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The State of the Program, Part 7: The Fans
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 4/21/04

The fans were disgruntled. They complained about everything: the team's conservative offense, its failure to win big games, and the soft "scheduling for success." They wondered publicly if the coach had what it took to get the team to the next level, or if he was clueless about how to succeed. They said some unkind things, and their comments were out there for thousands of people to read. Yep, it was 1984, and Hokie fans were blasting Bill Dooley in the letters page of the Hokie Huddler.

That was my second year as a student at Virginia Tech. The previous fall, in 1983, I had arrived at VT, and in addition to falling in love with the place right away, I had thrown myself into rooting for its sports teams as if winning and losing were life and death. Had I chosen to attend, say William and Mary, I'm sure I would have gone to games, but there's no way the intensity would have been as great.

Why? For one reason, I guess. As I looked around me at the Virginia Tech football and men's basketball programs, I expected them to be able to achieve at the highest level. They had talented athletes -- Bruce Smith, anyone? Dell Curry? -- and played in venues like Cassell Coliseum and Lane Stadium that said "big time" to me. Had I seen the stadiums at Michigan, Ohio State, Auburn, or Penn State up close, perhaps I would have felt differently, but to my naÔve eyes, I looked at Virginia Tech athletics and just naturally expected them to achieve, and at a high level.

Hokie fans have always been that way, I think. It is their love for their school and their expectations for excellence that drive their passion for the sports they watch, chief among them football. Tech fans do not take failure lightly, because each failure activates the fear that their school might never achieve the goals that they have set for it, and that would be a shame, because they love it so.

It has now been 20 years since I arrived at Virginia Tech, and 20 years since those letter writers took their shots at Bill Dooley, and though the Virginia Tech football program and athletic department have come a long way, the fans haven't really changed that much. This isn't an indictment of fan behavior, because it's not the point of this article to get preachy about how fans should feel, and how they should react, and whether or not they should or shouldn't criticize a football team, a football coach, or an athletic director.

No, the point I'm making is that at the core, fans don't change. It's an oversimplification to say that fans want to win every game. That's not exactly correct. Fans want to see effort from their coaching staff and players, and what fans also want is a special experience. They want to see their team do things that have never been done before: beat teams they have never beaten, be ranked higher than ever before, win bowl games they've never won, win championships they have never won Ö you get the idea.

The problem is that in the last 20 years, the Hokie football team has done a lot of those things. If your typical Tech football fan, like most, is an "experience junky" who loves the thrill of seeing the Hokies scale unclimbed mountains, then he or she in the last 20 years has started to run out of new hills to climb. Such is the price of success.

Allow me to elaborate with some examples.

When Chris Kinzer's kick sailed through the uprights in the 1986 Peach Bowl, giving Virginia Tech a 25-24 victory over N.C. State in one of the best football games I have ever seen, the thousands of Hokie fans clustered in my end of Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium erupted. We had just witnessed the culmination of a truly special season, and we had just seen Virginia Tech do something they had never done before, in ninety-four football seasons: win a bowl game.

So naturally, we rushed the field. We poured out of the stands by the thousands, running around the field and congratulating the players and coaches. I ran into my brother, a UVa grad, and he grabbed me and yelled, "Can you believe it?" And we danced a jig in the end zone. I planted a VT flag on the very spot Kinzer kicked from and got a picture of it.

We were pumped. We were jacked. We knew we were experiencing something that VT fans had never experienced before.

Fast forward to 1993, and the Hokies do it again, knocking off big, bad, Big Ten foe Indiana in an Independence Bowl that wasn't even close. Yeah, it was a bottom-tier bowl in a lousy stadium, and we had driven 22 hours to see it, but you would have thought we won the lottery. Risen from the dead, out of the ashes of probation, we celebrated.

Wind the tape again. It's 1995 now, and the Hokies have just finished mowing over Texas in the 1995 Sugar Bowl, winning a game most people thought Tech could never win. Down on the field, J.C. Price hoisted the defense's signature lunch pail over his head, and Hokie football players leaped over the Superdome's high padded walls, into the arms of delirious Hokie fans. Ever seen a middle aged woman help pull a 300-pound offensive tackle over a wall? I saw it.

In the upper deck, after celebrating for what seems like forever, I turned to go into the tunnel and exit the stadium, but before I did I stopped, turned around, and took one look backwards.

And I thought to myself, "You know, this football team is running out of new things to do. I better take a good look and enjoy this moment, because they may never be this good again."

Wrong. Move forward again, this time to 1999. I walked down the street towards the Superdome again, and unbelievably the stakes were even higher than they were in 1995. It was the national championship game. I'd been to dozens of Tech football games and a handful of bowl games, but I had never seen a pre-game atmosphere like that one. The crowd was insane.

Four hours later, I was sitting on the bus, and I was thinking, "They really should have won that game. They really should have won that game. Because they may not ever get a chance like that again."

