Blacksburg, the tiny Southwest Virginia town with the giant state university, has lost its head for the Hokies, college football's upstarts who expect today to be picked to play for the national championship at the Sugar Bowl.
Hokie Barbies are leaping off the shelves. The new Sports Illustrated with Virginia Tech wide receiver Andre Davis on the cover is a must-have. Anything in orange and maroon is so hot that the staff at Tech Bookstore on Main Street has time for little else. "I am so busy with Hokie mania that I can't get textbooks," joked manager Jerry Diffell.
Beneath the euphoria is anxiety that Tech's emergence as an athletic powerhouse could jeopardize hard-won academic gains, a concern that has developed at other colleges with top-ranked sports programs. The school sometimes called "Virginia's other great university" does not want to be known as Football U.
An undefeated season, including a 31-7 thrashing of arch rival University of Virginia, has put perma-smiles on many of Tech's 25,000 students. And the days when the football team had as many scandals as victories seem to be in the past, thanks to strict rules implemented more than two years ago, university officials said.
Maroon "VT" stickers have appeared on cars throughout the Old Dominion, as Virginia--a state with no professional baseball, basketball or football team--embraces the prospect of winning the collegiate equivalent of the Super Bowl for the first time.
Yet a bit of Hokie fatigue has set in on the sprawling campus in the mountains, about a four-hour drive from Washington. Professors and a small percentage of students worry that the spotlight on football has left academics and even other sports programs in the shadows.
"We've been trying for 20 years to build up humanities and engineering, and now we're a national university for football," said American studies professor Marshall W. Fishwick, who contends that cutbacks in academic programs have squeezed his department.
"We're not being taken out and guillotined," Fishwick said of the campus's academics, "but we're being ignored."
To illustrate their claims, critics suggest a drive around Virginia Tech, first to the gleaming new athletic facilities and the soon-to-be-expanded football stadium. Then, work your way back to the administrative offices of the College of Arts and Sciences, housed for the past three years and at least two more in double-wide trailers parked atop an old tennis court.
University officials call this comparison unfair. Athletic programs are funded not with taxpayer dollars but with targeted donations and team revenue. Gate receipts this football season totaled more than $4.4 million. The Sugar Bowl will mean a payout to Tech of $4 million more, assuming that national ranking computers, as expected, pick Virginia Tech today for the game in New Orleans next month against top-ranked Florida State University.
And the publicity, said university officials, is priceless. University officials said football success has brought a surge in applications, inquiries and donations.
"The benefit to the broader university is we have access now to tell about the many accomplishments we have," said Robert C. Bates, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Among the accomplishments is an engineering program ranked 18th in the nation, a business school ranked 45th and research investments ranked 44th. Overall, U.S. News & World Report ranked Virginia Tech 28th among public universities this year, a jump from 40th last year.
"We're really pleased with the football team," said university President Paul E. Torgersen, who has pushed back his retirement by five days so he can preside during the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4. "But I'm probably more pleased that in our U.S. News & World Report rankings we've moved from 40th to 28th. That's pretty damn good."
But university officials worry that a sustained era of national football dominance could alter Tech's fragile self-image. The school has spent decades trying to shed its reputation as a cow college and as the poor cousin to U-Va., considered a "Public Ivy" with a culture of academic excellence dating to its founding by Thomas Jefferson.
Of the danger that big-time football creates, Bates said: "It could divert us from our primary mission. I think that happens a little."
Junior Megin Kennett, a 21-year-old communications major from Manassas, has a similar fear. "I think we're getting a lot more attention," Kennett said, "but it's not for the right things."
Most students are simply enjoying the ride, rallying around the team as a unifying force at Virginia's largest school, though many have noticed that scores of classes get canceled when a game falls on a weekday and that football players enjoy some perks.
Body painting, Hokie-wear and temporary tattoos are the rage on game days. After Virginia Tech clinched its perfect season with a win over Boston College the day after Thanksgiving, students and alums gathered on the field for what many termed "a group hug."
Senior Frances Thrasher, 21, editor-in-chief of the Collegiate Times, sheds a bit of her journalistic objectivity when it comes to Tech football: Her car has a license plate that says "HOKYGRL."
"I got here and absolutely fell in love," Thrasher said. "The football team really does give you a sense of pride. It brings people together. And you can't get that out of a class."
The Hokies have long been good but this year built an undefeated season on the quick feet and powerful left arm of freshman quarterback Michael Vick. This week, he became the first player in college football history to be named a league's Player of the Year for offense and Rookie of the Year in the same season.
Hokies swept all of the Big East's individual awards, with all-American defensive end Corey Moore named defensive Player of the Year for the second straight year and place kicker Shayne Graham, the league's all-time career scoring leader, earning special teams Player of the Year honors. Coach Frank Beamer took the league's top coaching award.
Hokie mania has reached the Washington area. More than one-third of Tech's undergraduates come from Northern Virginia, and 24,000 of its alumni live in the District or its suburbs.
Students offer no apologies for their nonsensical team name, from an old fight song "Hokie, Hokie, Hokie Hi! Tech, Tech, VPI!" (The initials, rarely used now, are a reference to the school's full name, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University). They also embrace their goofy mascot, a maroon fighting turkey with big orange feet and bulging biceps.
"It's my mascot," said sophomore Anna Davis, 19, of Springfield, "and I love it."
Licensed Hokie products have become a major revenue source.
Locke White, Virginia Tech's director of licensing and trademarks, said the rise in interest from vendors wishing to sell clothing with the school's name or logos has been "astronomical."
About 350 vendors usually start the school year licensed to sell Virginia Tech merchandise, White said; this season, new manufacturers are signing on at the rate of two dozen a week. Hokie-abilia is selling so well that university officials recently hired a company to crack down on counterfeiters.
"It's just insane around here. . . . but it's great," White said. "We all bleed orange and maroon around here."
Students and university officials are equally proud that it has been a season free of the scandals that marked the team not long ago, when many of today's seniors were freshmen. There were 21 arrests of football players during the 1995 and 1996 seasons, including four on felony charges that included rape and attempted abduction.
A low point came during the national broadcast of the 1996 Orange Bowl in which Nebraska defeated Virginia Tech. Mixed with the rushing and passing statistics that flashed across the screen was a chart comparing each team's list of arrested players.
Still further back, then-Gov. Gerald L. Baliles used a graduation speech in 1987 to scold Virginia Tech for a scandal that eventually yielded a dozen NCAA violations. He threatened to shake up the university's ruling board to return the focus to academics and warned that he expected "extracurricular activities to have a place--and to be kept in their place."
Now, according to Baliles, Tech has gotten the balance right. "I think Virginia Tech's academic achievements are notable, and they're national," he said. "I think what we're looking at is a university that is a champion in the classroom as well as on the football field."
CAPTION: Virginia Tech President Paul E. Torgersen postponed his retirement so that he will still be in office when the Hokies go to the Sugar Bowl.
CAPTION: Virginia Tech students Sanjay Ranade, 18, left, Jason Heatwole, 22, Jen Riley, 19, and Miriam Abraham, 19, discuss Tech's Sugar Bowl chances in the Hokie Bar in Blacksburg. Some students and faculty fear that the team's winning ways and a growing focus on football will detract from other sports programs and the university's hard-won academic gains.
CAPTION: Vickie Alls, 35, of Blacksburg, Va., drives by in her "Hokie," a Toyota truck covered with Hokie emblems.
CAPTION: The Tech Bookstore is crammed with Hokie memorabilia, including temporary tattoos and stickers for game days.
CAPTION: Signs like this one in a Blacksburg 7-Eleven can be found all over town as fans snap up Hokie mementos.