The 1995 Sugar Bowl: Will Stewart
Virginia Tech 28, Texas 10

by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com
TSL Extra, Issue #14

The 1995 Sugar Bowl holds a special place in the hearts of thousands of Hokie fans, but for me, the memories are unique and even more special than they are to your average Hokie fan. The '95 Sugar Bowl, you see, was the last Tech football game that I watched before starting Hokie Central.

Virginia Tech's first Sugar Bowl happened on December 31st, 1995, and just over two months later, on March 12th, 1996, I started "Will's Hokie Sports Home Page" on the Internet. That small personal page would later evolve into "Hokie Central" (HokieCentral.com) and then TechSideline.com.

My evolution from Hokie fan into Hokie sports journalist (which is a never-ending process) has forever changed the way I view Virginia Tech sports. For most Hokie fans, a Virginia Tech football game is a production that involves travel, tailgating, seeing the game, and hashing it over again later with friends and family.

For me, a Virginia Tech football game is still an enjoyable event, but wrapped around the game is a plethora of work, analysis, and commentary. I write pre-game reports, I recap the game, and two days later, I write a detailed analysis. I try to remember the flow of a game, I watch game tape and analyze it, and I try figure out the reasons why a game went as it did. All the while, I worry about making a mistake, I consult endless reference materials, and I wonder if the fans I'm writing for will appreciate the article I'm writing, or if they'll even read it at all.

In short, a Hokie football game has become a lot of work for me. Most of the fun has been sucked out of it, and what I used to enjoy as a fan has become my business and my life's blood. It is now my calling and my career, not my hobby. I like it, but it's different, very different, from just being the fan that I used to be.

But in late December of 1995, that wasn't true. I had only a slight inkling what the Internet was, starting my own site wasn't even a thought for me, and I was a hard-core Hokie fan who watched the 1995 season unfold with fanatical interest.

When the 1995 Hokies received a Sugar Bowl bid to play 9th-ranked Texas, I, like 32,000 other Hokie fans, bought my game ticket, made my New Orleans travel plans, and wondered what the future would bring. For those of us who had waited so long to see Virginia Tech become a national power in football, the game was a critical turning point in VT history. Like thousands of other Hokie football fans, my hopes and dreams for Virginia Tech football were on the line.

This is the story of the last football game I witnessed as a simple Virginia Tech football fan, before Hokie Central became a part of my life and eventually took it over. Here's what I remember about my trip to New Orleans, how the game went, what the sweet feeling of victory was like, and what happened in the hours after the game.

The Hokies Get the Bid … Barely

Virginia Tech started the 1995 season 0-2 with home losses to Boston College and Cincinnati, but they righted the ship with a monumental 13-7 home victory over the Miami Hurricanes. Tech went on to win 9 in a row and finish 9-2, with a 6-1 Big East record. That Big East record was a tie with the Hurricanes for first place.

At the end of the season, the Hokies were ranked #13, and Miami was ranked #21. The Bowl Alliance was in its first year, and despite VT being ranked higher and having won the head-to-head battle, the Orange Bowl appeared to be leaning toward selecting Miami instead of Virginia Tech.

There was one fly in the ointment, though: the Canes had faced the NCAA's Committee on Infractions for a hearing on November 10th of that year and were in danger of NCAA probation for numerous violations involving the football team and other sports. Normally, the NCAA takes four to six weeks to get back to schools on such matters, but the Hurricanes asked for a quicker ruling.

Miami did not want to hit the recruiting trail and tell recruits that they wouldn't go to a bowl in 1996, so they elected to take their medicine, which they assumed would be scholarship and bowl penalties, early. The NCAA obliged, taking just two weeks to hand down a ruling that reduced Miami's scholarships for three seasons and barred them from postseason play in 1995.

In hindsight, Miami's request that the NCAA hurry up and hand out punishment was a poor decision that cost them big money, because the Canes would have been selected by the Orange Bowl in 1995. They passed on it and would not go to an Alliance- or BCS-caliber bowl again until the year 2000.

With the Hurricanes out of the way, the Hokies became the Big East's representative to the Bowl Alliance. Tech was eventually picked by the Sugar Bowl, dead last out of six Alliance teams (the Rose Bowl was not part of the Alliance, so there were only three bowls selecting six teams). Tech was matched up with the Southwest Conference Champion Texas Longhorns … and the whining and the outcry began immediately.

The national press, which had wholly embraced the resurgent Northwestern Wildcats during that 1995 season in a love-fest of gigantic proportions, were not so kind to the Hokies. ESPN had traveled to Blacksburg late in the season to do a story on the Hokies, only to run a one-minute piece that called a Hokie a "castrated turkey" and talked about Virginia Tech's "ugly" color combination and uniforms. Tech fans were not pleased with that, but it was nothing compared to the bashing Tech got after being invited to the Sugar Bowl.