Hung Over

It's five years later and here we sit, our desires ratcheted upward with each successive victory, with each step on the ladder to that mythical "next level." Like an addict looking for that next elusive high, Hokie fans looking for the next big score have instead watched their last four football teams since that 1999 season break into the top five, only to come up short, the last three miserably so.

From 1993 to 1999, the Hokies rocketed up the college football ladder, but since 1999 when they finished #2, they have stalled in place, and in the grand scheme of things have actually started to fall backwards, finishing ranked #6, #18, #18, and Ö unranked.

This has produced the expected effect in the Hokie fan base. Pleasure at each new level of achievement has been replaced with the fear that everything that has been built is about to collapse. This is what fan bases do: they cheer every success lustfully and bemoan every failure at least as vocally, if not more.

It's an unfortunate fact that a Peach Bowl victory over N.C. State or an Independence Bowl win over Indiana wouldn't have the same punch now as they did back then. It's all part of the evolution of a fan base, and the challenge, as the team breaks through one barrier after another, is to not let the failure to break through that next one spoil the experience of the moment. It's tricky to manage, because it's human nature to perceive the lack of new levels of success almost as a failure in itself.

The Cost of Fandom

But there's more going on here than just the failure of a football team to provide that next great rush, that next big win. It also has to do with what's being asked of the typical Hokie fan, win or lose. The sacrifice required by the fan has increased greatly.

In 1998, if you wanted to buy a football season ticket, it was $138. That was just $6 more than the year before, and was in fact $16 less than two years prior, when the team had seven home games and charged $154 for a season ticket. If you wanted two season tickets and a media guide ("Maroon Book"), it would set you back $290. Thatís $276 for two season tickets, $10 for the media guide, and $4 for handling.

Six years later in 2004, that same setup is going to cost you $595, almost twice as much. Thatís $265 each for two season tickets, plus another $25 for the media guide, $30 for a parking pass -- which didn't even exist in 1998 -- and $10 for handling.

And we won't even talk about Hokie Club donations, hotel rooms, longer walks from far-flung parking lots, etc. We won't mention how VT has been playing a bunch of games during the week and on Sundays the last couple of seasons, requiring fans who want to travel to Blacksburg to take even more precious days of vacation from work.

And so on and so forth. Being a Hokie fan is a very different proposition than it was back in just 1998 or 1999. It requires a lot more sacrifice than it used to, monetarily and otherwise. Subconsciously or not, fans who are giving more, both from their checkbook and their lives, get grumpy when they feel like they're getting less in return than what they got just a few years ago. It's natural to react that way.

One thing Hokie fans need to prepare themselves for is the idea that even more will be wanted from them in the future. In just the last eight years, since 1996, Hokie Club donations have climbed from $3.5 million to over $14 million. While that's a massive increase, the Hokies still lag behind their ACC counterparts in donations.

Information obtained by TechSideline.com shows that in 2002, the Hokie Club donations of $13.67 million were less than six of the nine ACC schools listed. Virginia and Florida State took in over $20 million (well over $20 million, in UVa's case), while Duke, Maryland, NCSU and Georgia Tech brought in less than $20 million but more than VT.

To compete with their ACC brethren, the Hokies and their fans are going to have to close that gap. Think about that the next time you fill our your Hokie Club donation form.

And think about this: if Virginia Tech wants to be big-time, the fans have to accept that big-time is expensive. Fans at other schools have been ponying up big bucks for decades, sometimes just for the right to be put on a season-ticket waiting list. Yes, the cost of following VT football has gone up drastically the last few years, but all the increases have done is bring Tech in-line with other programs. It's necessary to compete.

The Internet

The Internet has changed the fan experience, too. Ten years ago, when a new freshman football player showed up on the field, you might wonder who #27 was, check your game program, and discover that it was a safety from Newport News named Antonio Banks. Hmm, Banks, okay. Then you would put your program back on the seat next to you.

These days, you'd know a whole lot more about Antonio Banks than just that. You would know that he entered Tech in January after rehabbing from a knee injury suffered in his senior year. You would know what other schools he looked at before picking Tech, what day he made his decision, and why he chose the Hokies. You would know what he weighed when he entered VT, and how much weight he had gained since then. You would know what forty time he ran during winter max testing in February, you would know how many 6 a.m. workout T-shirts he had won, and you would know every detail of his movement up and down the depth chart during spring football practice. You would know what the coaches had to say about him at every step of the way.

You would know all of this because of what you read on TechSideline.com, Rivals.com, and BeamerBall.com. Or maybe you would know it just from reading the TSL message boards.

We have a saying here at TechSideline.com: "We take the casual fan and turn them into a fanatic." The year-round information, discussion and education that the Internet provides allows someone who might otherwise be a more casual fan to become immersed in the football program, knowing all its ins and outs like never before possible.

