A Season Gets Ugly
by Jim Alderson, 2/3/03

The 1973 Virginia Tech football team was terrible. They opened with a loss to William and Mary and followed that up with five more before rallying to defeat an equally miserable Hoo team. The next week saw a 77-6 drubbing at Alabama and a lousy effort against Memphis State [as they were then known], before Tech pounded a very bad Florida State program that was about to see big changes in the future. The team then mailed in the season in a frigid Lane Stadium by losing to VMI.

I had a friend on that team, and he would relate grim tales of players arguing with coaches, players arguing with each other, coaches arguing with coaches, players not bothering to attend practices and others refusing to enter games. That team quit on Head Coach Charley Coffey, and he was gone shortly after the seasonís end. I have always regarded that football season as the worst effort ever turned in by a Virginia Tech athletic team. It now seems that we have a new contender.

What a difference a week and half makes. I wrote after the stirring win by Tech's men's basketball team over the Hoos that this was perhaps the program-defining victory for Ricky Stokes, a springboard the team could use to make its long-awaited move in the Big East and create something other than the program avoidance of most of the Tech fan base and benign neglect shown by the Athletic Director. I seemed to have been a little wrong about that. I donít believe the National Enquirer will be calling me anytime soon for predictions.

I watched the beginning of the St. Johnís game, expecting to see a fired up group of Hokies eager to build on the Hoo win. What I saw was an indifferent team that fell behind by a lot before it finally got its head in the game and rallied, finally falling at the end due to what has become the standard of Virginia Tech basketball, lousy guard play. In the next two games it appears that entirely too many of the Tech players have decided to eliminate the comeback middleman and instead bag the whole game. I imagine it is easier that way.

I did not see either the Boston College or Providence games, and am reluctant to pass judgment on what I have not personally viewed. However, I have talked to two people who were at the BC disaster and while listening to both, some of the pointed remarks by Bill Roth provided circumstantial evidence that points to a team that has an element no longer interested in putting forth maximum effort. "College basketball is a great game when it's played with passion and heart. It's a bad game when it's not," Roth said accurately. Read into that what you will.

Passing the ball inbounds at a playerís feet, lazy passes that end up in an opposing playerís hands, and then watching as the opposition coasts in for an easy lay-up the other way, and what has been described as lackadaisical overall effort, is not good news. It is one thing when thousands of fans couldn't care less whether Tech wins or loses in basketball, but it is something much more appalling when some players on the team adopt the same attitude. If that is indeed the case, and I have only viewed it for myself in the early stages of the St. Johnís games, things have quickly gotten out of hand.

There is no excuse for Tech to lose by thirty points to Providence, a team that should be the weakling of the Big East, and would be, if not for Tech. The entire athletic budget at this tiny school consists of what is sold in concessions at a couple of Tech home football games. They have no business being in a power conference and only shinnied in because that is where Dave Gavitt coached before hatching the idea of a very different Big East than what the league is evolving into.

The Providence ruling powers gave serious thought a couple of years ago to dropping the handful of Division I sports in which they still compete, and they should have. They should be the punching bag they were a couple of weeks ago for Tech, and yet they just hung a thirty-point hammering on the Hokies. This says more about Tech than it does woeful Providence. It simply should not happen.

This was to be the year that Tech took its first steps towards legitimacy as a Big East program. It is a veteran team Ricky Stokes has been putting on the floor, the oldest in the conference. Next year the bill for the folly of mortgaging the future by recruiting JUCO players comes due.

A cynic might suggest that Stokes was attempting to amass a middle-of-the-pack conference record and NIT bid in order to either Frank the Athletic Director into devoting more resources to the program, or make himself an attractive candidate for a more attractive job, which, in the other five power conferences these days, is about all of them. Perhaps Ricky had his eye on Clemson, where it seems they are again preparing to change coaches, as they have done every few years since the advent of the ACC fifty years ago. If that were the case, it was a strategy that has badly backfired. Coaches who lose control of their teams are not generally at the top of lists for schools conducting coaching searches.

Ricky Stokes is not going to be going anywhere else or using the threat of it to demand a laundry list of program improvements that will involve large expenditures of scarce athletic resources. His chief concern these days has to be attempting to save his coaching hide. That wonít be done with guys like Terry Taylor and Eric Branham, who next year will be gone instead of moving into the second half of their Tech careers, the half in which, at the level Stokes is recruiting, some of the in-house projects comprising the Tech roster can be expected to begin making solid contributions.

If Ricky Stokes is to have any future at Virginia Tech, it will be with the freshmen rather than some of the same upperclassmen that seem to have bagged the last three games. If there are some juniors and seniors on this team that arenít interested in playing, then by all means they should be accommodated with seats at the end of the bench. They have had their chances after the Hoo game, and some very bad losses punctuated by a perceived lack of effort are what they have delivered.

It has always mystified me that Ricky Stokes, a guard who was undersized and marginally talented but was able to become a solid player through grit and determination, has been unable to pass those qualities along to any of the guards that have contributed to Techís chief weakness, inferior backcourt play. Freshman Markus Sailes has been languishing at the end of the bench and appearing to be the latest in the revolving door of Tech point guards who havenít panned out. Stokes has recruited no impact point guards, and the thought of a freshman running the team next year is almost too grim to contemplate. That leaves Sailes, described as "Techís starting point guard for next year" by Bill Roth during the BC game.

Considering the lack of effort seen recently, it would seem that it is time to discover just what Sailes and the other frosh have. The worst that can happen is that the thirty-point losses turn into forty-point ones, marginal at best, and valuable experience could be gained for the future. If there are players on this team that are only interested in playing out the string of this season, perhaps a starting lineup of Dimari Thompkins, Phillip McCandies, Braynt Matthews [the one starter who is giving maximum effort], and a backcourt of Sailes and Shawn Harris would be in order.

Let them take their lumps and look to the future. There are serious problems of geography, facilities and budget facing Tech basketball. Lack of effort should not be added to the list.

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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