Sugar Sweet
by Jim Alderson, 12/9/04

2004 ACC Football Champions. Taste it. Balance it on your tongue and savor the delightful flavor. Roll it around and experience the full-bodied essence. Sit back and let the palate enjoy the richness. It tastes pretty good, doesnít it? As sweet as Sugar.

The Virginia Tech football team completed its improbable and intoxicating run through its inaugural ACC season by capturing the championship last Saturday after knocking off Miami. A run that began late last August in the sweltering humidity of Washingtonís FedEx Field reached its successful conclusion in the warmth of the late-afternoon Miami sun over the Orange Bowl. As deliriously-happy Hokies celebrated and stunned Miami partisans looked on in disbelief, Tech captured not only its first ACC championship the first year the Hokies were eligible to win it. There is a wall in the ACC headquarters at the Grandover Business Park in Greensboro that contains the names of all conference football champions; Virginia Tech will now be added. That is sweeter than Sugar.

The story of the 2004 Virginia Tech football team is a delicious one that combines all of the elements of great literature. Character, setting, plot, emotion, irony and redemption; itís all here. Itís a shame Dumas did not live during the age of college football.

Frank Beamer headlines the Tech football season. Frank had seen the solid program he built at Tech develop some cracks in the foundation. Criticism developed when he could not meet the lofty expectations generated during the ultra-successful years of Michael Vick. Tech teams had faltered down the stretch of the past three, MV-less years, culminating in a near-total collapse during the final month of the 2003 season. There was grousing from the fan base and ridicule from certain media outlets. Frankís response was to make a sober assessment of all facets of his program, from the top all the way down. Things, from the defensive scheme to attitudes among the players, were changed. It is now obvious they were changed for the better. There seems little question that Frank Beamer is the ACCís Coach of the Year.

A strong contributing factor to Techís championship run was exceptional leadership from this yearís senior class. This had generally been lacking since 1999 when Corey Moore rallied first a defense and then the entire team behind him, setting example after example throughout the season. The 2004 seniors had seen some members of their class greatly contribute to the 2003 problems by placing personal NFL draft goals ahead of team ones. Those players are no longer around and the remaining seniors determined that they would not allow that to happen this year. It did not. All of this yearís seniors contributed in their own manner, capping careers of trial with triumph. This senior class provided examples of outstanding leadership that hopefully subsequent classes will seek to emulate.

On defense, among the starters, Vincent Fuller, James Griffin and Eric Green over came the loss of an All-American (DeAngelo Hall) and forged a solid secondary. Mikal Baaqee, the prime returnee from a 2003 linebacking group that became the lightning-rod of last yearís defensive criticism, rose to the challenge of the talented freshmen that joined him. It is difficult to find a defensive play in the Miami tape, run or pass, where he is not around the ball.

However, the starr of this defense, to my mind, was Jim Davis. Beset by injury that limited his effectiveness and caused him to miss the entire 2003 season, Davis worked hard and overcame adversity. Bright and articulate, he became the public face of the defense. He also put his money where his mouth was. Davis anchored the defensive line and provided big plays when they were required. His sack of Carolina quarterback Darian Durant, taking the Tar Heels just out of tying field goal range, was as big a play delivered by a Tech player this season. It was fitting that during the last series of his collegiate regular season, there was Davis swatting away not one but two Brock Berlin passes. Jim Davis put team goals ahead of personal ones. Hereís thanking Jim for a splendid senior season and wishing him a long and fruitful NFL career.

On offense, well, who do you expect? James Miller and Jon Dunn had very good years, holding down the right side of an offensive line that improved as the year went along. The O-line provided sterling play during the last two games when Tech needed to run the ball and erase time from the clock. Still, the 2004 Virginia Tech football season was the story of Bryan Randall. Randallís career was bittersweet, but any lows faded as he strode from the Orange Bowl having led his team to the ACC championship. He arrived at Tech at what was probably the worst possible time for a quarterback. The early and unexpected departure of Michael Vick denied him the luxury of a red-shirt year and he was thrust into the starting position in 2002 before he was really ready. He endured scathing criticism from some Tech fans, upset that he was not more Mike-like. Things were not helped midway through his time at Tech when a new position coach arrived and pronounced him a good candidate for strong safety, or when the brother of Techís most celebrated quarterback entered the program carrying that status-enhancing pedigree. Randallís situation was not improved last year when coaching indecision caused a generally unsuccessful rotation that basically caused both quarterbacks to constantly peer over their respective shoulder. Bryan steadfastly refused to allow any negativity to penetrate his being. He always took full responsibility for any failures and reveled in team success, even in games such as last yearís Miami win, in which he personally contributed little. Along the way, he continued to work hard and developed into a solid quarterback that should be ACC Player of the Year. He was not the most talented quarterback ever to play the position at Tech and he never became Michael Vick. Instead he became Bryan Randall, ACC Champion.

This ACC championship is special to all Hokies, but I would submit none more so than to those of my generation and above. The ACC passed on a Tech membership when the conference was formed. We remember the snub in 1977 when Tech received only two affirmative votes. This was the conference that claimed it did not want us, and it took a tumultuous expansion process for Tech to ultimately gain admittance. For over fifty years, all Virginia Tech had ever asked for was a chance to fairly compete against its regional rivals and peer universities that comprised the ACC. We have now shown what can happen when finally given that chance.

This ACC championship is indeed sweet. Tech fans should savor it fully, wringing every last gram of joy from the experience. The Hokies will return to New Orleans for another Sugar Bowl, their third. This time it is as Virginia Tech, 2004 ACC Football Champions.

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