Instead of rallying around the underdog, media around the country decried Tech's unworthiness to be in an Alliance Bowl. The Texas press in particular was insufferable, moaning about how the Hokies were not worthy to play their glorious, tradition-laden Texas Longhorns.

Leading the charge was ESPN talking head Lee Corso, who said it was a joke that Virginia Tech was in the Sugar Bowl and guaranteed that Texas would win in a romp. Corso's actions leading up to the game made him the most hated college football analyst in the Hokie nation for a long time. The affable Corso is generally well-liked by Hokie fans these days, but back then, had he ventured into Blacksburg, he would have been tarred and feathered and sent home on the back of an ESPN satellite truck.

The Matchup

On top of the generally hostile media attitude towards the Hokies, the Longhorns presented a formidable opponent. Their offense featured the "BMW" attack, consisting of sophomore quarterback James Brown, junior running back Shon Mitchell, and freshman running back Ricky Williams. Brown had broken school records with 2,477 passing yards and 19 TD's that season, and Williams, who would go on to be the NCAA's career rushing leader and Heisman Trophy winner before graduating, had set a Texas freshman rushing record with 990 yards. Mitchell had added 1,099 rushing yards of his own.

Defensively, the Longhorns weren't as stout, but they featured future NFL players in defensive end Tony Brackens and cornerback Bryant Westbrook.

Offensively, Tech countered with a productive unit that averaged 31.7 points per game and featured quarterback Jim Druckenmiller (2,103 yards and 14 TD's), tailbacks Dwayne Thomas (673 yards) and Ken Oxendine (593 yards), and wide receiver Bryan Still (32 catches, 628 yards, and 3 TD's). On defense, the Hokies were a senior- and junior-laden squad that showcased defensive end Cornell Brown (14 sacks) and were ranked #1 against the run and #10 overall.

The Days Before the Game

I don't remember much about the trip down, just that it's about 830 miles from the New River Valley, and much of it is flat, long, and boring. After driving through Mississippi, I felt sorry for the denizens of that obviously poor state (I don't know much about Mississippi, but the view from the Interstate is somewhat depressing, and simple conveniences like rest areas are few and far between).

There's also a funny little town named "Quitman" along the way (when you've been driving about 10 hours straight and you're a little punchy and you hit that sign, it's good for a few laughs).

I made the long trip with my girlfriend Nan, who would become my fiancée four months later and my wife six months after that, in October of 1996. The trip to New Orleans was actually one of two pivotal events that made me want to marry Nan. The second one was meeting her family, whom I actually liked and got along with.

I figured if (a) I could travel 14 hours in a car with this woman and have a good time, and (b) I liked her family and they liked me, then she was marriage material.

I remember very little about what I did in New Orleans the day or two before the game. I had been to New Orleans before, in 1986 as a junior at Tech, so I had done the whole Bourbon Street/Cajun cuisine thing, and to be honest, I was too worked up over the upcoming game to enjoy myself. The way I saw it, I was there for a specific reason, to see a football game, and anything else -- shopping, eating, hanging our in bars -- was just "noise."

Fortunately for Nan, our traveling party included no less than 32 college friends. I had graduated in 1987, so it had been nearly a decade since we had all gotten out of Tech, and the 1995 Sugar Bowl would be the last time that many of us would see each other.

I'm sure it was that way for many people. The thinking at the time was that the Sugar Bowl would possibly be a once-in-a-lifetime event, that the Hokies might never make it back to a bowl game that big again. So we flocked from far and wide to gather in New Orleans for the big game … and since it was New Orleans, our spouses and girlfriends, many of whom ordinarily might not make a bowl trip, came with us. So while I milled around, watched college football, and talked over the upcoming game with my buddies, Nan had plenty of women to go shopping and sightseeing with.

It sounds sacrilegious to go to New Orleans and not go crazy on Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, but you have to understand, that's how I was back then. I couldn’t fully enjoy them with the specter of the biggest game in Virginia Tech history looming over us. Sure, I went out to eat and all that, but when it came to a sightseeing or shopping excursion, I wasn't interested.

Game Day

December 31st dawned, and the Virginia Tech athletic department had arranged a special treat for us. The Hokie men's basketball team, which was nationally ranked in 1995-1996 (pick your jaw up off the floor -- it's true), had moved a home game with Wright State down to New Orleans so that Tech fans who were down there for the bowl game could see them play.

Around noon Central Standard Time, just over 4,000 of us gathered at Lakefront Arena to watch the Hokies whip Wright State 62-46, behind 20 points from Damon Watlington and 16 points from Ace Custis. It was Coach Bill Foster's 500th career win, and as appetizers go, it was pretty enjoyable.

