BLACKSBURG, Va. — Bryn Renner has been to so many games at Lane Stadium, he can’t even count them.
His father, Bill, punted at Virginia Tech and later for the Green Bay Packers before becoming a high school football coach in Northern Virginia. His mother, Sue, was a Hokies cheerleader. His grandmother, who lives near Blacksburg in Pulaski County, has had season tickets near the 50-yard line for 44 years.
Virginia Tech was even the first program to offer Renner a football scholarship when he was a junior at West Springfield High.
“After the games, we’d just walk around the field and I’d try to find players’ wrist bands,” Renner said this week. “It’s a great environment. I know it well.”
But when Renner and his family make their return to Lane Stadium on Thursday night, they will all be wearing North Carolina blue. Renner is the starting quarterback for the Tar Heels, who take on No. 9 Virginia Tech in a nationally televised ACC Coastal Division matchup.
For the Hokies, the game will be another step toward clinching a berth in this year’s ACC championship game. For Renner and North Carolina, it’s another opportunity to turn the attention away from a scandal that has rocked the entire athletic department in Chapel Hill, N.C., and resulted in the firing of coach Butch Davis and resignation of athletic director Dick Baddour.
North Carolina received a notice of allegations from the NCAA in June that detailed nine major violations, including a tutor providing impermissible benefits and academic assistance to players and an assistant coach who was being paid by an agent. In response, the school instituted self-imposed sanctions last month, vacating all wins from the 2008 and 2009 seasons and eliminating nine scholarships over a three-year period.
The off-field distractions have largely overshadowed this year’s 6-4 campaign. But Renner, one of six quarterbacks from Virginia starting for ACC teams this year, is leading the conference in passing efficiency and completion percentage. His 19 touchdown passes put him on track for a new school record.
Renner has also gone through some growing pains, throwing more interceptions (11) than any other ACC quarterback. But the redshirt sophomore’s progress has been a welcome diversion for an embattled coaching staff that has remained mostly intact even though Davis was let go in August.
“We recognize really for the last almost two years now, this program has been under a microscope [and] taken some shots that were unfair in a lot of ways,” offensive coordinator John Shoop said. “But guys like Bryn are so resilient. He doesn’t have thin skin.”
This sort of adversity had been foreign to Renner, a two-sport star at West Springfield who threw for more than 3,000 yards and scored 45 touchdowns to earn All-Met honors in football as a senior.
Renner says he never considered leaving North Carolina, even as he sat behind T.J. Yates for two years amid the swirling controversy within the program.
Instead, Renner immersed himself in football, leaving North Carolina’s baseball team before last spring to focus solely on playing quarterback. As Shoop put it this week, “If you were to walk down on the second floor of our facility right now, if he’s not in class, he’s probably in there watching some film.”
This singular focus was born from years sitting in the family’s living room watching film and roaming the sidelines as a youngster during Bill Renner’s 21 years coaching high school football in Fairfax County.
“He saw the good ones prepare and he saw some guys that didn’t play well earlier than most,” Bill Renner said. “Whatever has happened outside the organization you just can’t control and you’ve got to compartmentalize that or you’re not gonna ever be able to play at a level that you want to play at. That’s what Bryn has had to learn to do.”
Bill Renner, who punted at Virginia Tech between 1979 and 1982, admits part of him wanted his son to follow in his footsteps because “to see how it is in Blacksburg now as opposed to when I was there, that era with [Coach] Bill Dooley. I’m just almost speechless to the level they’ve gotten the football program to.”
But once Bryn chose North Carolina — “I just felt at home there,” he explained — the Renner family committed as well. Before the 2010 season, they moved to North Carolina, where Bill Renner is the head coach at East Chapel Hill High. In an odd twist, he coached Butch Davis’s son, Drew, this season and “really enjoyed not just knowing him as Coach Davis, but as Dad Davis so to speak. It strengthened the relationship.”
But Bryn Renner’s decision has ended up working out for both North Carolina and Virginia Tech because the Hokies now have their own dynamic redshirt sophomore quarterback in Logan Thomas, who is on pace to shatter the school’s record for total offense. Still, Renner doesn’t expect Lane Stadium to be the cheery venue he remembers as a child.
Last February, when Duke basketball guard Seth Curry, the son of former Hokies great Dell Curry, played in Blacksburg for the first time, Virginia Tech’s student section serenaded him with chants of “Who’s your Daddy?”
Not surprisingly, Renner doesn’t seem fazed by the possibility of such turmoil Thursday night.
“If I get booed, I get booed. You see it all the time. Some guy gets traded and then they boo him when he gets home,” Renner said. “The adversity that we’ve gone through, I don’t think any other program could’ve done it better than we have. I actually think that’s when the best comes out of you.”