Finding the Joy
by Will Stewart,, 12/31/02

The 2001 and 2002 VT football seasons have left me with one overriding feeling: Stop the national championship bus, I want to get off.

In 1999, the Hokies played for the national championship, and in 2000, they came within an eyelash of doing so again, losing only at Miami (granted that eyelash was huge, but it was only one loss). Those two seasons, with a combined record of 22-2, set the bar for what the Hokie football team and its fans are now striving for: a national championship.

Before 1999, talk of a national championship for Virginia Tech was premature. But since then, it has become the sole goal of Hokie Football, right down to an empty trophy case with the words "Reserved for the National Championship Trophy" etched on it being installed in the Merryman Center.

To be sure, the 1999 season was a joyride for Hokie fans, but it left one big hangover that lingers to this day: heightened expectations. You knew that would be a result of that great season, I knew it, and we suspected it would suck a lot of the fun out of rooting for the Hokies from 1999 on. Three years later, I think it has, because anything less than an undefeated season and a shot at the championship is suddenly starting to be perceived as a failure.

And heck, I did my part to add to the hype. As the Hokies started out 6-0 in 2001 and 8-0 in 2002, I was right there in the thick of things, constantly analyzing Tech's odds of going undefeated, constantly gauging, in print, what they needed to improve upon in order to make another run at going undefeated.

Even this year, a mere four games into the season, I penned an article (okay, typed it) called "The Future is Now," of which the central theme was, "It's time to start expecting a run at going undefeated every season." In that article, I expressed amazement at how a young Tech team had bolted out of the gate 4-0, with wins over LSU, Texas A&M, and Marshall. Maybe we shouldn't be amazed anymore, I postulated. Maybe Tech football has a shot at going undefeated every year now.

Boy, that article looks silly in the wake of Tech's 1-4 slide to end the season, a nosedive that sent them to their first-ever losing record in the Big East and included game after game in which the Hokie defense got flat-out manhandled at the line of scrimmage and at the linebacking positions.

Before the season, we worried about the youth in the middle of Tech's defense. We worried that teams would run on them. Not just run on them, but run right up the gut on them, easily. And when no one could for the first eight games, we figured, "Hey, problem solved." Wrong. The perceived weaknesses became real, and they were the cornerstone of an awful finish.

So what's wrong with having things come out the way you expected? Most of us thought 9-4 was a strongly probable outcome to this season. What's wrong is not that it happened, but how it happened. If Tech had "won-two-and-lost-one" all year long, spreading the losses out and ending up 9-4, it wouldn't have bothered us as much, but instead, they front-end loaded their year with big wins, and everybody got all fired up, and � you know the rest.

This has all been rehashed at least a hundred times, and Tech fans are tired of hearing about it, and it doesn't have much to do with the point of this article, anyway.

So what is the point of this article? Well, the point of this article is to compare goals to reality, and to suggest a ratcheting down of goals for the time being, in order to return enjoyment to rooting for Tech football. Heresy, yes, but let me present you with some facts.

Goals vs. Reality

So you want to win a national championship, eh? How about just trying to be the second-best team in the Big East? How about aiming for beating Pittsburgh and Syracuse, instead? How about getting back to beating WVU, and making sure that Virginia doesn't finally end that long Tech winning streak? Can we do all that before we worry about whether or not VT's strength of schedule in 2003 is good enough to placate the BCS computers?

Hokie fans are like a pass-rushing defensive end who has his eyes on the QB and then gets chop-blocked by a running back and fallen on by an offensive tackle. The national championship is the QB you're rushing after, and Syracuse is the chop-blocking running back, while Pittsburgh is that big heavy lineman that fell on you after Syracuse cut you down at the knees.

It's nice that you were aiming for the QB, but you should have paid attention to that running back and lineman first.

Okay, bad analogy. I'm usually a better writer than that, and hey, that analogy didn't even include Miami anywhere in it. Maybe they're a pulling guard you never saw coming, who never got to you because the running back took you down and the tackle fell on you. Maybe Virginia is the referee, and sooner or later, he's going to throw a flag and call you for being in the neutral zone.

Whatever -- that Miami and UVa bit only made it worse. You get my point. I think the Hokies and their fans have been looking a little bit too far outside their reality lately. The last two seasons, early in the year, Hokie fans have gnashed their teeth over the BCS ratings and have fantasized about titanic season-ending clashes between #1 Miami and #2 Virginia Tech, only to see all that come crashing down at the hands of Syracuse and Pittsburgh -- Syracuse and Pittsburgh, for god's sake.

Here are some brutal truths about the last two seasons:

  • Virginia Tech is 17-8 (pre-Diamond Walnut Bowl), for a winning percentage of 68%, which is a far, far cry from national championship territory.
  • The Hokies are 7-7 in the Big East, behind Miami (14-0), Pittsburgh (9-5), and Syracuse (8-6), tied with BC (7-7) and West Virginia (7-7). That�s right: in the last two seasons, the Hokies have only outdone Temple (4-10) and Rutgers (0-14) in Big East play.
  • Virginia Tech is 0-2 against Miami, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse, and 1-1 against West Virginia, for a miserable record of 1-7 against those four teams in 2001 and 2002.

