Hell Freezes Over

by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 7/2/03

Nearly two weeks ago, in TSLMail, I wrote, "The ACC has been a harsh mistress to the Hokies over the years, and has made it clear that they want no part of Virginia Tech. If this latest show of interest results in an ACC invitation and a VT acceptance, then Satan's going to need snow booties and a pair of furry earmuffs."

And a kerosene heater, I might add.

Tuesday night, the Atlantic Coast Conference held a press conference to welcome Virginia Tech and Miami into the league, starting in 2004-05, and in Virginia Tech's case, it's more like a "welcome home" press conference.

As the ACC celebrates 50 years as a conference, the Hokies should be celebrating 50 years of membership right along with them, had the original ACC schools done the proper thing and included Virginia Tech when they broke away from the Southern Conference in 1953. But instead, VT will have to wait one more year, until July 1st, 2004, to call themselves an ACC school for the first time. It has been a long time coming, but the Hokies are finally going where they belong, after 50 years of wandering the collegiate conference landscape.

Don't get me wrong; I don't get all gushy at the thought of ACC membership for Tech. It's not an emotional issue for me. As an engineer by training (BSEE, Class of 1987), I long ago learned to appreciate how things fit together on a logical, numerical, and technical level, more so than an emotional one. And when you examine things logically, the Hokies fit the ACC and belong in it. It's that simple.

Geographically, academically, and culturally, Virginia Tech has been a perfect fit for the ACC for well, decades. And regardless of what political and legal machinations brought them to this point, God bless seven ACC presidents for doing the right thing and finally voting to admit the Hokies, instead of bypassing them for the geographic and cultural misfits from Boston and Syracuse.

Virginia Tech's student and alumni base is heavily populated with people who grew up watching and dreaming about ACC hoops, and yes, ACC football. For me -- I'm 38 years old -- it was shooting hoops in the driveway during my childhood in Charlottesville and pretending to be Jeff Lamp, Mark Ivaroni, or even Monty Towe, whose name fascinated my ten-year-old brain (Monty Towel?).

We argued about Dean Smith's four corners offense, we marveled at the legends of NC State's David Thompson plucking quarters off the top of a backboard, and every March, when the ACC Tournament started, they would actually (gasp!) turn on the TV in my high school library and show the first-round games all day long, drawing a huge crowd of students to the (gasp!) library.

I still remember watching in my high school library as Clemson got hammered in a first-round game in the early 80's, but the Tigers' only decent player, Larry Nance, was going out with style, dunking all over the place as the clock wound down.

Quick, who's the only man who could ever hold Michael Jordan under 20 points? Dean Smith, ha-ha.

ACC football was never much of a factor back then, particularly for those of us who resided in Charlottesville, because UVa was so incredibly bad at the time. Still, I remember rooting hard for them every year to beat powerful UNC, and I remember being disappointed when the Cavs would make a close game, just to lose again.

There are thousands upon thousands of Hokie fans, students, and alums, some older, some younger, some the same age as I, who have stories similar to mine. Sure, a good portion of Tech's alumni base comes from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, but for those of us from the mid-Atlantic, ACC sports was a part of our lives growing up, a part of the fabric of our culture.

When we decided to become students at Virginia Tech, and as we immersed ourselves in Virginia Tech sports --and whatever conference the Hokies were flailing around in at the time -- we all had to put that ACC experience behind us, to one degree or another. Some continued to follow the ACC and root for ACC teams, others ignored the ACC, others began to root against the ACC, either through jealousy, spite, or pride for Virginia Tech, which was for years the underdog in this state in so many ways, from competitiveness to media coverage.

VT football eventually raised itself up to a level higher than UVa football in the late 90's and early 2000's, getting some great coverage from the media and the adoration of fans every fall, but when football season ended and basketball season started forget it, it was all about the ACC again. The Metro Conference was pretty good, but the Atlantic 10 and even the Big East didn't capture the fancy of Virginia Tech fans.

But for Hokie fans who have run the gamut from ignoring the ACC, to liking it, to hating it, to envying it, there's a simple, yet hard-to-grasp truth: Virginia Tech is now a part of it. And it's not necessarily easy for all of us to figure out how we feel about that.

