From 2-8-1 to Sugar Bowl Champs

Part 3 of 3
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By Jeff Holland, 12/9/99

Note from HokieCentral: Jeff Holland was a defensive tackle for Virginia Tech
from 1991-1995 and played a key role in the rise of the Virginia Tech defense
from 1993 to 1995.  In the conclusion to this series, Jeff recounts Tech's historic 1995 Sugar Bowl run.

Part 3:  Cinderella Lives in Blacksburg

Coach Elmassian left for the Washington Huskies, and Coach Foster and Coach Sharpless took over as co-coordinators. Personally, I was saddened by Coach Elmassian’s departure, but I understood why he took the job. It also reinforced the fact that college football is a business.

The success story in 1995 didn’t begin in the preseason in August. It started all the way back in January 1995. As most of you know, every college sport is year-round. Now that Virginia Tech was going to bowl games every year, you had absolutely no free time.

After great winter workouts and towards the end of a good spring practice, the coaches gave us ballots to vote for next year’s captains. Tech does this every year in the spring. Usually, 4-5 people stand out above the rest and the top 4-5 players are captains. After the 1995 vote, though, we had at least 8-9 players who got around the same number of votes. Kind of odd, but it’s a nice problem to have. This was the beginning of the senior (and junior) leadership that helped keep this team together throughout the 1995 season.

"Leadership" is one of those cliché terms that you always hear associated with team sports, especially football. But, I can tell you first hand, it is very important. Sometime during the summer of 1995, all of the seniors met, and we decided then that we were not going to have the type of leadership we had during the latter part of 1994. In short, we were going to put our egos aside (including my own) and just win. Our coaches have done and continue to do a great job in preparing us to win, but in the end it’s up to us, the players, to do the job.

The "leadership" angle is discussed somewhat at the end of the 1995 highlight video, entitled "Champs" (which I’m sure most of you have – I know I’ve watched it a few hundred times). The senior and junior leadership we had during the 1995 was absolutely the biggest and most important reason we went on to win the last 10 games of 1995.

That year, the defensive coaches also introduced us to the lunch pail, the symbol of the blue-collar work ethic that the defense had and continues to have. I really give a lot credit to the defensive coaches for finding a symbol that we could rally around. To the average person, a lunch pail probably sounds stupid, but to the defense it was our "holy grail"…

Boston College (14-20): This was a game we could have won. We had 10 starters back. We had a deep defensive line. We held Boston College to only 45 yards rushing, but quarterback Mark Hartsell was 24 of 38 for 273 yards passing and 2 touchdowns. Linebacker Myron Newsome was making his first start, but as the saying goes in college football, "if you’re gonna lose, lose early."

Cincinnati (0-16): Along with the entire 1992 season, one of low points in football career at Virginia Tech. This was Virginia Tech’s first home shutout since November 11, 1982 to VMI (6-0). We didn’t play bad defensively – they only scored 9 points on the defense (Druckenmiller threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown), but Cincinnati did get 300 yards of total offense. But, even after an 0-2 start, there was no finger-pointing among the players. We stayed together as a team, and there was still a lot of football left to play.

SIDE NOTE: One thing I remember after this game was something I read in the want-ads from the Collegiate Times, Virginia Tech’s school newspaper: "Lost: Virginia Tech Football Team. Last seen in Nov 94 against Rutgers." At that point, we had lost 5 of our last 6 games.

Miami (13-7): Some people have said that this game probably was "the game" that officially turned the Virginia Tech program around. Virginia Tech beat the "big kid on the block". I would have to agree with that. The offense ran the ball right down Miami’s throat, and remember, this was the defense that featured current NFL players Kenny Holmes, Kenard Lang and Ray Lewis. Defensively, we played great. The defense had 6 sacks (including 4 by J.C. Price) and held Miami to 51 yards rushing. Freshman Loren Johnson was making his first collegiate start and came up big in the fourth quarter, "deflecting" the pass away that won the game.

There are three things that I will always remember from this game. First, at the hotel we stayed at in Radford, we had a meeting in which some of the players could speak their mind. One particular thing that Jim Baron said, I will never forget. To paraphrase him, he said why can’t we win 9 in a row; there’s a lot of football left to be played.

Second, the atmosphere in locker room right after the game ended was very special. There was no media in the locker room, just us players and coaches. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. I won’t go into further details, but it was very special.

