A Gym Rat's Notebook #10: Did You Say Four, or Forty?
by Elijah Kyle, 3/17/04

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Ricky Stokes had just completed his first season as head basketball coach at Virginia Tech in the final Atlantic-10 conference campaign of the program. Coming off a 16-15 season under a rookie head coach -- which coincidentally also ended without a post season berth in the NIT, much like this year -- and with fans looking forward to the dawning of a new era in Virginia Tech basketball, as the program would embark upon its inaugural season of Big East membership, Hokie Nation had much to look forward to as the Big East possibilities made one�s head spin in a dizzying frenzy of anticipation.

Has it really been only four years?

While the program's football brethren greatly benefited from the association with Big East football, the basketball program never seemed to gain its feet or see traction take hold from its association with the conference. The Virginia Tech-Big East football association was mutually beneficial and a successful marriage for both entities. The same can�t be said for the Big East conference and Virginia Tech basketball, as it appeared that Virginia Tech was never fully embraced by the conference, and it is not certain that the conference was fully embraced by Hokie Nation.

Perhaps this dates back to the earlier spurning of Virginia Tech back in 1994, when we saw both Rutgers and West Virginia admitted to the conference, with Tech left out in the cold after seemingly being promised admission to the conference. This might have led some conference members, and even the conference office, to look down their noses at Virginia Tech as an unworthy conference member. Perhaps Tech fans kept the burr under their saddle about seeing part of their overall athletic program in the conference and part residing in the Atlantic-10, and could never quite get over that slap in the face, especially when Rutgers and West Virginia were admitted and Tech and Temple were not admitted at that time.

Whatever the reasons and issues, it simply never seemed like Virginia Tech and the Big East conference was a partnership that gave you a warm and fuzzy feeling. Instead it seemed characterized by contentious feelings, and from the Virginia Tech standpoint it seemed like oft-times the conference office and member schools were more about what could be extracted from Virginia Tech rather than a nurturing, inclusive association that would benefit both parties, as was evident with the football program.

Instead of seeing the basketball program emerge from the sleeping giant label that it has held for far too long with admission to the Big East conference, what we witnessed was a program that seemed to flounder and not see many tangible benefits from the association with one of the best conferences in the country. Aside from Miami, which has always been a football school that hasn�t really ever desired to be big time in basketball, Virginia Tech was the southernmost school in a northeastern conference. Residing in the heart of ACC country significantly impacted upon the natural recruiting terrain of Virginia Tech, and the all-important television exposure of the conference wasn�t as dominant or evident in this area of the country as it was in the northeast, with the ACC schools dominating and demanding the attention of potential recruits in the fertile recruiting areas that Virginia Tech could most easily venture into.

While the athletic administration and knowledgeable fans knew that it would be a difficult venture into the conference and the program wouldn�t be an overnight success, most still expected more from the four year association than we have seen. Three consecutive last places finishes in the Eastern division of the conference kept Tech at home during the season ending conference tournament, a streak that was finally broken in this, the final season, before its farewell and bon voyage to ACC waters.

Virginia Tech has not been able to benefit financially from being in the conference,and is still paying for its admission to the conference four years ago. In fact, the University will continue those payments even after it has played its final conference game, and that is certainly not an event that many expected to see happen either. Fans had hoped that the Big East conference would help elevate the caliber of prospect that it could entice to the school, and help its exposure into the northeastern corridor. Fans hoped that the basketball program would elevate and propel itself forward competitively, in much the same manner that the football program did with its Big East association.

While Virginia Tech basketball was certainly not until this year a competitive entity in the conference, one always felt that the conference schools and conference office considered Virginia Tech to be the bastard stepchild that it was forced to accept, in order to keep peace within the overall athletic family of schools. It was just a brief, yet exhaustive and sometimes interminable four year association, but little progress was ever made on Virginia Tech feeling like an embraced conference member in basketball. Instead, VT was the rogue outsider coming to crash the party that you barely tolerate, anxiously awaiting their exit from the festivities.

This feeling seemed to permeate the entire four year existence of the program in the conference, and while we will never know the extent of the conference�s involvement in the decision of the NIT to exclude Virginia Tech, and how much assistance was actually extended on behalf of the conference toward a departing member, we must remember that some lingering residue from the ACC expansion still continues to fester and reside within conference member schools. Some hard feelings still exist within the conference, and while many are publicly stating that they hold no grudges against Virginia Tech, and in fact understand the administration�s pursuit and acceptance of an ACC invitation, one never felt that there was ever much love that existed between the two parties in the first place.

What appeared to be such a promising and hopeful jump-start to a program just a short time ago instead feels like a never-ending succession of disappointment and unfulfilled hopes. The conference never seemed to want Virginia Tech for basketball, and will point toward the lack of success in the conference wars as a true harbinger of the program being somewhere that they didn�t belong. Virginia Tech fans might be excused for the constant humming in their collective heads of the Peggy Lee song "Is That All There Is" as an example of what they had hoped to see result from the association.

At times it has seemed like a long tenure in the conference, and the door has finally been opened for Virginia Tech to make its exit from the conference. Rather than be whisked outside or forced to sneak out the back door, Virginia Tech stayed longer than expected in the reception area in New York, mingling with its soon to be distant associates and confounding many of the remaining conference members in the final year in the conference, when most everyone thought it was a slam dunk that Tech would again be watching the Big East tournament from the comfort of its couch in front of their television sets. They looked out the front entrance, took a deep breath and surveyed the exterior, hoping that sunnier days lie ahead in its new conference home, the Atlantic Coast Conference, arguably the best basketball conference in the country.

Such bright possibilities exist with this new association with a top-notch conference that most everyone agrees is the logical and natural home for Virginia Tech basketball. Many people are anxiously awaiting this association with frenzied anticipation. Many logically feel that this could be the dawning of a new era in Virginia Tech basketball, and the mantle of the sleeping giant will be finally tossed aside. Somehow this all seems oddly familiar and oddly different, both at the same time.

Has it really been only four years?

Other Gym Rat Notebooks:

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