting to build a basketball program in the middle of the area of the nationís most dominant, at least media-wise if not always on the court, basketball conference, in a rural location not favored by many of the inner-city youth who dominate Division I college basketball, and in a conference where some members have nothing in common with a large state university and didnít want us in, period. He also is trying to scratch out some attention in the glare of a football program that has rocketed into national prominence. It is a daunting task.

Rickyís team is certainly not the best one ever to take the floor of Cassell Coliseum, but it has shown improvement, incremental perhaps but improvement nonetheless. I was impressed at the Providence game that a Tech team with nothing to play for but pride showed plenty of it and gave excellent effort. This team has elected not to tank the season as the WVU one did, which is a credit to Coach Stokes and his staff.

There are indications that something good is in the very early stages of being constructed at Tech. Ricky Stokes has made tactical mistakes, to be sure, but there is a huge difference between being a valued assistant offering suggestions and having the responsibility of making the decisions yourself. He is certainly showing that he has a shorter learning curve than another young coach of his generation, North Carolina's Matt Doherty. Compare Rickyís sideline actions and demeanor with those trances Coach Díoh often lapses into when things are not going well for the Tar Heels, which is generally the case these days.

Ricky Stokes has Tech fairly competitive, much more so than Carolina, and he has done it without the team full of prep All-Americans at Dohertyís disposal. The biggest problem with the Tech team is a lack of talent, specifically at the vitally important point guard position. The chronic Tech guard problem is being addressed yet again, and more are on the way. New faces are not likely to make a big impact on Techís record next year, because -- while we will be discussing until sometime next August the advisability of throwing a true freshman quarterback who looks to need extended quality time with Mike Gentry every bit as much as did his celebrated older brother his first year at Tech -- there seems little doubt Coach Stokes will be playing a true frosh at point guard for extended periods next season, and all of us will have to grit our teeth and live with the true freshman mistakes.

Ricky Stokes is, too slowly for the immediate demands of some, building a recruiting base. He has not signed any blue-chip prospects yet, but he seems to be bringing in some decent players who down the road can help the team, and while he has recruited too many junior college players for my tastes (there are reasons players become JUCOs) he has not attempted any quick recruiting fix.

For example, one cannot help but wonder how WVU's former coach, Gale Catlett, feels now about the decision to take the recruiting gamble of bringing the emotional baggage named Jonathan Hargett to Motown. I suspect much like St. John's Mike Jarvis, who saw his team improve following the departure of problem child Omar Cook to the NBAís developmental league (not what Omar had in mind when he bolted the Red Storm after only one season, Iím sure). There are times when bringing in blue-chip recruits is not the wisest course of action.

What this team really needs, however, is better fan support. With a student body as large as Techís, and the large number of alumni in nearby Roanoke, it is ridiculous to only draw a crowd of 4400. I had driven up that morning from Danville, and it was dismaying to see that only a relative handful of students could be bothered to walk across campus to watch the game. A large and enthusiastic crowd could have made the difference in some of those close home losses.

The Big East is not a conference with many on-campus arenas, and having a vocal crowd would help. Rutgers is not a very good basketball team, but the atmosphere at the RAC provides them with a formidable home advantage that shows in their record. Cassell could be, and has been, much more intimidating than the smaller RAC. Solid fan support could really help as Coach Stokes attempts to build his program.

Yes, Virginia Tech is a football school. The decision to emphasize football was the correct one and the success of Frank Beamer is the reason Ricky Stokes has the opportunity to compete in the Big East. Most of the conversations in the Bowman Room were about football, and I have noticed that Hokie Man does not spend home football games bartending. Still, at times, we need to remember that there is also a basketball team at Tech, and they are Hokies, too.

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.


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