It's 1998 All Over Again
by Will Stewart,, 9/9/04

In 1999, the VT football team charged to the national championship game behind a fire-breathing defensive end and an electric redshirt freshman quarterback. That quarterback came back the following year amid a sea of media coverage, shining light on the Virginia Tech program like never before and spurring the Hokies to an amazing five straight years of in-season top 5 rankings.

Virginia Tech football, long a media liability, became a media darling, drawing bigger and bigger ratings, even after Vick left. The stadium was expanded, season ticket sales exploded, TV coverage and football revenue boomed. The ACC expanded, and – wonder of wonders – the Hokies were included!

The result? It's 2004, and Virginia Tech started the season right where they started in 1998: unranked and ignored. The Hokies were picked to finish in the middle of their conference, just like 1998, and their in-state rivals, the UVa Cavaliers, are ranked higher and have more preseason hype, just like 1998.

Five years after their national championship appearance, at a time when you would expect the Hokie football program to be rolling like a freight train, it has hit a dip. After winning 10 games or more four times in six years (from 1995-2000), the Hokies have lost at least four games three straight years and have fallen out of the Top 25 for the first time in six seasons.

I found myself pondering how this situation came about. You would think that five years after a national championship appearance, as the recruiting classes that were signed in the wake of that championship game mature, that VT would be stronger than ever. But they're not. What happened?

Me, Me, Me -- The "I" Factor Hits the Hokies

A number of things derailed the Hokie express as it built up steam, and one of them was a shift from the underdog role to the role of the favorite, but more importantly, a shift from a team orientation to a focus on individual players.

Frank Beamer, the consummate underdog, found that life at the top of that mountain he had scaled was difficult. Having built the program with lightly-recruited players who emphasized "team," he struggled to maintain it and to corral egos when the recruits got better and the emphasis shifted to "I."

Al Groh's arrival in Charlottesville contributed to the problem. Whereas Beamer had dictated the pace for most of the '90s to George Welsh, the VT coaching staff found themselves in reaction mode – mostly in recruiting – when Groh showed up and set about re-energizing the UVa program.

It wasn't so much that the Cavaliers put a big dent in the Hokies' side in the recruiting wars, because the head-to-head damage was actually minimal. The state still seems to be divided between kids who are "UVa kids" and players who are "Tech kids," and Groh's arrival hasn't really changed that. UVa's recent recruiting success has, for the most part, not come at Tech's expense.

Where Groh did some damage to the Tech program was in his emphasis on selling playing time to young players and pushing the NFL angle. In the face of Groh's "We'll play the young kids and send them to the NFL" PR blitz, the Hokies reacted, to their detriment. In the 2002 season opener against Arkansas State, for example, Frank Beamer played more true freshmen than he might usually play, blowing redshirts in the process. Mike Imoh played very little in 2002 after catching a TD pass against Arkansas State in the opener, and in the most famous example of a blown redshirt, Danny McGrath played 22 snaps against ASU … and then played three snaps the entire rest of the season.

As for the NFL angle, in the last three years it has been played up at Virginia Tech more than ever before, and it has contributed to the emphasis on "I" rather than "team" that allowed team chemistry, or the lack thereof, to damage the program. Starting with Vick's early departure in 2001 and continuing on to the early departures of Kevin Jones and DeAngelo Hall last year, the NFL and dreams of The League have become a bigger fixture in Blacksburg.

But it's not just the NFL angle that led to the team concept becoming secondary, but the promotion of individual players in general. In 2002, the Virginia Tech athletic department launched a marketing campaign centered around choosing a nickname for Tech's two phenomenal tailbacks, Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones. Thousands of submissions were taken from the VT fan base, and the winner -- "The Untouchables" -- was plastered all over press releases, posters, and media guides. At least, up to the point where someone figured out it was putting a huge target on the backs of Jones and Suggs, and the program became hush-hush and died out.

Prior to the 2003 season, the player promotion peaked with, a specially-produced web site by the VT athletic department that promoted eleven Virginia Tech football players for national honors (in alphabetical order): Nathaniel Adibi, Vinnie Burns, Cols Colas, Jake Grove, DeAngelo Hall, Kevin Jones, Kevin Lewis, Bryan Randall, Vegas Robinson, Ernest Wilford, and Keith Willis.