For me personally, I was more the ignore-the-ACC type. Once I left for VT, old memories of bombing away from the corner of the driveway like UVa's Lee Raker went away, and I learned to love great Hokies like Dell Curry, Perry Young, Bimbo Coles, Bruce Smith, Mike Johnson, Eric Chapman, and so on. The ACC ceased to exist for me.

I was glad VT was in the Big East, but I chafed against the many injustices the Big East committed against VT: rejecting them for all sports membership in 1994 (then setting a moratorium on expansion for five years, only to admit Notre Dame shortly thereafter); failing to promote the Hokies when Tech won the conference title in 1995 and 1996; finally admitting VT in 1999, with outrageous entry fees; and so on and so forth.

I never gave the ACC much thought. But in the few days since Tech has been admitted to the league, I've found myself thinking, "This is pretty darn cool."

Hokie fans are going to love the ACC. They're going to love the short road trips, the tradition-laden basketball (dare we dream that Cassell Coliseum will sell out, even if VT does stink?), the fair and equal treatment of all league members (except when Duke gets the calls in hoops), and the thorough, consistent coverage from the media in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, the region that a huge chunk of VT's alumni and students call home.

My favorite part of being in the ACC is going to be the short road trips, and renewing old rivalries with Florida State, NC State, Maryland, Clemson, and even Wake Forest. And games against Virginia will now mean even more. Former UVa football coach George Welsh, who always hated playing VT out of conference at the end of the year, would have liked having the VT game matter in the ACC standings.

But Virginia Tech fans, starting in 2004, are going to see the dark underbelly of ACC membership, as well. I wasn't kidding about Duke getting the calls earlier, though the Blue Devils can soundly thrash the Hokies without the help of the zebras. Every time the "old-guard ACC" gets some sort of advantage over VT, be it in the conference board rooms or on the fields of play, Tech fans will wonder if it's because the Hokies are the new kids on the block. And if the ACC ever decides to try to add a 12th team, which VT would be in favor of, be prepared to despise UNC and Duke's staunch anti-expansion stance.

It will take years and years and years for Virginia Tech to truly feel like it's part of the culture of the ACC. After all, the league has been around for 50 years. It's like moving into a small town. Everyone in the small town grew up there and has known each other since they were children, and if you move into town, you might never feel like you truly "belong" there, even if you're there for 40 years. I still think of Georgia Tech as a late addition to the ACC, and they've been in it for over 25 years, for Pete's sake. Never mind FSU, only having been in it 12 years or so.

Not to mention that there will always be the nagging feeling that the Hokies backed their way into it, through politics and situations that dictated to the ACC that in order to get Miami, they'd have to take VT, too. When the fur starts to fly on the message boards, there are ACC old-guard fans who will never let the VT fans forget that they've crashed the party, to one extent or another.

To that, I reply, hey: All 7 of the ACC presidents who weren't dead-set against expansion voted for VT. As a matter of fact, the Hokies got the same 7 votes that the Hurricanes did. You can't say the same for BC and Syracuse, who now have to help rebuild the wrecked Big East.

While the ACC did not get its goal of expansion to 12 teams, and they must now petition the NCAA to allow championship games with less than 12 teams, that doesn't mean that their unexpected 2-team expansion was a failure. Quite the contrary, they will learn over time what a great move they made by admitting the Hokies. Virginia Tech will bring them TV ratings, fans in the seats, passion, and football respect, something BC and Syracuse couldn't bring.

When it comes time to impress a bowl committee, the ACC will be pleased they don't have the anchor of the light-traveling BC and Syracuse fans hanging around their neck.

One last note to Hokie fans: Represent your school well. Act with class, dignity, and enthusiasm. Respect the ACC, because its long-time occupants are very proud of their conference, and they won't take kindly to new fans who storm in and act like they own the place. That embarrassing, arrogant press conference put on by Miami's Donna Shalala and Paul Dee Monday night got the Canes off on the wrong foot, so show a little class and humility, and the Hokies and their fans will quickly earn more respect than the Canes did with their, "The ACC was desperate to get us" comment.

Try not to refer to the ACC as "goofy," folks, like Shalala did. I guarantee they won't like it. Instead, take off your shoes when you come in the door and don't track mud on the carpet.

And when it comes time to back up the ACC in a battle against other conferences' fans, teams, or administrators, do it. In 2004, the Hokies are going to be "one of them."

Hell has frozen over. Virginia Tech's going to the ACC.

          

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