Third, an interesting comment was made the week after the Miami game. Tech team doctor Duane Lagan said to me, "I wonder if we would have beaten Miami, if we hadn’t lost the first two games and had our backs against the wall." Interesting comment. Who knows what would have happened. Kinda makes you think…

Pittsburgh (26-16): Talk about a letdown. It was almost impossible not to have a letdown after a huge game like Miami, and it showed. We were down at halftime 9-0. If it weren’t for a couple of blocked punts by Angelo Harrison, we might not have won the game.

SIDE NOTE: Most of the guys on the 1995 defense agree that Billy West was the best running back that we (the juniors/seniors on the defense from 1993-1995) ever faced. Billy West was the only running back to rush for more than 100 yards against the defense in 1995. He was a Barry Sanders clone. I still don’t know why Pittsburgh moved him to fullback in 1996.

Navy (14-0): This was the first shutout in the "attack defense" era. We had been waiting for a shutout for a long time. Cornell Brown and J.C. Price had great games. Overall, the defense had 8 sacks and 8 other tackles-for-loss. Navy, which had been averaging 273 yards rushing per game, was limited to only 126 yards rushing and 209 total yards. Quarterback Chris McCoy, who at the time was 10th nationally in rushing (133 yards/game) was held 21 carries for 1 yard rushing, and he was 4 of 7 passing for 16 yards and 1 interception.

Akron (77-27): Not many of the starters played much in this game. It was 47-0 at halftime. Enough said.

SIDE NOTE: If we would have shut out Akron, we would have finished first in the nation in scoring defense. The defense finished 1st in rushing defense, 5th in scoring defense and 10th in total defense.

Rutgers (45-17): No Rutgers rally this time! This proved with good tackling and good execution that Virginia Tech could shut down Rutgers. Rutgers had only 223 total yards. Terrell Willis, the Big East’s leading rusher at the time, had only 7 carries for –2 yards. He had been averaging 110 yards per game. Quarterback, Ray Lucas, was 10 of 25 for 86 yards passing.

The whole Tech team was pissed off to begin with. This was Rutgers’ Homecoming game. When another team schedules you for their Homecoming, it’s either because they couldn’t avoid it or it’s because of lack of respect. Akron was our Homecoming, and we won that game. We wanted to win another Homecoming.

When Ray Lucas threw a touchdown pass in the second half to cut the lead to 31-17, I could hear a collective "oh no, here we go again" by everyone in the stadium. But, as soon as Hank Coleman and Myron Newsome ("double nickels" dubbed by Bill Roth) scored two defensive touchdowns, the game was over.

The week before the Rutgers game, the coaches told us that we control our own destiny. If we win out, we would win the Big East. And so began the "4 steps to the Big East title" march…

SIDE NOTE: Rough weekend for Virginia Tech – we were delayed in Roanoke and didn’t get to practice at Rutgers stadium that Friday, like we usually do; Coach Bustle was sent to the hospital for a kidney stone; and Brandon Semones got a concussion in the first half.

West Virginia (27-0): When someone asks me what my most memorable moment in my career, usually the 1993 Virginia game comes up or the Independence Bowl or the 1995 Miami game or the Sugar Bowl. But when someone asks me my most memorable defensive game, I will always say West Virginia in 1995.

Earlier in that week, the defensive coaches told us they "heard through the grapevine" that the West Virginia players were "talking trash" about our defense. Statistically, they were better than our defense at that point in the season. In retrospect, I have my doubts about the trash talking, but nevertheless, it worked. The defense was immensely pissed off for this game. To add fuel to the fire, this was West Virginia’s Homecoming game, too. Looks like we would have to win 3 Homecomings in 1995.

This was our second shutout, and West Virginia had only 138 total yards (15 rushing). Cornell Brown had his usual great game against West Virginia, and we had 8 sacks and 8 other tackles-for-loss. West Virginia didn’t even get a first down in the first quarter.

There’s nothing sweeter (other than beating Virginia in Charlottesville) than hearing the West Virginia fans booing the home team as they went off the field at halftime. This was West Virginia’s first home shutout since 1986.

I think West Virginia head coach Don Nehlen summed it up best, "We tried running off tackle, we tried traps, we tried reverses, but we couldn’t muster anything; Tech just controlled the line of scrimmage the whole game. From what I can tell (the Hokies) are the best team we’ve played this year. They’re very solid up front."