Some of those players were worthy of national honor status, particularly Grove, who won the Rimington Award and was Tech's third-ever unanimous All-American. But it's laughable that others on that list were hyped for national awards, and I don’t just mean that in hindsight; foresight saw it, too. I won't name names. You're savvy enough to figure it out.

As if that wasn't enough, numerous preseason articles trumpeted DeAngelo Hall's triple-threat status as a defensive back, wide receiver, and punt returner, and Hall talked repeatedly of wanting to score a touchdown three different ways in the same game.

The point is, the promotion of individual players reached a fever pitch in 2003, and so did a complete and total breakdown in team chemistry. When the 2003 Hokies hit adversity, they committed the cardinal sin a football team can commit: they quit. Not every player quit, but enough of them did that it led to a string of losses and a near-disaster against Temple, as players with an eye on the pros quit working hard in the present and started looking to the future. Individualism ran rampant, by the admission of the coaches and players themselves, and as a result, the performance of the team suffered.

Recruiting Takes a Turn, and Not for the Better

You would think that taking a trip to the national championship game would make recruiting take off, but instead, some time around 2000, it seems as if Virginia Tech's recruiting took a step backwards. The classes have been ranked higher and higher, but for a few years, the players simply weren't as good.

The Hokies appear to have righted the ship the last couple of years and are recruiting well again, particularly in state, but relatively poor recruiting classes of from 2000 to 2002 are forcing VT to retool in 2004 with players that are too young to be counted on to produce 9- and 10-win seasons.

The Hokies had a gift in the 1990's of taking chances on unheralded kids and having them blossom into not just good college players, but NFL-quality players. In 1995, for example, the Hokies threw late scholarship offers (we're talking March scholarship offers, really late) at unknown defensive backs Pierson Prioleau and Keion Carpenter, players who went on to be all-conference performers and who are now playing in the NFL.

Starting around 2000, however, the Hokies started finding fewer of those diamonds in the rough, and even worse, their highly-rated recruits starting failing to come through for them.

The Class of 2000: The 2000 recruiting class was not a good one for VT. (Click here to view the 2000 recruiting class.) It started out strong, with commitments from four of the top ten players in the state of Virginia before November 1st: LB Chad Cooper (#5), OL John Dunn (#7), DB Mike Daniels (#9), and ATH Josh Spence (#10).

But when the Hokies headed to the national championship game, it didn't have a positive effect on recruiting. Quite the opposite. As the Hokies played later than most of their recruiting rivals, and as Beamer had to attend national honors ceremonies for himself, Michael Vick, and Corey Moore, recruiting got squeezed out, and the Hokies finished poorly that year, landing just four players in the month of January. (For more, see Slow Finish Puts Damper on Great Class, 2/3/00.)

Worse than the slow finish on that class was that most of the SuperPrep All-Americans they recruited that year -- six of them -- have had undistinguished careers, for various reasons. Chad Cooper, Mike Daniels, Jon Dunn, Richard Johnson, Jason Lallis, and Jared Mazetta were all SuperPrep AAs, and of the six of them, only one, Dunn, starts for the Hokies as a redshirt senior.

The state of Virginia was not particularly kind to the Hokies that year, yielding just six recruits, and the large majority of them didn't develop, for various reasons. Of the group of Chad Cooper, Jon Dunn, Mike Daniels, Josh Spence, Travis Conway, and Jim Davis, only Dunn and Davis are big contributors to the 2004 Hokies.

And even a novice VT recruiting fan can tell you that if the Hokies are only getting two contributors from the state per year, that's not cutting it. The other extreme from the 2000 recruiting class is the 1998 recruiting class, which yielded Michael Vick, Lee Suggs, Jake Houseright, Anthony Davis, Jake Grove, Lamar Cobb, Emmett Johnson, Willie Pile, and Ronyell Whitaker. Now that's a recruiting class.