I could cart out all kinds of stats, too, like VT's quarterbacks have thrown 30 TD's and 23 interceptions in the last couple of seasons, hardly the stuff of national championship runs.

And to be sure, I could cart out some positive stats, too, like VT's #2-rated defense in 2001. Now, that is championship-caliber defense.

But the simple truth is that the Hokies have not even been close to being national championship material the last couple of seasons. Instead, they're a middle-of-the-pack Big East team. Everyone says that the 2001 and 2002 Hokies remind them of the 1997-1998 Hokies, in close-but-no-cigar fashion. Hey, those two Tech teams went 10-4 in the Big East, not 7-7.

I'll repeat myself: The Hokies are merely a middle-of-the-pack Big East team the last two years, not national championship contenders.

Things to Think About

Wow, at this point, I'm about to throw this article out. Why spew all this negativity at Hokie fans who have plunked down their $24.95 or $34.95 to read some good Tech-related articles � not something that is going to depress them. Is there really a point to this? Have I become overly critical of the Tech football team? Am I just venting now?

Not really, or at least, I hope I'm not coming across that way. I've just been thinking about some things lately.

Number one, a Hokie fan that I converse with regularly called me prior to the Virginia game, in the wake of the losses to Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and WVU, and he said, "I'm already done [mentally] with this season and am just waiting for next year. That's kind of sad, isn't it?" Yes, it is, particularly when you consider that he said this prior to the Virginia game, which he should have been pumped up about.

Number two, and some of you have heard me tell this story before, I remembered a thought I had in the Superdome just after the 1995 Sugar Bowl had concluded. Tech was, unbelievably, a 28-10 Alliance Bowl winner, just three years removed from a horrible, program-shaking 2-8-1 season. I stayed in the stands and enjoyed the post-game on-field celebration, like most, and when it came time to file out of the Dome, I paused and took one last look around.

And in the wake of that great victory, I thought to myself, "You know, unless the Hokies play for -- and win -- a national championship, I'll never feel better than I do as a fan right now." A sobering thought. Two years earlier, I had danced on the field after an Independence Bowl win over Indiana, convinced that I was on top of the world as a Tech fan. But then the Hokies went on to win the Sugar Bowl, and I realized there would be no more Independence Bowls -- no more being overjoyed at winning a "minor bowl."

Number three, I have been pondering an article I read recently. Most of you know that and are owned by the same company, but what you don't know is that I'm the chief editor for both sites. I edit all articles that go not just through, but through

(Reading and editing all that UVa-related material isn't as horrible as you might think. I'm the father of three small children, and editing Sabre articles is like changing diapers: if you think about it too much, it will make you gag, so you just have to breathe through your mouth and get the job done.)

Recently, I edited an article by one of the Sabre's writers, a rather talented writer by the name of Michael Gillespie. The article was called "The High Cost of Winning," and it talked frankly about the rising expectations around the improving Virginia football program, and how those expectations can increase pressure and take the fun out of things.

As I write this, Virginia has just mauled WVU in the Continental Tire Bowl, 48-22, and I imagine many Virginia fans are having their "Independence Bowl moment," where it seems as if everything's new and the sky's the limit. But Gillespie knows that if UVa keeps improving, and keeps winning, that other, less pleasant moments will follow, like Tech's 1994 Virginia game moment, their 1997 Gator Bowl moment, or their 2002 Syracuse moment.

Gillespie wrote:

This is what winning can do. It can suck the fun out of sports and make being a fan of the school a chore rather than a pleasure � When you spend the majority of your time worrying about losing instead of being happy about winning, then being a college football fan just isn�t all that great anymore.

Does that describe you? I know it does describe many of you. There are a good portion of you reading this that it doesn't describe. You're a satisfied person who enjoys the games and the experience, win or lose, and you understand that there's always another game next week, and another season next year, and the Hokies, you believe, will always get one more crack at it.

Me, I think I've become too wrapped up in this national championship thing, so stop the bus, I'm going to get off. I'm more concerned about beating Pittsburgh, and I'm more concerned about figuring out how to beat Syracuse at Syracuse, and heck, at Lane Stadium, too. I'm more concerned about whether or not WVU is back to stay, or if this year was just an aberration for them.

I'm more concerned about surviving what has increasingly become a very difficult conference to play in -- the Big East. I'm not concerned about the Miami Hurricanes anymore, because for the time being, they're way, way better than the Hokies, and any victory Tech can pull off over the Canes is to be savored, not demanded or expected. Not right now.

But more importantly, I'm wondering how the typical Hokie fan, who perhaps has gotten wound a little tighter in recent years, can get more enjoyment out of Tech football, without their fanship being a chore, as Michael Gillespie says. If you're struggling with having fun with Hokie football lately, if you're a "moody little so-and-so," as one old high school friend recently called me, stop and take a minute to think about what could put the joy in Hokie football for you, win or lose.

Then concentrate on that, because that's what it's all about.

And with that sappy little piece of advice, this long, rambling column is over. Oh, one more thing: I hear Marcus Vick is good. Really, really good. Now, if we could just find another Corey Moore hiding around here �.

Oops, I said I wasn't going to do that anymore. Sorry.

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