"Our defense played a tremendous game. I feel really good about those guys. I’d go to battle anywhere with that crowd." (Coach Beamer after the game)

Syracuse (31-7): This was the biggest game in Virginia Tech’s history up to that point in time. Even though it was the coldest game I have ever played in, there still was a sellout crowd. Another great performance by the defense. We held McNabb in check. He finished with 167 total yards (54 rushing). Cornell Brown came up big again with 3 sacks.

The locker room immediately after the game was special. Not as special as the Miami game, but it’s something I will never forget. Also, seeing our fans rush the field and throw oranges onto the field was priceless. Beating Syracuse was a great way to play my last home football game.

SIDE NOTE: Virginia Tech made an official announcement about the plans for the Merryman Center on this day.

Temple (38-16): Virginia Tech didn’t officially win the Big East until we beat Temple, and Miami was not officially on probation, yet. Statistically, it wasn’t one of our best games, but we did have 5 sacks and held Temple to 79 yards rushing. Jim Baron and J.C. Price put the game out of reach with two defensive touchdowns in a span of only minutes. Kinda reminded me of the last few seconds of the first half of the Independence Bowl.

Playing at RFK Stadium in front of mostly Virginia Tech fans was great. The locker room after this game was special, too. Everyone put on our new Big East Champions T-shirt and celebrated, but we had one more regular season game to play…

SIDE NOTE: during the week of the Temple game, the ESPN "bashing" of Virginia Tech began. Chris Fowler called Virginia Tech "America’s least glamorous big-time program" and went on to ridicule our team colors. What he said was actually a compliment, but he said it in a rather negative way. Lee Corso also said that "Virginia Tech was the Orange Bowl’s worst nightmare."

Boy, how things have changed…

Virginia (36-29): This game means the most to me, personally. Beating arch-rival Virginia is always great, but the way we did it was very special. Not many people know this, but during my senior year Virginia along with Virginia Tech, JMU, William & Mary, University of Richmond, N.C. State, ETSU, and a few other colleges were recruiting me.

Before 1990, I had never heard of Virginia Tech, and I always wanted to go to Virginia (believe it or not!). Things began to change when Virginia Tech beat Virginia in 1990 (38-13). But, the big reason I changed my opinion of Virginia was the way they recruited me. They didn’t break any NCAA rules, but the way they went about it was something I didn’t like. Back then, UVa’s offensive coordinator, Tom O’Brien (current Boston College head coach) recruited the Hampton Roads/Tidewater area. Towards the end of the recruiting period, Virginia stopped recruiting me. All of my other serious offers/recruiting came from I-AA schools in Virginia (JMU, W&M, and Richmond).

Then along came along Virginia Tech, kind of late in the recruiting process. Former coach Larry Creekmore had visited my high school and said Tech was interested in me, but nothing more was said. I thought Virginia Tech was out of the picture. A few weeks later, Coach Beamer visited my high school to see me. My high school coach, Lew Johnston (from Western Branch High School in Chesapeake, VA – same high school as Shyrone Stith, Emmett Johnson, Marvin Urqhuart, Keith Burnell, and Lorenzo Ferguson – I think I might have started a pipeline from Western Branch to Virginia Tech), told me when a head coach comes to visit you in person, then they are very serious about giving you a scholarship.

Coach Beamer was the only Division I-A coach who believed in me and offered me a scholarship. After my official visit in January 1991, Coach Beamer said he wanted to offer me a scholarship, and he said that if you don’t accept now, it might not be available later down the road. The split second he said he was offering me a scholarship, I wanted to say yes right then and there. As soon as he stopped talking, I said "I accept". No way I was going to turn this down. And the rest is history.

So you can see why the Virginia game in 1995 (and 1993) was so special to me. I’m pretty sure that the coaches for Virginia didn’t remember who I was, but I am 100% sure I made the right choice when I decided to go to Virginia Tech.

Back to the game: even though Virginia outgained us 420-319, over the last quarter and a half of the game the defense came up with huge plays. Cornell Brown had 2 key sacks, and J.C. Price had another key sack. One play that may not seem that important, but in fact was very important, was a tackle-for-loss by Hank Coleman which pushed Virginia back when they were driving down the field with the score 29-23. Their kicker, Garcia, eventually missed the long field goal attempt. Who knows what would have happened if Hank Coleman hadn’t made that tackle?

