Nothing like a national championship football game to really inspire a college town's residents to . . . to . . .
To clear out of Dodge, it would appear. Streets here are normally quiet during winter break, but they were positively desolate today as fans of the Virginia Tech Hokies massed in far-off New Orleans to witness the school's first shot at football history.
Several shops that normally might cater to Tech's 25,000-strong student body had closed their doors, prompting Harvey Shephard, president of Blacksburg's Chamber of Commerce, to observe: "This is the quietest I've ever seen it. You could walk across Main Street blindfolded."
With maroon-and-orange-clad Tech fans descending on New Orleans in large numbers, a front-page headline in the Roanoke Times today asked "Will anyone be left in Blacksburg to celebrate a win?" should the Hokies pull off an upset of top-ranked Florida State in the Sugar Bowl.
It's a far different scene from the one that followed Tech's last game, a Nov. 26 victory here over Boston College that clinched participation in the Sugar Bowl. Even though it was the day after Thanksgiving, thousands of Tech students rallied in Blacksburg, storming the field after the 38-14 trouncing. As celebrations erupted, a euphoric cluster of students lugged part of a goal post from Lane Stadium down Main Street to Big Al's Sports Bar, where it remains.
Despite the considerably larger stakes tonight, no such effusiveness was expected in this town about a four-hour drive from Washington. Blacksburg police said they would stick with their standard Tuesday night line-up of nine officers and two supervisors. If a spontaneous celebration erupts, "Our response is, block the street and let 'em party for a little bit," said police Lt. Bruce Bradbery.
With classes at Tech out until Jan. 17, the population of Blacksburg has dipped from about 39,000 to under 15,000, Town Manager Gary Huff said. And with Tech fans reportedly purchasing large blocks of the 72,000-seat Louisiana Superdome, "You gotta figure a lot of our business people are down there," Shephard said.
A home game normally translates into about $1.2 million in income for Blacksburg merchants, money that will be spent in Louisiana this game. "But we're excited about the national publicity," Shephard said. "You're going to be hearing about Blacksburg for three hours [on television], and that's going to pay off down the road."
The owners of some bars and restaurants that might have expected to cash in tonight opted instead to close up and head to the Big Easy. The Hokie House, a beer-sloshing institution in these parts, posted a sign that reads: "We will reopen Jan. 6th to celebrate the Hokies' victory in the Sugar Bowl."
The undefeated Hokies matched Florida State's 11-0 record this season to finish ranked in the No. 2 spot and gain a shot at the national championship--the school's football glory in some circles eclipsing Tech's simultaneous rise from 40th place to 28th in U.S. News & World Report's ranking of public universities. Contrary to popular belief, the name "Hokies" has nothing to do with turkeys, the school's mascot--in fact, "Hokies" means nothing at all, having been coined by O.M. Stull, Class of 1896, in a nonsensical spirit yell called "Old Hokie."
But with Blacksburg's streets barren today, Hokie spirit was in short supply. "I would think with the Hokies in the Sugar Bowl, there'd be more people here," said Pat Kelly, host of a sports-themed morning radio show. "But there's less. Blacksburg doesn't just dry up and go away generally." Kelly said his station considered sponsoring a Sugar Bowl party, but decided "there's not going to be anybody here."
As Virginia's largest educational institution, Tech draws heavily from Northern Virginia, home to more than a third of its undergraduates as well as 20,000-plus alumni. Graduate student Zack Kovolenko, 22, of Oakton, said a lot of his friends from Northern Virginia would be watching the game there.
Even so, local residents were confident that Blacksburg would spring to life by kickoff. "If the Hokies win, it's going to go ballistic," said Barry Cooper, 30, as he sipped a beer in a sub shop.
In the mostly empty student union building today, computer science instructor Dwight Barnette said he was disappointed the university hadn't set up large TV screens on campus. But he acknowledged that many of his colleagues had flown the coop, saying, "This is the quietest I've ever seen this town, without a doubt."
Most stores and hotels in town flew Tech flags or displayed "Go Hokies" banners, but that didn't necessarily translate into increased business. Gayle Cash, manager of the T-Shirt Factory near campus, said Sugar Bowl merchandise initially sold well but had fallen off recently. "We didn't know how to anticipate this," she said. "No one did."
Still, one Richmond company was poised to jump on the financial bandwagon should the Cinderella Hokies not turn into pumpkins at midnight. Vatex America, a screen printer, landed a contract with Fruit of the Loom's Pro Player division to produce 40,000 "National Champions" T-shirts and sweat shirts if Tech wins.
"We'll have everything set up and ready," said Charlie Bennett, of Vatex, with more than 60 employees on call to work 24 hours straight or longer.
Win or lose, business promises to be brisk at Roanoke Regional Airport on Wednesday. The airport, normally closed in the wee hours, will stay open to welcome 22 chartered jumbo jets back from New Orleans, starting at 3 a.m. The Hokies' plane is expected back at 3:15 in the afternoon.
On a normal day, the airport handles 50 arrivals total.
Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.