Greg Merritt, a marketing executive with America Online, attended Virginia Tech in the early 1990s, when rooting for the football team required not only selfless devotion but a certain degree of masochism.

"I suffered through every game," he said. "It was horrendous."

Things have changed. Tomorrow night, the undefeated Hokies will play Florida State in the Sugar Bowl for the national football championship. Merritt and other Virginia Tech graduates in the Washington area are packing bags for New Orleans or reserving seats at local sports bars and restaurants, eager to celebrate the greatest explosion of Hokiemania the world has ever seen.

Bill Stover, an executive for Symantec Corp. who lives in Fairfax County, will be at the Sugar Bowl in his lucky game attire--orange "Va Tech Win" shirt, Virginia Tech football cap, maroon socks and brown-and-tan saddle shoes. Joe Jones, a consultant with Arthur D. Little who also lives in Fairfax, will be among dozens of Tech alumni watching the game at a Springfield restaurant owned by a Hokie parent.

To outsiders, this may seem just one more spasm of holiday football fever. But to graduates of Virginia Tech, the Sugar Bowl appearance is significant for reasons that go beyond athletics. They hope the game also will draw attention to the academic gains the Blacksburg school has made in recent years. As far as they're concerned, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech's full name) is now the best college in the state, eclipsing that well-groomed but overrated institution in Charlottesville founded by a long-dead politician and inventor, whatever his name was.

When Arlington resident Harold Mintz was a Tech undergraduate in the late 1970s, he created and sold thousands of buttons that made an impolite reference to students and alumni of Thomas Jefferson's school, the University of Virginia. This year, he is selling buttons with a more positive message: "Hokemon--Gotta win 'em all!"

"This one captures not only a specific event of great pride to all Tech fans but also incorporates another cultural phenomenon of the time," said Mintz, an executive with a trade show company who plans to donate to the school the proceeds from the sale of the buttons. "On January 4, I'll be in front of my TV rooting them on."

An assortment of Hokie-related Web sites are helping Tech graduates find tickets or spaces in sports restaurants for tomorrow's game. The Internet connection is appropriate, because the high-tech industries of the Washington area have drawn thousands of graduates of Virginia Tech's programs in information technology and biotechnology.

Founded in 1872 as an all-male military school focusing on agriculture and engineering, Virginia Tech is now a coed university with more than 25,000 students, 100 research centers and a record of being among the top 10 patent-earning institutions in the country.

Schools with strong academic reputations rarely produce great football teams, but Northern Virginia Hokies say they always felt that with a little luck in recruiting, the woebegone teams of yesterday could be turned around.

Merritt, president of the Northern Virginia chapter of the Virginia Tech Alumni Association, said that when he was a student, the football team usually had a good defense but could not score many points. "I kept telling my friends, if Virginia Tech ever gets an offense, watch out."

Stover, president of the Northern Virginia Hokie Club, which raises money for Tech athletics, is older than Merritt and remembers the golden day in 1964 when he was a Tech undergraduate and the team upset Florida State, then led by future Oakland Raiders star receiver Fred Biletnikoff. "The score was 20 to 11," he said. "We played great defense."

Such memories kept Stover going to games even in the bad years. Now he and his son Chuck, Virginia Tech '89, try to attend all the games, home and away. Stover himself has not missed a game since 1987. How do the Stovers behave in the stands? "We don't," the elder Stover said. "We are pretty vocal and pretty emotional."

When there is a Saturday game in Blacksburg, Stover makes the four-hour drive from Fairfax on Thursday night, lunches with the local Hokie Club on Friday and is at the Lane Stadium parking lot four hours early to eat off the tailgate of his black Explorer.

The pregame menu depends on the opponent. If the Hokies are playing Boston College, for instance, he may have baked beans.

But Stover, who was flying to New Orleans yesterday, figures he will be too anxious to eat much of anything before the Sugar Bowl. He said he expects to confine his consumption to "a little hops and barley" to settle his nerves.

Most of the pregame rallies and events will be held in New Orleans, though about 400 Hokie fans showed up last week for a rally in the Richmond area. Tech alumnus Morris Skeen conducted his weekly radio show, "Tech Talk Tuesday," at the rally but plans to be in New Orleans for the game. Skeen said he knows of one Tech couple who is getting married in the lobby of their New Orleans hotel. "That is Hokiemania," Skeen said.

Jones said his wife and most of his six children will be with him at Kilroy's in Springfield to watch the game. Jones picked that restaurant because the owner, Pip Thomas, is a childhood friend. Thomas is also a graduate of the College of William and Mary, another well-regarded Virginia school whose alumni have sometimes looked upon Hokies as ill-bred backwoods losers.

"Two of my children totally disregarded their father's wishes and went to Virginia Tech," Thomas said. But he said he is looking forward to the game and to entertaining at least 400 wild-eyed Tech fans at Kilroy's or at PJ Skidoos, a Fairfax County restaurant where he is co-owner.

Jones said he is sad that his daughter Kelly will miss the family gathering tomorrow night at Kilroy's because of her job as a Teach for America instructor at a rural school in Mississippi. "She graduated from the University of Virginia," he said, "so I always like to share these games with her."

CAPTION: Virginia Tech fan Bill Stover packs his lucky clothes for his trip to the Sugar Bowl.

CAPTION: Bill Stover, president of the Northern Virginia Hokie Club, proudly flies a Virginia Tech banner at his house in Fairfax County.