Day 1: Virginia Tech's landmark season

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Ten years later, the imprint of Virginia Tech's landmark football season remains — from the luxury suites at Lane Stadium, to the admissions office at Burruss Hall, to the headquarters of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

But let's start at a Blacksburg grocery store.

Seem like an odd place to reflect upon the 1999 Hokies' charge to the national-championship game? Associate head coach Billy Hite certainly thinks so.

Earlier this summer, Hite wandered into the Kroger on Main Street for what he imagined would be a quick trip through the express line. More than 30 minutes later, he emerged amused and amazed.

The cause of Hite's delay was fans intent on discussing Tech's prospects — the Hokies are No. 7 in the preseason Associated Press poll — for making this season's title contest, in Pasadena, Calif.

Hite traces the current chatter back to '99, when Frank Beamer's program barged its way into college football's elite.

"It's raised the expectations so high," Hite said. "I can remember my wife telling Coach Beamer, 'You screwed up by going undefeated because now they're going to expect it every year.'

"And damn if they don't. … All people are talking about is Pasadena. I'm thinking, 'Let me get a vacation in here first before you start talking about it.' "

Ten years ago, the buzz was New Orleans.

Led by the electric Michael Vick at quarterback and relentless Corey Moore at defensive end, the '99 Hokies authored Tech's first unblemished regular season since 1918. Dominant in all phases, they are the only team of the last 15 years to lead the nation in scoring offense and scoring defense.

But Florida State, then a full-fledged dynasty, defeated Virginia Tech 46-29 in the title game at the Louisiana Superdome.

The Hokies have not returned to the championship contest — they were close in 2000 and 2007 — but with exponentially more television revenue, an upgraded stadium and 16 consecutive bowl seasons, they are positioned to contend in 2009, and beyond.

"With the success Virginia Tech's had, plus the facilities they've built, now they're getting a really different level of talent," said former Miami coach Larry Coker, now heading Texas-San Antonio's start-up program. "I think sometimes earlier in Frank's career they were doing it somewhat with smoke and mirrors."

The Hokies advertise their ambitions in their Hall of Legends.

"This area is reserved for the national championship trophy," reads the large maroon sign inside an otherwise vacant glass case.

"I don't think there's any question that Virginia Tech can return to the game," athletic director Jim Weaver said. "I don't think there's any question that Virginia Tech can win a national championship. We've tried to do everything we can to continue to prepare us for that opportunity, to continue to stay abreast of our competition. …

"There is no doubt in my mind that at some point Virginia Tech will win a national championship. I don't know if I'll be here or not. I don't know if Frank Beamer will be the coach, but the tradition in my opinion has been established."

Weaver, Beamer, assistant coaches and many Hokies faithful recite the numbers from memory.

Only Florida and Florida State have longer bowl streaks. Only Ohio State and Florida have won more games since 1995. Only Virginia Tech, Texas and Southern California have won at least 10 games each of the last five seasons.

Flattering company, no doubt, with one glaring difference. Each of the other five has won multiple national titles.

"You're up there and you knock on the door, you can knock it down one of these days," said Beamer, entering his 23rd season as the Hokies' coach.

Virginia Tech first knocked, albeit timidly, in 1995 and '96, when Big East championship seasons concluded, respectively, with a Sugar Bowl victory over Texas and an Orange Bowl loss to Nebraska. But in both years, the Hokies lost in September and never cracked the top five.

Everything changed in 1999. Or, was it Dec. 30, 1998?

On that frigid evening in Nashville, Tenn., Tech concluded a 9-3 season with a 38-7 thumping of Alabama at the Music City Bowl. Following the game, then-Crimson Tide coach Mike DuBose said his program was striving to reach the Hokies' level.

Alabama, the program of Bear Bryant, Joe Namath and Ken Stabler, looking up to Virginia Tech? It did not compute.

"I took it the same way," Beamer said. "When I grew up, Alabama, that was as good as it gets. They were a step down (in '98), but I thought that was a fantastic compliment to our program."

The Hokies began 1999 ranked 13th by the AP. Opening victories over James Madison and Alabama Birmingham impressed few, though one pollster, Jack Ebling of the Lansing State Journal in Michigan, created a stir by voting Tech No. 1 in mid-September.

Ebling's lone-wolf notion gained credence as the season progressed. The Hokies smothered Clemson in prime-time, dusted Virginia and Rutgers on the road and vaulted to No. 4, the highest ranking in school history.

Next up: No. 16 Syracuse.

Blacksburg crackled. ESPN's College GameDay crew parachuted in, and seven hours before kickoff, more than 10,000 fans mobbed the set.

Tech was flawless. The Hokies forced five turnovers, committed none and scored two defensive touchdowns.

The stunning final was 62-0, the most-lopsided shutout ever administered to a ranked team.

"I'm sold," Tech receiver Ricky Hall said afterward. "I'm pretty sure we can go out there and play with anybody."

Three weeks later, at West Virginia, the Hokies trailed for the first time all season.

Rallying from a 12-point, fourth-quarter deficit, the Mountaineers grabbed a 20-19 lead with 1:15 remaining.

"All of a sudden," Weaver said, "we're fighting for our life."

But with no timeouts, Vick engineered a 58-yard drive that ended with Shayne Graham's 44-yard field goal at the gun.

The Hokies were 8-0 for the first time since 1905.

"Boy, going undefeated, that was hard," said Rickey Bustle, then Tech's offensive coordinator and now Louisiana-Lafayette's head coach. "It was a great thing, and as you went through it and the snowball kept getting bigger and bigger, you realize that there's possibilities.