The Class of 2001: In 2001, VT took chances on a number of lightly-recruited players who have yet to make significant contributions to the program, and many of them aren't even with the team anymore: Brandon Frye, Reggie Butler, Tim Sandidge, Andrew Fleck, Jason Murphy, Kevin Hilton, Danny McGrath, Will Hunt, and Chris Pannell. These are kids who should be redshirt juniors or true seniors right now and should be leading the team, but precious few of them have stepped up. (Click here to view the 2001 recruiting class.)

Other highly-rated 2001 recruits turned out to be busts, for various reasons: Fred Lee, Curtis Bradley, and D.J. Walton were all in the top 8 of the Hokies' 2001 recruiting class. Two of them are gone, and one, Walton, was at one time indefinitely suspended from the team and is now buried in the depth chart, probably never to impact the team on the field.

However, two of the three best recruits from the class of 2001 – Kevin Jones and DeAngelo Hall – were so good that they're not even in Blacksburg anymore, having been selected in the first round last April. Bryan Randall is the only remaining player of VT's top three 2001 recruits who is still around, and he is a vital cog, arguably the key, to the 2004 Hokies.

The 2001 recruiting class was signed 13 months after VT's championship game appearance, on the heels of a media lovefest with Michael Vick in a VT uniform. Instead of being a program-changing class, it has been an average class at best, with many strikeouts. And its two best players, Jones and Hall, are already gone.

The Class of 2002: The class of 2002 is now starting to come to fruition. This class is littered with projects that haven't developed and highly-rated players who didn't hit the ground running. (Click here to view the 2002 recruiting class.)

Yes, it's too early to pass judgment on that class, which is entering its redshirt sophomore/true junior season. But there's also college football truism that says if a player hasn't started to step up by his third year in the program, he's not going to, and the class of 2002 is hitting its third year in the program.

Noland Burchette, Jonathan Lewis, and Darryl Tapp have fared well, but there are players in the class of 2002 that VT fans -- and coaches -- hoped would be further up the depth chart at this point: Brandon Gore, Aaron Rouse, and JUCO defensive tackle Jimmy Williams were supposed to be program leaders, for example, and they are either gone (in Williams' case) or haven't stepped up yet.

Most disturbing is that many of the lower-rated kids in that class, the kids VT used to hit home runs with, were either total flameouts or haven't turned into players yet. Chris Burnette, Demetrius Hodges, Brian McPherson, Robert Parker, Antoine Rutherford, Lamar Veney, and Cary Wade jump out as names that started out invisible, and have stayed that way thus far, with only Burnette, McPherson, Parker, and Wade left on the roster. From that class, Noland Burchette is the best example of an unheralded player who could turn out to be a great one, if he stays on the current track.

Looking at the classes of 2000-2002, it just seems that unlike the 1990's, when star recruits like Cornell Brown and Maurice DeShazo fulfilled their potential and unknowns like Jim Druckenmiller, George DelRicco and Antonio Freeman carried the program, the highly-rated players seem to be flaming out more often, and the throwaway scholarships are just that: throwaways. The Hokies took a chance in 1995 on Carpenter and Prioleau and hit the jackpot. Recently, they have taken a chance on Chris Ceasar and Michael Malone, two guys who are mired on the depth chart.

We can pore over the classes and argue back and forth, but I think that for a few years there, the Hokie coaches didn't unearth the rough diamonds or maximize the highly-rated recruits as they did in the '90s.

Turning Things Around

There have been other reasons why the last three editions of the Hokies haven't stood up to the standards set by the great Hokie teams of 1995, 1996, 1999, and 2000, all of which won at least 10 games in 12-game seasons. But it has primarily been breakdowns in recruiting and in team chemistry that have caused the problems, in my opinion.

The recent decline in talent level, and the loss of team chemistry, have exposed the other weaknesses in the Virginia Tech program. While I don't necessarily agree that all of the following are weaknesses for VT football, fans and columnists have argued that VT has struggled recently for the following reasons:

  • The VT coaches aren't very good at game-time adjustments, and opponents like USC have made changes at half time that lead to VT losing the lead in the second half of games. Another indicator that the VT coaches aren't good at making adjustments and coming from behind is the fact that VT is 6-56 under Beamer when trailing at the end of the third quarter (stat: Tech Talk Tuesday, 9/7/04).

  • For the last two seasons, the Hokies have been led by an offensive coordinator, Bryan Stinespring, who has been learning on the job.

