By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 31, 2009
From inside Merryman Athletic Center, an empty glass case overlooks Virginia Tech's football facility. The intent for the display is made clear by a sign inside of it: "This area is reserved for the national championship trophy."
Ten years ago, the Hokies came close to filling it. A redshirt freshman named Michael Vick and a ferocious defense led Virginia Tech to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the Sugar Bowl, which decided the BCS championship that season. A 46-29 loss to Florida State may have denied the Hokies the title, but it also established the program as a national force, and the university as more than simply an engineering school in the Appalachians.
"I'm not shying away from the fact that I think Virginia Tech can win a national championship," Coach Frank Beamer said.
This season, a talented returning cast has helped spark hope among the Hokies' faithful -- and among the team itself -- that the championship run can be repeated.
The seventh-ranked Hokies can take a big first step toward that title on Saturday night in Atlanta in their opener against No. 5 Alabama. And even though preseason injuries at running back have somewhat dimmed the championship expectations, hopes are still high in Blacksburg.
"I know if you knock on the door enough times, hopefully you knock it in one of these days," Beamer said. "And I think that's where we are."
Just as consecutive ACC championships have set the stage for this season, the 1999 team had been preceded by success on the national level. The 1995 and 1996 teams advanced to the Sugar and Orange bowls, respectively, and in 1998 the Hokies crushed Alabama, 38-7, in the Music City Bowl. Virginia Tech was ranked 13th in the 1999 preseason Associated Press poll.
"In the air, you could sense this was going to be an exciting season," Paul Torgersen, the former Virginia Tech president, said in a recent telephone interview. "And then each game we got through, there was sort of a measure of relief that we won another one."
By October, Virginia Tech commanded attention. ESPN's "College GameDay" show was broadcast from Blacksburg before the fourth-ranked Hokies' 62-0 win over No. 16 Syracuse. In December, wide receiver Andre Davis appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated along with a statement about the Hokies: "They Belong!"
By the end of the season, Virginia Tech led the nation in scoring offense and scoring defense, the first team since Florida State in 1993 to accomplish the feat, and the last team to do so.
"I'm sold on our team," wide receiver Ricky Hall told The Washington Post in 1999, adding the Hokies showed they could "play with anybody in the country."
But the Hokies were not able to coast. There were unconvincing in wins over Alabama-Birmingham and Clemson, and on Nov. 6, Virginia Tech needed a game-winning 44-yard field goal by Shayne Graham to overcome West Virginia, 22-20, in Morgantown, W. Va.
Pressure to maintain the unblemished record weighed on some of the Hokies' coaches. In addition to the stresses on the field, running backs coach Billy Hite had to care for his wife, Anne, who suffered from two abdominal abscesses that caused debilitating pain and required surgery. Rickey Bustle, then the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, said he worried so much he would compulsively double- and triple-check his practice schedule to ensure he did not miss a single detail.
"It was fun, but it was hard," Bustle, now the head coach at Louisiana-Lafayette, said in a telephone interview. "It's hard to go undefeated. Do you have time to enjoy it? No."
The team had chemistry. The players lived together and went out together -- and they liked to have fun together. During games, some mimicked linebacker Jamel Smith's high-pitched voice as he made calls in the defensive huddle. Teammates teased center Keith Short for gazing at the mirror while flexing his biceps.
But aside from that camaraderie, it did not hurt that Virginia Tech also had plenty of talent.
In his first year as the starting quarterback, Vick established himself as a Hokies legend thanks to his playmaking ability and athletic flourishes. He finished third in the balloting for the Heisman Trophy after passing for 1,840 yards, rushing for 585 yards, and rushing or passing for 20 touchdowns. Corey Moore, a two-time all-American, was the Hokies' mile-a-minute defensive end with a habit of creating havoc. He posted a Big East-record 17 sacks before graduating as one of the most decorated players in school history.
"When all the hype started building up, I don't think it really mounted on us," said Moore, now pursuing a doctorate in higher education administration at Michigan State. "I think we handled the pressure. We never got too high. We never got too low. We were a very even-keeled team."
The Hokies faced No. 1 Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. While Bourbon Street in New Orleans was filled with colors of maroon and orange, the party eventually came to a halt for the Hokies. The Seminoles swept away Virginia Tech with a burst in the fourth quarter. Afterward, President Bill Clinton called Beamer to offer congratulations on the program's first appearance in the championship game.
The impact of that season has resonated. Some have suggested football has boosted Virginia Tech's academic profile, helping to attract applicants. It also probably aided Virginia Tech's bid to join the ACC at the start of the 2004 season. And at Lane Stadium, the evidence is tangible: It is replete with luxury suites after a series of upgrades, and its 66,233 seats routinely sell out.
The Hokies have achieved more success in the years since their first championship appearance, but although they came close to getting back to the championship game in 2005 and 2007, they have yet to match their charmed 1999 season.
In 2009, Hokies fans hope Virginia Tech can reclaim the 10-year-old magic from its initial title run. But for now, every time Beamer enters Merryman Center, he walks past the Hall of Legends room with its trophy-less trophy case.
"I don't always go in," Beamer said, "but I think everybody knows it's there."