"You go through those years when you're 2-9 or 3-8, and those are tough years. But it was tough going 11-0 that year. The pressure kept mounting, for the kids and coaches, and after a while you start saying, 'Can we do this?' "

After West Virginia, the answer was an emphatic "yes," as Tech pounded Miami, Temple and Boston College by a combined 112 points. Then came New Orleans. Lots of New Orleans.

The second-ranked Hokies arrived Dec. 27 for the Jan. 4 Sugar Bowl. Primed to ring in Y2K and celebrate Tech's first championship appearance, fans weren't far behind.

And even for a city built on debauchery, the maroon-and-orange bunch was unique, as senior associate athletic director Sharon McCloskey warned management at Tech's hotel, the Hilton Riverside.

"I told her: 'Now this crowd, they'll drink some beer. Make sure you're stocked up,' " McCloskey said. "She said, 'This is New Orleans, we're used to this.' They ran out in three days."

The vibe surrounding Florida State was radically different. Unbeaten and No. 1, the Seminoles were playing in their second consecutive title game and were among the nation's top-four teams for the 13th straight year.

Facing a top-10 opponent for the first time all season, Tech disregarded pedigree. The Hokies led 29-28 after three quarters.

But Tech faded fast as Florida State won the fourth quarter 18-zip.

A few days after the defeat, Hite heard from an old college friend living in Iowa. He called to tell Hite of the four cars he'd just seen with Virginia Tech stickers.

"I thought to myself, this place really is something now," Hite said.

The national media coverage — "you couldn't get enough money together to pay for it," McCloskey said — rippled across the campus.

Applications for admission increased, in quantity and quality. Donations to athletics and academics soared.

"The impact of a successful football program wasn't just that one year and the national-championship game," said then-university president Paul Torgersen. "It was a cumulative sort of thing. … It impacted parents and high school youngsters knowing about Virginia Tech, and I'm sure it (affected) our admissions. … Now I'd like to think the reputation of the university is significant, too.

"We've seen a gradual rise in college-board scores and high school grades of applicants, and that goes back at least maybe two decades. Each year seems to be just a little better than the year before. It's hard to reach into the mix and attribute to specific elements such as architecture, engineering or athletics, but we'll take it any way we can."

During the 1999 football season, Virginia Tech was concluding a campus-wide capital campaign. The goal was $250 million.

"We raised $330 million," Torgersen said.

Meanwhile, Hokie Club donations increased from $6.4 million in fiscal 1998 to $10.02 million in fiscal 2000, said Lu Merritt, the athletic department's director of development.

Virginia Tech has since transformed 45-year-old Lane Stadium from a cookie-cutter slab into a contemporary arena. The enhancements, including 43 suites, added more than 11,000 seats and goosed capacity to 66,233.

The stadium projects cost about $79 million, and a $17 million support complex (locker room, weight room, offices, meeting areas) is under construction.

But football's most enduring legacy is ACC membership. Absent the national splashes of 1995, '96 and '99, the Hokies' inclusion in the conference's football-driven expansion of 2003 would have been laughable.

Whether 1999 specifically was a tipping point is impossible to determine, but as Torgersen said, "It sure didn't hurt."

Bolting the Big East for the ACC eased travel demands for all sports and more than quadrupled annual television revenue from about $2.5 million to more than $12 million.

In fiscal 2003-04, its final year in the Big East, Virginia Tech reported $38.9 million in athletics revenue to the U.S. Department of Education. In 2007-08, the school reported $56 million.

"There's a wonderful cascading effect of a successful football team, at least at Virginia Tech," said Torgersen, who retired in 2000.

Beamer's program has taken full advantage of ACC membership, winning three conference championships in five years, including the last two. But many will view anything less in 2009 as unacceptable, the season-ending knee injury to incumbent tailback Darren Evans notwithstanding.

Such expectations were in full bloom last season, when the Hokies lost four regular-season games before closing strong and defeating Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl.

"You talk about going through a tough year," Hite said. "You're winning 10 games and winning a championship again and the crap that we took as coaches and players? Something's not right with that picture. …

"I think it's the new group that's become Hokies. I think the people who have been through the good times and the lean times, I don't think it's those people."

Beamer recalls the lean times all too well. Losing 17 of his first 22 games as coach. Getting skunked by 35 points at Syracuse and 38 at Virginia. Wondering about his job.

"I understand it," Beamer said, "but every loss now is such a critical loss. And it's a compliment I think to your program because people have such high expectations, and you want it that way.

"But I can remember when I first started here, and you lost, 'Well, we just weren't good enough to beat them.' Now you feel like your talent level is good enough to beat most people, so when you lose, it's so critical. … When you lose one you shouldn't have lost, it just wears you out."

Veteran assistant coach Bryan Stinespring recalls 1993, when he and Hokies faithful were thrilled to beat Indiana in the Independence Bowl. Those wide-eyed days are gone, evidenced by the Dec. 6, 1999, edition of Sports Illustrated in Stinespring's office.

"They Belong!" screams the main headline, superimposed over a photograph of receiver Andre Davis.

"Why Virginia Tech Deserves a Shot at The National Title," echoes the subhead.

The memories still make Stinespring's voice catch. Graham's kick. Vick's runs. The regular-season finale against Boston College.

Stinespring rocked his chair back and clasped his hands behind his head.

"When you've played on that stage, when you've had a taste, when you've played for the national championship, it's a part of you," he said. "It stays with you forever."

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