by Rick Abraham
TSL Extra, Issue #23
A couple of weeks ago I went to see my alma mater play football. I discovered that, if I have been too dense to realize it before, my little hometown college has gone big-time.
I grew up in Christiansburg, VA, about 6 miles away from Blacksburg, home of Virginia Tech. When I was growing up, Tech was known as Virginia Polytechnic Institute, or VPI, and had about 6,000 students. In athletics they competed in the Southern Conference, along with peer schools like Richmond, William and Mary, Furman, The Citadel, and traditional rival VMI. The Fighting Gobblers as they were officially known, or the Hokies as they had been tagged in the hokey cheer written in 1895, played in brand-spankin’-new Lane Stadium which seated about 35,000 fans, most of whom usually came disguised as empty seats.
When I first became interested in sports at about the age of eight, my dad began taking me to Tech football and basketball games. Both programs were on the upswing; the football team was coached by Jerry Claiborne, whom I believe is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, and basketball was led by Howie Shannon, a former NBA Rookie of the Year. The football program was beginning a period of dominance in the conference, reaching its apogee in 1966 and 1968 with appearances in the Liberty Bowl. The 1968 game was a particularly noteworthy match against Ole Miss and their legendary quarterback, Archie Manning. The wily Claiborne opened the game with a trick play, The Swinging Door, scoring a touchdown on the second play from scrimmage. It was one of few positive plays of the day; Tech went on to lose 34-17. It was the biggest game in Tech history at the time.
As my childhood years went by, I remained a rabid Tech fan. I chose to attend college there, not admitting that I feared leaving my comfort zone to take on the outside world. I graduated in 1978, and then felt ready to go forth and brave the dangers of urban America. Still, despite rarely being able to return for football games over the years, Blacksburg remains "home", and I am loyal Hokie for life.
Recently Tech played LSU, the defending SEC champion and one of the most storied programs in the country. Over 60,000 fans were expected, and tickets were as scarce in Virginia as liberal Democrats. To get mine, for me and my 8 year-old son, I had to resort to Ebay, for $250! Thirty years ago, that small fortune would have bought season tickets for a family of six. But I swallowed hard, sent my money order, and I was off to Hokie-land.
The first thing that struck me as I drove into town was that little VPI is not so little anymore. Virginia Tech is a nationally renowned university of about 22,000 students. It dominates the town of Blacksburg, and to some degree, the neighboring counties. Blacksburg, however, is still a pretty little town – in both senses of the word. More on that later.
(In my childhood years, Blacksburg and Christiansburg were arch-rivals. I remember well when Blacksburg got its first traffic light; Christiansburg was compelled to follow immediately. For several years the towns competed by adding traffic signals one at a time while we kids kept careful count, until that fateful day Blacksburg added three in one fell swoop, permanently establishing their superiority. These days the two towns battle instead by annexing land, to the point that they have swallowed up almost the entire county, and the six miles that once separated them no longer exists.)
My next awakening came when I drove by one of the remote student parking lots. I discovered that it had been taken over by an invading force: the LSU RV Nation, populated by hundreds of Winnebagos and parties on wheels, all bedecked in purple and gold. I came to find out that LSU fans had bought upwards of 7,000 tickets for the game and had encamped around town like an occupying army. I say "upwards of 7,000" because an accurate estimate was problematic; apparently hundreds of LSU fans had purchased Tech season tickets (roughly $500 for two) just to get seats for this game, planning to auction off all of the others – probably at a substantial profit. Just another way that EBay is changing the way we live today.
Somewhat taken aback, I proceeded into town. Downtown Blacksburg is still an area of only about three square blocks, with roughly 50 business establishments. These are served by, a generous estimate would say, about 100 parking places. My intention was to walk around town and see how things had changed, maybe have a beer, and head home to my brother’s for the evening. So, I strolled around, noting that like most college towns it is dominated by inexpensive restaurants, music stores, bars, and bookstores. I only recognized one remaining business from my college years, an ice cream shop. There were also several cell phone stores and tattoo parlors, both modern innovations.
At the end of my walk around dusk I stepped into the most popular bar in town. There was a small crowd there, mostly students and ex-students, and a few geezers like me. I ordered the one Bass Ale I had allotted myself (for $2.50!), and about halfway through it, a somewhat familiar face walked by – albeit one that was a little puffier, splotchier, and grayer than I had remembered. It turned out to be Dave, an old friend and fraternity brother I had not seen for over twenty years! We were very excited to see each other again.