That left us with a few hours to kill before the 6 pm (local time) start of the Sugar Bowl, and for the life of me, I have no idea how I spent those few hours. I'm sure my stomach churned as I filled my time in idle chit-chat and travel time to the Superdome.

The next thing I remember is standing before the Superdome.

It was at that moment that the magnitude of the game hit me. My friends and I stood outside the huge domed structure, jaws agape, and watched as lasers drew first a VT, then a Texas Longhorn logo, both dozens of feet high, on the exterior wall of the Superdome.

Wow, I remember thinking. They didn't do this at the Independence Bowl or Gator Bowl.

Inside we went, making our way through the turnstiles, up the stairs, and out through the ramp, into the Superdome interior.

If you've never seen the inside of the Superdome, words can't describe it. It's utterly enormous. Standing on one deck and staring 150 yards or so over to the deck on the other side, it's hard to grasp that it's an indoor football field. Surely nothing that huge can be under roof.

Once I had acclimated myself to the cavernous interior of the Dome, I discovered to my utter joy that my seats were in the very front row of the upper deck. I was on roughly the ten yard line, but that didn't matter. I was so high up that I could see the field clearly, and there wasn't a single person in front of me. I could just lean on the railing and watch the football game. It was amazing.

(By the way, proving that everything balances out in life, I was stuck in the second row of the end zone at the Orange Bowl the following year -- the worst bowl seats I've ever had.)

I was in a Tech section, but for some odd reason, we had a row of Texas fans right behind us. They were a pain in the neck at first, but my Hokies would quiet them down soon enough.

The Game

Lost in the glow of Tech's eventual 28-10 romp over the Longhorns is the fact that the Hokies didn't play well in the first half, and in fact, you could say they played horribly.

The Hokie defense committed three offsides penalties in the first ten minutes, the last coming when Texas had a third and 5 at the Hokie 11. The penalty gave the Longhorns a first down that they rapidly turned into a touchdown when Brown hit tight end Pat Fitzgerald with a 4-yard TD pass to make it 7-0 Texas, with 4:32 to go in the first quarter.

Also in the first quarter, the Hokies fumbled, and Texas recovered on the Tech 31 yard line. After a trick play (flanker pass) was broken up in the end zone by William Yarborough, Texas committed a holding penalty that pushed them out of field goal range, and they failed to score.

The Hokies escaped the first quarter down 7-0, and on Tech's first possession of the second quarter, they were moving well when Druckenmiller threw an interception on the Texas 32 that was returned 35 yards to the Tech 33-yard line. Again the Hokie defense held, and Texas's Phil Dawson kicked a 52-yard field goal that bounced off the upright and went through, giving Texas a 10-0 lead with 13:19 to go in the half.

On the ensuing kickoff, Antonio Banks fumbled the ball in the end zone, picked it up … and ran out with it. He didn't get very far, making it to the 5-yard line before he was flattened.

Tech moved comfortably away from their own goal line, but from their 30-yard line, Druckenmiller dropped back and threw an out pattern to tight end Bryan Jennings on the Tech 40. Texas safety Chris Carter anticipated the throw perfectly, cutting in front of Druckenmiller's pass before it reached Jennings. Carter had 40 yards of green turf in front of him and was looking at an interception return for a TD that would have put the Hokies in a 17-0 hole.

Up to that point, things had gone poorly for the Hokies, and as Carter closed on Druckenmiller's errant pass, they threatened to get a lot worse. But somehow, Carter missed it. The ball went through his hands into Jennings' hands, Jennings picked up 12 yards, and the Hokies got a first down, narrowly avoiding a disaster.

Tech wasn't able to do anything with that possession, but they finally stabilized, eliminating the penalties and turnovers that were haunting them. The Longhorns weren't having much offensive success, and the score stayed at 10-0 as the clock ran down on the first half.

Then, with under 3 minutes to go, Texas punter Mark Schultis kicked a low line drive punt to Bryan Still. Still fielded it at his 40, broke cleanly to the right, and raced up the sideline untouched for a TD that made it 10-7, Texas, with 2:34 to go in the half.

The Hokie faithful went nuts. The first half ended with Texas up by just 3 points, and I remember having the distinct feeling that Tech was in good shape. They had taken the Longhorns' best shot and were down by just a field goal. Sure, under coach John Mackovic, the Longhorns were 21-0-1 when leading at half time, but you could smell a Hokie comeback in the air.

All Tech had to do was eliminate the mistakes and start winning the field position battle. The average starting point on Tech's first seven possessions was their own 20 yard line, and they ran just 7 plays in Texas territory in the first half: Druckenmiller's interception, a sack, and five incompletions.