  • The Virginia Tech defensive scheme, installed in 1993, has started to get "long in the tooth," and frequent opponents in the Big East, like Pittsburgh and West Virginia, figured out how to beat it consistently.

  • The strength and conditioning program, once a cornerstone of VT's success, is just one of many "good" S&C programs, as every college football team in the country builds a Merryman-like weight room and employs modern S&C methods.

  • On the field, starting QBs Grant Noel (2001) and Bryan Randall (2002 and 2003) have not been the equal of Druckenmiller and Vick in their ability to spur the team to victory in the clutch. In the last three seasons, VT QB's have a TD:INT ratio of 47:38, not great numbers.

  • Key injuries have hit the program every season since 2000. Lee Suggs was out for the year with an early knee injury in 2001; the defensive tackle and linebacker spots were decimated in 2002; and in 2003, defensive end Jim Davis was lost in the preseason, removing a critical pass rusher from the equation.

You can argue that those points and others are responsible for the reasons why it's 1998 again in Blacksburg, but no one can argue that with just a few more playmakers, and a little more want-to, a little more togetherness, many of the losses the team has suffered over the last three years could have been avoided, and 10-win seasons would still be the norm.

This doesn't mean I'm blaming four- and five-loss seasons on the players. After all, it's the duty of the coaches to recruit good players and to maintain team discipline and chemistry.

Starting this year, the Virginia Tech coaching staff faces a critical juncture. They built the program with certain recruiting tactics and coaching philosophies that were right for the times and resulted in a program that went 58-14 from 1995-2000. They became media darlings, raked in the money, and expanded the stadium, but just as they were hitting their stride, the positive momentum in the program slowed down.

After the Virginia Cavaliers were hammered 63-21 in the 1999 Bowl, former UVa coach George Welsh made the statement that the Cavaliers had to "reinvent the corporation," only to become the subject of ridicule for that statement when the team slid to 6-6 in 2000 (whereupon Welsh retired).

Frank Beamer and his staff face their own "reinvent the corporation" crossroads, and if they're not successful, the result may be the same for them as it was for Welsh and his Cavaliers. To their credit, the Virginia Tech coaching staff has recognized some of the weaknesses and has moved to correct them.

Beamer and company have reigned in the egos that have damaged the team. Having made exceptions in the recent past for exceptional players, they are now treating all players the same, and in the most significant development, incumbent starters who don't perform on the field are having their jobs opened back up to competition (note the recent depth chart moves at defensive back and wide receiver).

Talk of the NFL is not tolerated, and this year's Virginia Tech team is more close-knit than any edition since the 2000 Hokies. If the BCA Classic against USC is any indication, the Hokies have regained the fire that left them the last couple of years.

The VT coaches have rededicated themselves to recruiting in recent years, stocking the team with good young talent. The 2003 and 2004 recruiting classes show a lot of promise, particularly the 2003 class (though we admit we'll have to wait a few years for that verdict).

Virginia Tech has once again assumed the underdog role that they're comfortable with. But it's a shame that five years after their national championship appearance, when they should be peaking, the team is instead rebuilding.

Many Hokie fans, comfortable with the underdog role and knowing that their coach is also comfortable with it, are relishing this season. And in the ideal scenario, it would indeed be 1998 all over again, because we all know what followed.

But in many respects, it is not 1998 all over again, and it never will be. Since 1998, the stadium has been expanded from a capacity of 52,807 to 65,115. Season ticket sales have grown from 18,433 in 1998 to approximately 37,000 in 2004. Athletic department revenue has boomed from $19.1 million in 1997-98 to $33.8 million in 2003-04.

And of course, the Hokies have joined the ACC, and the stability, exposure, and revenue that will come from being in that league have ensured the future of the Virginia Tech football program for years to come. The program is no longer as dependent upon Frank Beamer and his staff as it used to be; were they to leave, the Hokies have the backing, the conference and the revenue to hire a good coaching staff and keep the program going.

Frank Beamer's success at Virginia Tech has built a football program bigger than himself, and though it feels as if the program has taken a dip, one thing is sure: it may be like 1998 again, but it will never be like 1992 again. Those days are long gone.

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