This season was filled with memorable moments, and nothing gives me more "goose-bumps" than watching/re-living the Druckenmiller to Holmes touchdown pass. I remember Cornell Brown was standing right next to me when it happened. I just grabbed him and started dancing and yelling "He caught it! He caught it!" It was impossible to hold our emotions in after that play. The coaches were yelling at us, saying the game wasn’t over, but Antonio Banks sealed the win with an interception for a touchdown. I still can picture him dancing in the end zone and suddenly seeing him swallowed by a sea of Hokie fans who rushed the field. The locker room after this game was very emotional, similar to the Miami, Syracuse, and Temple games.

Texas (28-10): Probably one of the best cities to visit, and one of the best cities to have a bowl game at. I still say we had more fans down there than Texas. Personally, I was expecting Texas to be similar to Tennessee (from 1994) – a big-time team with a nasty attitude. They did have a lot of great players at the skilled positions: quarterback, tight end, receivers, and running backs (including Ricky Williams). They had some great defensive players who are playing in the NFL (Tony Brackens, Chris Carter, Bryant Westbrook). As the game went on, we could tell they weren’t as "great" as we thought they were, but they were still very good.

Did they respect us? Probably not. Although, their coach at the time, John Mackovic, is a Frank Beamer type of coach. I’m sure they respected us after the game. Even though we were down 10-0 in the first half, once Bryan Still scored on the punt return for a touchdown, we knew we were going to win. All throughout the season, the defense played better as the game went on. Proof of this was that except for Akron, only Rutgers scored a touchdown against the defense in the fourth quarter. This game was no different. They only had 226 yards of total offense. We held Texas to 78 yards rushing; we had 5 sacks, 3 interceptions (although Larry Green could have had several more interceptions), and a defensive touchdown.

There were many things written about Virginia Tech after this game. One of the quotes that stands out in my mind was made by Texas play-by-play announcer, Bill Schoenig, "If you think Cinderella lives in Evanston, Illinois (Northwestern), think again. She’s alive and well in Blacksburg, Virginia."

Also, Texas head coach, John Mackovic, said, "Their defense was every bit as good as anyone we’ve played this year. They had better overall team speed than anyone we’ve played."

SIDE NOTE: When Jim Baron scored the touchdown on the fumble return, Hank Coleman flipped the ball up to him from out of the pile. Hank told me that after the game. The ball didn’t just "pop up" to Jim Baron.

The atmosphere on Bourbon Street after the game was absolutely incredible. Nothing will ever compare to that night after the game. What a great way to end my career…

Overall (10-2): Like I said in the beginning of this article, the most important thing that kept this team together was the leadership. Nothing could be lower than being shutout at home by Cincinnati, but nobody started to point fingers. I think Bryan Still said it best in an article written by Roanoke Times Writer, Randy King in August 1995:

"More than one player has questioned the leadership factor on last year’s underachieving team. When the ship started to sink, some of the so-called leaders evidently bailed out. ‘I think our leaders kind of faded near the end, said Bryan Still, senior flanker, ‘I think some people lost some of their interest after we lost a game or so. This year, I think we’ve got the experience to know to keep going."

When the seniors met in the summer of 1995, we all agreed to leave our egos at the door and just win. For example, J.C. Price and I played the same position. I could have easily bitched and moan about not playing as much as I used to, but J.C. Price had an All-American year (104 tackles, 15 tackles-for-loss and 8 sacks) as did George DelRicco (137 tackles, 5 tackled-for-loss and 2 sacks); Cornell Brown (103 tackles, 11 tackles-for-loss and 14 sacks); and Torrian Gray, Larry Green, Brandon Semones and Hank Coleman. Plus J.C. is my friend, and when you start to win, nobody really cares about playing time.

You might ask yourself how in the world could we play this good in 1995 and play that bad towards the end of 1994 because we basically had the same defense. Answer – Great leadership (discussed above) and a lot of the players were playing up to their potential. Particularly several players such as J.C. Price, Larry Green, Cornell Brown, Hank Coleman, etc. We had the same defensive players as the year before, but we had a new attitude, great leadership and several players played up to their potential.

And so my career came to an end. Was this the best Virginia Tech team ever? At the time, yes. But to say that there would never be a team as good as the 1995 Sugar Bowl team, as many people did at the time, is selling ourselves short. Admitting that the 1995 team was the best in Virginia Tech’s history, then and forever, would have been admitting that Virginia Tech had reached a peak. We reached an all-time high after the Sugar Bowl, but there are bigger mountains to climb in the college football world, as this year’s team is proving.

