By David Teel and Dave Fairbank
247-4636 | 247-4637
August 29, 2009
Sell your storied heritage and alluring locale to the region's elite prospects, mix with virtually unlimited resources and build another trophy case.
Virginia Tech never had those assets. The Hokies could not compete with Florida's offensive sizzle, Southern California's Heismans or Texas' honky tonks.
Until the school stuck with its home-grown coach, groveled its way into a fledgling conference, developed recruits otherwise prized by VMI and overcame a humiliating loss to a five-touchdown underdog.
A decade ago, this hash of ingredients forged the cornerstones of an undefeated regular season that carried Virginia Tech to the national title game against a card-carrying dynasty in Florida State.
"I never dreamed we could play for the national championship," assistant coach Billy Hite said on the eve of his 32nd season in Blacksburg. "I left the University of North Carolina (in 1978), and I always thought they had a better chance than what we did.
"The best thing that happened to Virginia Tech was when we got into the Big East."
A football independent since leaving the Southern Conference in 1965, the Hokies were charter members of the Big East's football arm in 1991. It brought them unprecedented television exposure, bowl access and recruiting cachet.
Dave Braine, then Tech's athletic director, recalls the Big East's basketball wing (Georgetown, Providence, St. John's and Seton Hall) vehemently resisting football. He credits then-Miami athletic director Sam Jankovich and recently retired Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese with overriding those objections.
"If it hadn't been for Miami," Braine said, "we wouldn't have been in a football-playing conference."
But league membership wasn't Braine's only football concern. In Frank Beamer's first six seasons as head coach, 1987-92, the Hokies were 24-40-2, a product of his inexperience, a thorny schedule and NCAA-mandated scholarship cuts.
The temptation was to fire Beamer. But the NCAA sanctions were for infractions committed under former coach Bill Dooley. Moreover, Beamer was a Hokie, class of '69.
Tech's patience paid incalculable dividends.
In 1993, the Hokies began a streak of bowl appearances that is 16 and counting. In '95, they rebounded from an 0-2 start, won the Big East and closed the season with 10 consecutive victories, including a Sugar Bowl win over Texas.
Led by linemen Cornell Brown and J.C. Price on defense, and quarterback Jim Druckenmiller and tailback Dwayne Thomas on offense, Tech finished No. 9 in the coaches' poll that season, the program's first season-ending top-10 ranking.
"We learned a lot from that 1995 team," said Jamel Smith, a senior linebacker in '99. "A lot of us redshirted that year. It showed us Virginia Tech could get to the highest level."
Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring, a Tech assistant since 1993, recalls what Beamer said immediately after the victory over Texas.
"We deserved the opportunity to be here, and I can promise you this: We'll be back, and we'll be better."
The Hokies repeated as Big East champions in 1996 and lost to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. A program that previously reveled in Liberty, Peach and Independence bowls was hunting with the big dogs.
What had changed? How did the Hokies rise so quickly?
Several things: National power Miami, a conference rival, declined in the wake of NCAA sanctions; Beamer hired and retained quality assistants; Tech upgraded facilities and budgets, leaning on an increasingly generous and rabid fan base.
David Chambers, a former Tech associate athletic director and University of Iowa defensive back, considers the Hokies' faithful "unique."
"There's no place like it that I've come across, in terms of the ownership that fans and alumni take in the institution," said Chambers, an executive associate athletic director at Central Florida. "Even the Florida Hokies that I come across, for them it all goes back to Blacksburg. You can tell what a special role it plays in those people's lives.
"I think it's different even than (Southeastern Conference) schools. I think some of those people are bandwagon jumpers who get on board because it's the thing to do. When I think of the ownership in Virginia Tech and what it means to fans and alumni, it's more than just their school or living vicariously through your team."
But the most critical element was Beamer and his staff — don't forget strength and conditioning coach Mike Gentry. With few acclaimed recruits, they developed undervalued talent like few others.
Not to say all of the Hokies were pugs. Brown, the Big East defensive player of the year in 1995, was a SuperPrep All-American at Lynchburg's E.C. Glass High; Michael Vick, 1999's breakout star, was rated among the nation's top quarterback prospects at Warwick High.
But they were exceptions as Tech coaches mined not only Virginia, but also the Northeast and Florida — half of the 22 starters in '99 hailed from out of state.
