The End of a Wild Ride
by Jim Alderson, 1/14/04
The Virginia Tech coaching staff is now engaged in wrapping up this year’s recruiting class. This year Tech coaches are pitching something new to prospective new Hokies, membership in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It will remain to be seen how much Tech benefits from ACC membership, although it says here a lot.
One thing is certain, however, and that is membership in the Big East played a very large part of the success Frank Beamer has experienced at Tech and Hokie fans have enjoyed. I consider the two most important events in Tech football history the day we were invited to join the Big East and the day we were invited to leave. The ACC is where Tech has always belonged, but it is hard to argue that being a part of BE football was not very good for VT football. Even as Lester Karlin rips those ‘Big East’ patches off the football jerseys and replaces them with new ‘ACC’ ones, it is interesting to look back at Tech’s eleven-year run in the Big East.
Tech’s first official Big East game in 1993 was at Pittsburgh. It came a few weeks after a columnist at the Richmond paper had written that Tech appeared over its head in the fledgling Big East. Maybe not, as Tech blasted Pitt 63-21, serving notice that the Hokies were not there merely to serve as fodder for the more-established Eastern programs. Tech went one-for two in last-second field goal attempts at West Virginia during its BE history, with the missed one being a few weeks later in a 14-13 loss to the Mountaineers, one of several close calls sweated out by WVU en route to an 11-0 season. Tech closed its inaugural Big East season that year with a very important home game against Syracuse. A bid to the Independence Bowl was on the line, and Tech grabbed it by pounding the Orangepersons 45-24, earning their first bowl since the 1986 Peach and first under Frank Beamer. That year was a sign of things to come.
1994 saw a first for Tech and Lane Stadium, a Thursday night game on ESPN. The cable sports network seemed to enjoy the 34-6 Tech win, as they have been back a few times. The next week Tech lost 28-20 at Syracuse, establishing a pattern that was to be often repeated, that of Tech routing SU at home and losing a close game at the Carrier Dome. Tech continued to win and later in the year traveled to play Miami in the Orange Bowl with first place in the conference on the line. Tech lost 24-3 to a Canes team that would later play for the MNC. The Hokies would have a little more success in subsequent games against Miami and in trips to the Orange Bowl.
Tech hit the Big East big time in 1995. After losing its opening game, a Thursday night home opener against BC 20-14, a couple of weeks later Tech firmly established itself as a force in the three-year old BE, upsetting Miami 13-7 in a game that would establish another Tech tradition now taken as a given, a full and raucous house at Lane. Tech sailed through the rest of its season, including a 31-7 win over a Syracuse team that came in undefeated in conference play and quarterbacked by freshman Donovan McNabb. Tech won the Big East championship and was off to the Sugar Bowl and national prominence.
1996 found Tech firmly established among the top of the Big East football hierarchy. There were a couple of easy early wins over BC and Rutgers before Tech crashed and burned in a 52-21 loss at Syracuse. Unlike more recent Tech teams, however, the 1996 one rebounded quite nicely and won out to gain a share of the BE title and a trip to the Orange Bowl. Included in the victory total was a first for Tech and anybody else in the four-year old BE, a conference win in the Orange Bowl, as Tech pulled the trick 21-7 in November. Things were looking pretty good.
The Tech program took a step back in 1997, but not before pounding eventual BE champ Syracuse 31-3 in an early-season home game. McNabb achieved much success for the Orangepersons but none whatsoever at Lane, losing both trips by a combined score of 62-10. Tech ended 1997 with what was considered a sub-par 7-5 record, but still factored into the BE title chase and was in a position to win it before surrendering a late touchdown and losing 30-23 to Pitt and their first-year coach Walt Harris, who was to later become the personal nemesis of Frank Beamer.