Before I end this article, I would like to point out the great coaches we had during my career. First of all, Virginia Tech was lucky enough to have a great Athletic Director in Dave Braine. Secondly, Coach Beamer was the only Division I-A coach who believed in me. Coach Foster, Coach Elmassian, Coach Grantham, and all of the other defense coaches were the greatest.

The average person doesn’t realize how lucky Virginia Tech was (and is) to have the coaching staff that we have and will hopefully continue to have. If you could have seen some of the schemes the defensive coaches came up with in 1995, it would make you realize that spending 12+ hour days watching film and coming up with things to put the defense in the best possible position to make plays is worth it.

And finally, Mike Gentry, Virginia Tech’s strength coach, is with out a doubt the best strength coach in America. Year after year, professional and college teams try to "steal" Coach Gentry away from Virginia Tech, but year after year, he continues to stay with us. The strength and conditioning program at Virginia Tech is one of the biggest reasons why not only the football team, but also all male/female sports are excelling the way there are now.

In closing, here are some quotes that I picked out that sum up everything nicely. At the end, I’ve included parts of an article written by Richmond Times Dispatch writer, Skip Wood, in October 12, 1995.  Skip's article, along with a November 12, 1999 Daily Press article called "Hokies Know a Good Defensive Scheme When They Steal One," are the two best articles I've seen written about Virginia Tech' defense. Unfortunately, the Daily Press article is in their pay archives and is not free on-line.


Quotes from my scrapbook:

"I’ve seen a lot of Virginia Tech defenses over the years, and this one ranks with any of ‘em. They have always had good ones, especially when (Bill) Dooley was there (1978-86). But I think this one (referring to the 1995 defense) is the best one I’ve seen. I’ve been watching ‘em on film, and they make you sick." (Don Nehlen, October 1995).

"I wouldn’t trade this bunch (referring to the defensive line) with anybody in this league or anybody I’ve seen on film right now. And that’s not so much because of their abilities as it is their personalities. They’re a close-knit group, a mature unit that has committed itself to getting the job done." (Bud Foster, October 1995).

"I think overall this front is probably the best. They’re very aggressive, always flying around, putting pressure on the quarterback and causing things to happen." (Coach Beamer, October 1995).

During the 1999 Pittsburgh-Virginia Tech game, the commentators talked about the comments made by the Pittsburgh defensive coordinator regarding Virginia Tech’s defense. (I’m paraphrasing him). "I love watching Virginia Tech play defense. They play defense the way it should be played. I have every game on tape over the last three years. I would love to go study them, but we’re in the same conference." (Probably one of the best compliments I’ve ever heard made about the Virginia Tech defense.)

Article by Skip Wood, Richmond Times Dispatch, October 12, 1995:

"…Well, they spent the past couple of years attacking, blitzing, and ‘flying around’, as Tech coach Frank Beamer likes to say. They’ve been a gambling unit, willing to risk giving up a big play for making a big play."

"They’re doing it this year, too. But there’s a difference. They’re also a thinking-man’s defense. Most of the players are the same ones who’ve been doing this D for the past two seasons, and they’ve reached the point where they’re able to understand not only how to do it, but why to do it."

"Consider: eight players who had significant roles in 1993 will start against Akron this Saturday at Lane Stadium…Adjustments were made, largely because Foster knew the players finally had the working knowledge to handle them. Tech doesn’t blitz as much, for example, and when it does, it’s for a reason."

"‘We’re not going to blitz, just to blitz,’ Foster said. ‘Miami, they allowed us to blitz, so we came after them. But against Navy, other than when they passed, we didn’t blitz a bit.’"

"Depth certainly has been important this season. Tech had little last year but has cultivated a nice reserve this fall. (Jim) Baron may have gone down, but Jackson is a quality placement. Holland, Lewis and inside linebacker Tony Morrison may be backups, but they’re also proven starters."

"And with veteran linebackers George DelRicco, Brandon Semones and newcomer Myron Newsome keeping things steady in the middle, Tech completes a defensive picture of few holes, loads of experience and the right touch of new-blood potential."

"‘Right now,’ Foster said, ‘we are a very good defense. If we keep it up, we have a chance to be an outstanding defense.’"

(Well said, Coach Foster)

Jeff Holland was a defensive tackle for the Hokie football team from 1991-1995.  He played a key role in the rise of the Virginia Tech defense and on the Hokie bowl teams from 1993-1995. Jeff graduated from Virginia Tech with a B.A. in Urban Affairs and Planning and a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning.  He is currently the Town Planner in Smithfield, VA.


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