But by the same token, the Hokies were holding the high powered BMW attack of the Longhorns in check. During the first half, Texas was 0-7 on third-down attempts and accumulated just 126 first yards, 72 of which came on their touchdown scoring drive.

You could sense that all Tech had to do was get some momentum, and they would win the game.

You want momentum? You got it. The second half was all about momentum. The Hokies finally got theirs going when fullback Marcus Parker scored on a two-yard run with 2:32 to go in the third quarter, making it 14-10, Hokies. Parker's run capped a 6-play, 67-yard drive that included two 27-yard passes, one to Jennings and the other to Still.

The Hokie defense was stifling the Longhorn offense by now, forcing James Brown to run for his life, and battering him nearly every time he dropped back to pass. Into the fourth quarter the game went, and when Druckenmiller hit Still with a 54-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter to make it 21-10, it was lights-out for Texas.

For the last 12 minutes of the game, the Hokie defense hammered Brown and the Texas offense repeatedly, and with about five minutes to go, Brown fumbled into the waiting arms of Tech defensive tackle Jim Baron, who returned it 20 yards for Tech's final score. Baron did an end zone dance that earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, a shower of cups and ice from irritated Texas fans, and a verbal tirade from Frank Beamer.

But it didn't matter. It was 28-10, Hokies, and five minutes later, they were the 1995 Sugar Bowl champions.

The Hokies sacked James Brown five times in the game and limited him to 148 passing yards. He went 14-of-37 with three interceptions and a lone TD, and Texas had just 78 yards rushing and 226 total yards. Druckenmiller had 266 yards passing, Tech ran up 362 total yards, and Jennings and Still had 6 catches each, for 77 yards and 119 yards respectively.

To their credit, the Texas players were very gracious and respectful in defeat. And Bryan Still, as you can imagine, was named the MVP of the game. After all, they couldn't give it to the entire Tech defense.

The Post Game

I watched the post-game celebration for a while. Tech defensive back Larry Green carried a huge VT flag around the field, and offensive lineman Jay Hagood and several other players jumped into the stands, where they were mobbed by enthusiastic Hokie fans.

I remember not wanting to leave the Superdome, and when I finally did, I made my way up to the tunnel, pausing at the top just before I left the stands.

And I had a bittersweet thought: it couldn't get any better than this. There were very few mountains left for the Hokies to climb. They had gone 10-2 and won the Sugar Bowl, and the only thing that could top the feeling I had at that moment would be a national championship. In the midst of the hysteria and celebration, it sobered me to think that there was now a long way to fall for the Hokies, but very little room to continue moving up.

I wanted the moment to last forever, but it couldn't. I had to go.

We did the Bourbon Street thing that night. I stood at one end of the street and watched for a couple of hours as thousands upon thousands of Hokie fans streamed into the French Quarter. Eventually, the players made their way down, and I met George Del Ricco and Ken Oxendine, among others.

But the perfect capper to the game came the next morning, as we sat around our hotel room and watched College GameDay on ESPN. When it came time to talk about the Sugar Bowl, Lee Corso did the unthinkable: he stared into the camera and apologized to the Virginia Tech Hokies and their fans. "You deserved it," he said, "and I take back everything I said about you."

The room was silent.

"Well," I said, "time to pack up and go home. Our work here is done."

Life Changes

These days, I don’t enjoy Hokie football as much as I did back then. That 1995 Sugar Bowl was the last game I watched that I didn't have to write a recap afterwards. I haven't looked at the Virginia Tech Hokies the same since then, because the web site entered my life just a few months after that, and I've had a duty to write up the facts of the game and comment on it from that day forward.

I enjoy it, but it's different. It's more like work. I can't just watch the game and then relax later, like I used to be able to do. Most days, I don't know if that's good or bad, but I know that it's what I do, so I have to do it.

Or perhaps I'm just getting older and calmer. But I remember coming out of the tunnel to find my seats before the game that night, and as I located those beautiful, perfect seats on the front row of the upper deck, I heard the Marching Virginians kick into The Twilight Zone, my favorite piece of music that the MV's do.

I broke into an impromptu dance of joy, gyrating wildly to the music. The early-arriving fans who could see me all pointed and got a good laugh out of the young guy dancing like a maniac. It was the Sugar Bowl, I had great seats, and the MV's were playing my favorite song. Life was good.

I would never do that these days. That little piece of me is gone, for whatever reason, be it age, maturity, or the business of sports journalism that I'm involved in now.

Besides, these days, if I pulled a stunt like that, a few dozen people would point at me and say, "Hey, isn't that that guy Will from TSL? What the hell is he doing? He looks like an idiot."

 

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