I ended up staying there until about midnight. During that time, the scene at the bar went from sparsely occupied, to somewhat busy, to uncomfortably crowded, to "the Red line-at-rush-hour" jammed. I have seen beehives with a lower population density. Several times I thought I could just pick up my feet, and I would not fall down! Perhaps it was a result of this closeness to my fellow man, or maybe it was just my enhanced consciousness from imbibing several draughts of malt beverage, that I was inspired to make several observations.
First, there are a staggering number of beautiful young women at a large southern university like Tech. Or, maybe there are a just a number of staggeringly beautiful young women in general. In either case, the effect is staggering.
Second, they all dress alike. This year it is hip-huggers and skimpy tops, with lots of winking navels, most adorned with jewelry. I thought that the effect was kind of trashy (not that I had a problem with that). In my day, the preppy look was in, and there were lots of skimpy dresses. In either case, they are skimpy.
Third, it is somewhat liberating to be 46 years old, bald, and married. In my day, I would have been depressed if I had not made friends with one of the young ladies in the skimpy attire (which I rarely did). In this era, none of them even glanced in my direction. It is actually a relief to be able to look and not even have to think about anything more.
Last, it must be the second prerequisite of attending college these days to procure a fake ID (just after setting up your PC to download free music). I’m sure that three quarters of the Tech undergraduates can’t possibly have reached the legal drinking age of 21, yet every bar in town was full to overflowing. In my day, we protested about how we could go to war at age 18, but not be allowed to vote; these days kids are allowed vote, but they can’t have a beer! (How in the world can America tell an Army veteran who has risked his life in an overseas war that he can’t come home and have a Budweiser???) Anyway, if I were to open a business in Blacksburg, it would be laminating small cards.
Finally, with my fountain of observations run dry, I left the bar. To my amazement, there was a line of at least 200 people standing in the rain to get in! I thought that every human in the state between 18 and 25 was already in the bar. Not only was that not true, but the streets were lined with students, many drunk, some disorderly, and all of them revved up by the energy of the weekend. If I had been 21, I would have been excited to join in the revelry; at 46, I was thrilled to flee it. I went home.
I found out the next day that there had been a riot on the streets that had begun about 10 minutes after I left. Apparently, fans from the two schools had gotten into a shouting match that escalated into a nasty little fracas. Over 200 cops had been called in to break it up, every available man and woman from four counties, in full riot regalia. Over 30 people were arrested, for everything from drunkenness to felony assault of a police officer. It even made the national news – the sports news, that is.
All of this got me thinking… what happens when 65,000 fans descend for a weekend of full-bore merrymaking on a town of only 40,000 residents? And not just one time, but for 6-7 games per year? Consider that this is a town with about 8 motels, and maybe 40 restaurants (the best of which is a Red Lobster – my mom swears it's "a good one"). How can they possibly absorb the impact of that many people, with so few places to eat, fewer places to stay, and no place to even park? Heck, they probably don’t even have enough places for that many people to go to the bathroom!
It’s not hard to see this becoming a rather serious problem. Most football-mad colleges are in cities considerably larger than Blacksburg, and they have a hard enough time dealing with crowds of this size. It may not be too long before the permanent residents of the area are fed up with the stress caused by their beloved football team. Not that they can do anything about it; the genie is out of the bottle.
Anyway, enough pre-game chat, its time to get on to the main event.
Lane Stadium, which is now known as Worsham Field, just underwent a $35+ million expansion, raising the capacity to about 65,000 seats. That is a great deal of money in any context, but especially in light of the financial affairs of the state of Virginia. The state is in the midst of a severe budget crunch, with projected shortfalls of several billion dollars; however, by state law, the budget must be balanced. Thus, along with the other drastic cuts in state services across the board that are planned, Governor Warner has asked all of the state universities to cut their budgets by as much as 15%. In other words, over forty million dollars were spent at a time when the university must shrink its budget by one dollar of every seven!
Sure, I know that no state funds were used for the expansion, but still, it's a curious contrast between the academic and athletic sides of the university.
In addition, tuition hikes are planned by as much as 20% for next year. Though Tech and the other Virginia universities are inexpensive relative to most states, students will pay as much as $1,200 more to go there next year. Finally, the athletic department is seeking another $40+ million for further stadium improvements!