The 1998 Tech team again vied for the Big East championship. Early in the season Tech won its fourth straight game against Miami, a 27-20 overtime thriller, Tech’s second straight win in the Orange Bowl. Miami lost only four times at home during its Big East stay, and two of them were to Tech [the others? WVU and Syracuse, both in 1997]. That victory over the Canes was a costly one, however, as quarterback Al Clark was lost for what turned out to be the rest of the regular season, at least a healthy Al. With Clark gone, Tech basically had no offense and relied for the remainder of the '98 campaign on its defense and vaunted special teams. It was good enough for an overall 9-3 mark, 5-2 in the BE. All of the losses were as memorable as losses can be. Frank Beamer has suffered a number of embarrassing losses at Tech, none more so, in my opinion, than the previously-unthinkable concept of losing to Temple, which Tech did that season, 28-24 at home, no less. Despite that clunker, Tech was still in the hunt for the BE championship when they traveled late in the season to the Carrier Dome. That night in Syracuse, Tech suffered an excruciating 28-26 loss as Donovan McNabb engineered a truly impressive comeback at Tech’s expense, winning on the last play. Tech’s 1998 9-3 season was a success by most any standard, but still was considered a big tease by many Tech fans. The next year would not.
Wunderkind freshman quarterback Michael Vick burst onto the scene in 1999, taking Tech, the Big East and the world by storm, leading Tech to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the Sugar Bowl for the MNC. The wild ride included payback to Syracuse for the previous year’s heart-breaking loss; Tech blasted SU 62-0 as Tech fans saw the unusual spectacle of a team of Orangepersons actually RUTS itself late in the game [quick- who remembers that late punt?]. The 1999 season saw ESPN return again and again to Lane Stadium for prime time games, including the Syracuse one, where another Tech first was notched, a visit by the ESPN GameDay crew before a large crowd of Hokies. ESPN kept coming back, not only because of the sterling play of the Tech team but the great theatre provided by the wild and crazy crowds at Lane Stadium. The Tech fans were the stars of that season, right behind Vick and an awesome Tech defense. Lane positively rocked in another prime time ESPN game, a 43-10 win over Miami, Tech’s fifth in a row over the Canes. That 11-0 season ended, the regular portion, anyway, with the surreal scene following Tech’s 38-14 victory over BC. I seriously doubt anybody that was there will ever forget it. Times were very good indeed.
2000 saw the Hokies firmly entrenched as a power in the Big East. They played like it, too, as the season produced another Thursday night win for ESPN, this one a 48-20 smack down of WVU. Tech also won at the Carrier Dome for the first and only time under Frank Beamer, coming from behind to beat Syracuse 22-14. Tech defeated Pitt 37-34 in a Lane Stadium thriller, but serious trouble struck when Michael Vick suffered an ankle injury. Without a healthy Vick, Tech saw its winning streak against both Miami and the rest of the Big East come to a close at the Orange Bowl in a 41-21 loss to the Canes. Tech rebounded and notched its second straight 11-1 season. It was fun while it lasted.
As quickly as he had hit the Lane Stadium ground running, Michael Vick was off to the NFL. Tech has been struggling with the expectations created by the Vick Era ever since. In 2001, Tech was breezing along on a very easy schedule when they lost at home to Syracuse by the same 22-14 score they had beaten the Orangersons by the year before. It was the only time Frank Beamer ever lost to Syracuse at home. The next week a dispirited group of Hokies were pounded 38-7 at Pittsburgh. Tech ended the regular season losing an exciting 26-24 game to top-ranked Miami. Tech finished 8-4, a good season to be sure, but not exactly what Tech fans had been accustomed to. More of the same was in store.
2002 saw Tech, for the first and only time, finish with a losing record in Big East conference play. The season included two home losses at night on ESPN, 28-21 to Pitt and 21-18 to WVU. The pattern of Tech teams starting hot and finishing not so was established, and we saw it again in 2003. Tech recorded perhaps its biggest Big East victory, a 31-7 popping of previously unbeaten and second-ranked Miami, and notched a satisfying 51-7 win over Syracuse. There were again irksome losses, the worst a 28-7 drubbing at WVU where the effort was not what one would expect from a team as highly ranked as Tech was at the time [#3]. Tech’s final BIG East win came at Temple 24-23 in OT, and its last conference loss will go down as the 34-27 one to BC. Tech’s overall record in the Big East was 55-22, second only to Miami’s 66 BE wins. Tech ended Big East play with a winning record against every other conference opponent and was the only team to play in a bowl game each of the eleven years. That is not too shabby.
Tech’s athletic destiny now lies in the ACC. In future years we will no doubt experience the same thrilling
victories and agonizing losses that were part of our stay in the Big East. While many Tech fans did not care for the way
we were jerked around in our quest for all-sports membership in that league, and the way our men’s basketball program
was treated as a disposable pawn by other conference members, membership in the Big East provided the platform for some
very good things in football. On the whole it was a pretty good ride.