"Back in the early '90s when the bowl streak started, the big thing for Virginia Tech was Coach Gentry," said offensive tackle Anthony Lambo, a high school teacher and assistant coach in his native New Jersey. "He was turning average high school players into great college players."
"Michael Vick was a superstar, but most of us weren't highly recruited," said center Keith Short, a Richmond-area product whose other scholarship offers were from James Madison, Liberty and VMI. "It was kind of neat we made it as far as we did with what we had."
Take these stalwarts:
Linebackers Ben Taylor, Michael Hawkes and Smith were headed to Kent State, VMI and The Citadel, respectively, before Tech offered. Receiver Andre Davis, now in his eighth NFL season, was considering Division I-AA schools closer to his New York home until his cousin, former Tech walk-on Rich Bowen, pitched him to the Hokies.
Defensive end John Engelberger and fullback Jarrett Ferguson joined the program as walk-ons. Engelberger became an All-American and last year completed his ninth NFL season.
"We evaluated talent, not caring who else was offering them," said Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Rickey Bustle, a Tech assistant for 14 seasons.
But 1999 was preceded by profound disappointment.
After a 4-0 start in '97, the Hokies staggered to a 7-5 finish that included a 42-3 Gator Bowl loss to North Carolina. Tech opened 5-0 a year later, only to lose to Temple, Syracuse and Virginia by a combined nine points.
The Hokies squandered a 22-point halftime lead, at home, against Virginia, and fell at Syracuse on Donovan McNabb's last-play touchdown pass. But it was the defeat to Temple that most galled.
The Owls were 0-6, losers of 26 consecutive Big East road games and five-touchdown underdogs. The Hokies were 5-0, ranked No. 14 and playing their homecoming game. But Temple rallied from a 17-0 deficit to win 28-24, securing the upset with a defensive stand at the 3-yard line in the waning seconds.
"I still think that's the biggest embarrassment I've ever been involved in," said end Corey Moore, the national defensive player of the year in '99.
Moore and his teammates learned from those defeats. On each occasion, they won the next game, most emphatically when they rebounded from the loss to U.Va. to ambush Alabama 38-7 in the Music City Bowl and finish 9-3.
"You had to come out of that season with a little bit of character," Stinespring said, "with a little bit of toughness after losses that shook your framework."
Buoyed by the victory over Alabama, Tech gazed toward '99. The defense appeared stout, while the offense hinged on a redshirt freshman quarterback who had terrorized the defense during practices.
Vick led the nation in pass efficiency and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting. The Hokies rolled through the regular season, a 22-20 escape at West Virginia the only game decided by fewer than 13 points — they avenged the '98 Temple debacle with a 62-7 thrashing.
"We had older guys," assistant coach Jim Cavanaugh said. "They were very professional. They were very schooled in what we did. … We had such an experienced bunch that everything went the way it was supposed to go. … Their football IQ was very, very good."
So was their chemistry, that elusive and mysterious concept.
Defensive tackle Carl Bradley disdained a suggested redshirt year in 1999 after off-season shoulder surgery. Short missed only two games after a partial knee ligament tear threatened his season.
Bradley, who teaches gifted children in Northern Virginia, said the dynamic is "probably something I'll never find again. It wasn't just a couple of guys that had a strong bond. It was the entire team. … You wanted to be on the (practice) field with your teammates. You wanted to be in the weight room with your teammates."
Said Short: "It's amazing how much fun we had. Hotel doors (on the road) were unlocked. Doors between rooms were always open. We were hanging out, talking, playing cards, watching television. … I think that's why we made it as far as we did. We were just a family."
A decade later, much of that family is intact. Short and Ferguson work for Gentry in Tech's weight room; Smith is a graduate assistant coach; Cavanaugh, Stinespring, Hite, Bud Foster and Charley Wiles remain on the staff.
And, of course, there's Beamer, entering his 23rd season as head coach. Virginia Tech in the last decade has expanded Lane Stadium, upgraded recruiting and moved to the ACC.
"He built a foundation," Braine said, "and he's still thriving on that foundation today."
The series Today is the final day in our weeklong look back at the 1999 Virginia Tech team, a team that put the Hokies on the national stage.
To view the entire series, visit us on the Web at dailypress.com/
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