That's a good thing, and I personally like the Internet resources available to today's fan. Back in 1993, none of us knew what a whip linebacker was, but today we either know or can ask someone on the message board what one is.

For the coaches and players the Internet has some downsides. One big downside is that it exposes them through message boards to the raw feelings and opinions of fans. While coaches may be surprised or even shocked to read or hear about things said about them on a message board, they really shouldn't be. I haven't read anything on message boards that I haven't heard in water cooler or tailgate conversations for years.

The point I'm making is that fans aren't any more vicious than they were ten or twenty years ago. It's just that their comments are out there to be read by anyone, without being filtered as a "Letter to the Editor" first, like they used to be. Fans are no kinder -- or meaner -- to coaches than they were in years past. They just have better access to forums in which their opinions will be read.

Imagine if message boards existed in 1992, the year VT went 2-8-1. You think some people are saying unkind things about Frank Beamer and staff right now? They would have shredded them back then. As a matter of fact they did, in private conversations.

A Fan Base Grows Up

Hokie fans are some of the best around. Person for person, they're among the loudest and most passionate around, for reasons that I can't readily explain. Galvanized by an underdog mentality and spurred by the increasing success of the football team, Hokie fans have had a great decade. Attendance, season ticket sales, and donation levels have all increased dramatically, approaching the levels of some of the more established programs in the country.

But the Virginia Tech football fan base is only now reaching a point where fans of established programs have been for decades. Sold out stadiums, season ticket waiting lists, crowds of 70,000 or more, and donation levels of tens of millions of dollars have existed at other schools for many, many years. And many of the things that characterize fan bases at those more established schools -- primarily high expectations and accompanying disappointment and criticism when those expectations aren't met -- have started to manifest themselves in the Hokie fan base. Reasons to celebrate have diminished, and reasons to criticize have grown.

This is understandable. As I said before, it's the evolution of a fan base, one that's growing from a time when an Independence Bowl victory was cause for hysteria to a time when BCS bowls and national championships have been targets close enough to be in range, sometimes hit and sometimes missed. We're not in Shreveport anymore Toto, and unlike Dorothy we're never going back. Get used to it.

Perhaps you thought this article would draw great, sweeping conclusions and end with grandiose statements that would crystallize your fan experience down to its essence, making you shout "Eureka! He's right! That's what's missing! That's the secret of being a Hokie fan!"

To be honest, maybe I thought that's what this article was going to be about, too. But having done what I've done for as long as I have, I've learned that you can't apply one label to thousands of fans. Some are happy with anything Tech does, others do nothing but criticize, and the large majority of the fans are somewhere in between. When you're in a stadium full of over 60,000 people, you're going to get all kinds.

But I'll give the "sweeping conclusions" thing a shot. The secret of being a Hokie fan, or a fan of any school, is in understanding that programs ebb and flow over the years. You celebrate when they flow, and you worry and get nervous when they ebb, wondering irrationally, "Is this it? Will we ever be good again? Or will we suck forever? Will I always be disappointed?"

The answer is to hang in there, your favorite team will pleasantly surprise you and others again some day. Then Ö they'll disappoint you again. Then they'll surprise, then disappoint, and so on. Having five boxes full of 20 years of Hokie Huddlers, and having followed the VT program for roughly that same period of time makes me appreciate that fact. I'll never forget sitting in my dorm room in 1984, crushed when Clemson ran 17 yards on an end-around for a go-ahead touchdown, and thinking that Virginia Tech would never, ever be able to win a big game, or to be as good as Clemson. Obviously, I was wrong.

Coach Beamer says to never get too high during the good times, or too low during the bad times. I disagree. Go ahead and get high during the good times. Party like it's 1999, so to speak. But when things get bad, don't go off half-cocked. Just wait patiently, because they'll get good again. Affect the process if you feel you must, by writing letters, donating more, donating less, or whatever you choose, but understand that it will get good again. The pendulum will swing back and forth numerous times in your life.

One thing is very different from the last 20 years, and it ensures stability and the chance to achieve ongoing success in the future: ACC membership. The Hokies have been able to accomplish a lot as an independent and as a member of the weakest BCS conference, the Big East, and the ACC promises a platform of stability and prosperity from which to operate. Long-term, the prognosis is good.

So enjoy the ride. Having a favorite football team is like having kids. Sometimes they'll make you proud and happy, and other times they'll make you angry and disappointed, but when all is said and done, and you're at the end of your life, you'll look back and know that it was worth it.

And I said I wouldn't get preachy.


Others in the "State of the Program" Series

The State of the Program, Part 6: Recruiting - 4/14/04
The State of the Program, Part 5: Discipline, Attitude, and Leadership - 1/29/04
The State of the Program, Part 4: Special Teams - 1/15/04
The State of the Program, Part 3: The Defense - 12/18/03
The State of the Program, Part 2: The Offense - 12/11/03
The State of the Program, Part 1: The Season - 12/5/03



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