Nevertheless, the stadium is impressive. There is a million dollar Jumbotron scoreboard, showing live replays after each play; three towering tiers of stands, with as many as 130 rows of seats; and a brand new section of luxury boxes and team facilities. It is truly a big-time facility, and it was filled to standing room with crazed fans, for both teams. The atmosphere was electric! It was the loudest stadium I have ever experienced.
After the usual interminable pre-game ceremonies, the two teams actually commenced playing football. And the game itself was terrific. It was intense, evenly-matched, and fiercely fought. To the delight of the fans, Tech won, playing their unique style of football known as Beamerball, named after Coach Beamer. But the game itself is not the subject here. You can read about it on the sports pages.
During the game I was struck by several thoughts (now there’s a surprise…). On one play I looked at Tech’s defensive eleven, and all of them were African-Americans. This was at a school where only about 3.5% of the student body, the last time I saw a figure, is African-American. There are many things that could be said about this, and most of them probably already have been by people wiser than me, but I still think it is worthy of note.
Meanwhile the football program generates millions of dollars from their efforts – all of which, if I’m not mistaken, goes to athletic programs, not academics. Again, this is a subject that has been widely debated, and there are good arguments on both sides, but the size of the crowd brought home the magnitude of the issue for me.
My second observation was a bit of a surprise to me. As I looked around at my fellow fans in the stands, I was troubled to see very few smiles. These people did not seem to be having very much fun! It was a tense game, at least in the first half, and the crowd didn’t like it one bit. I guess they have become so accustomed to Tech winning, and winning big, that a close game was not what they came for – they wanted a blow-out.
Now in the old days, especially when I was in school there, we went to games to have a good time. Granted, we may have had a cocktail or two before the game – and maybe a few more at the game – but the goal was to enjoy the pomp and pageantry of college football. We won a few, we lost a few more, but we always had a good time. These folks looked tied up in knots.
Which got me thinking again: this is the first real big-time sports franchise in the history of the state of Virginia! Sure, there’s always been stock car racing – and there was an ABA basketball team – and the UVa Cavaliers had had a couple of highly-ranked basketball teams – but there has never been a sustained period in Virginia of a nationally-prominent team until the Hokies and their success of the past decade. I guess that’s why these people have gone nuts over their team; folks from all over the state have adopted them. And Virginia is basically still a small-town, rural state.
All of this led me to ponder the big question: what do we Hokie fans get out of all this? One rather obvious answer is the joy of watching an excellent football team. Having played and watched football most of my life, I certainly understand that. It is fun watching them, the Hokies play with great passion and style.
However, I don’t think this is the main motivation of the overwhelming majority of Tech fans. I was reminded of a conversation I had this Summer with a fraternity brother who lives in Chicago. He works for a Fortune 50 company in sales, and he was telling me about a big conference he had recently attended. He was making the usual small talk with his compatriots, and the subject turned as it often does to where they had gone to college. When he told them "Virginia Tech," they responded with nods of affirmation, and praise for the football team. He told me how proud he was to be favorably compared to the Michigan’s, Notre Dame’s, and UCLA’s that were also represented there. Of course there was no mention of academics at these schools.
This, I think, is what being a Hokie fan is mostly about. Being from a school with a great football team – or just calling yourself a fan of the school – makes you a More Important Person. Everyone knows where you went to college, and they somehow equate the football success with the quality of your education, and indirectly to your status in the world. When in fact the opposite is more likely true: the larger the institution the more likely the team is good, but the quality of instruction is bad: larger classes, more junior instructors, more standardized tests, fewer research projects. But the alumni don’t talk about having classes in auditoriums with lecturers on closed circuit TV, they just want to brag about last year’s Sugar Bowl.
So, my lasting impression from this pilgrimage to my alma mater was this: the Hokies have definitely gone Big-Time. They are a Big-Time team, with a Big-Time stadium, and a Big-Time media machine. But with this also comes Big-Time budgets, Big-Time crowds, Big-Time hassles, and in some cases, Big-Time ugliness. All for the Big-Time ego gratification of the alumni and other Tech athletic supporters.
I can’t say it made me long for the good old days – I love seeing Tech in the top ten, too! – but it did make me fonder of my old memories when the games were not quite so serious. Mostly, it made me feel more remote from the game I had enjoyed: the players seem more like semi-pros than college students, the stadium is huge and slick, even the fans have changed from happy-go-lucky kids to intense alums.
I guess all of this brands me as a prematurely grumpy old man: I’m already talking about the good old days.