Virginia Polytechnic Institute, better known here as "just" Virginia Tech, is beginning the most critical period in its athletic history.

The school is coming off a turbulent 3-7-1 football season. The coach, Jimmy Sharpe, was fired with four years left on his contract and a freshman fullback, Bob Vorhies, died after a punishment drill.

The death of Vorhies prompted a grand jury investigation. It cleared everyone involved in the VPI football program of any wrongdoing.The media coverage of the youngster's death obviously put the school in a bad light. So did, according to observers here, the firing of Sharpe.

Many players were unhappy over the axing of Sharpe, who had fallen into disfavor with many of VPI's influential alumni.

Sharpe was replaced by Bill Dooley, for years a successful head coach at the University of North Carolina. Dooley was given the dual position of head coach and athletic director.

If there's pressure on Dooley in this picturesque town of 24,000 in the Allegheny Mountains, consider the words of William (Moose) Matthews, assistant athletic director.

We've flirted on the edge of greatness so long that we are dying to get into the middle and we're going all out to do it. That was one reason we got rid of Jimmy Sharpe.

"We are in a position where we couldn't gamble any more. Time was running out."

Given the coniditions, problems and history of VPI, one has to wonder why Dooley gave up his comfortable position in Chapel Hill for a hornet's nest here?

"I came here because Virginia Tech has a lot of potential," Dooley said. "A lot of work has to be done, but everything is here.

"How are things right now?" Dooley repeated a question.

"If things were in good shape, I wouldn't be here in the first place."

Indeed, he wouldn't.

Dooley's predecessor, Sharpe, is a smooth-talking, likeable man from Montgomery, Ala. He thought he'd be at Virginia Tech for decades. He lasted four years.

He is now the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Mississippi State.

"Getting fired hurt because I loved my players so much," Sharpe said. "I know I did more good there than I did bad."

Although Sharpe was often criticized for his off-field behavior, described as "wild" by some of his critics, and his not always going through proper channels to obtain things he wanted, a spokesperson for the Virginia Tech athletic council said Sharpe was let go "because he didn't win enough games. It's that simple."

"Oh yeah?" says Sharpe.

In 1973, the year before he came, Virginia Tech yielded more points than any team in the nation and finished 2-9. In his first season, 1974, Sharpe went 4-7. Tech was 8-3 in 1975 and 6-5 in 1976.

"I had ideas of what I felt was necessary for a winning program, and I didn't have a lot of cooperation from the people above me," he said. "The things we did, we did in spite of them. But I know we didn't do anything wrong in dealing with the players. We taught sound fundamental football and we never gave up. We were close to having a first-class program, and I needed support and cooperation to put it over. But it was a constant fight, for the smallest thing or for something big. I didn't want to fight with them over things. I just said I'll go ahead and do it my way. They said, 'No you will not.'

"We were not as successful at Virginia Tech as we could have been because we didn't have the people at the top who knew how to make us successful and they wouldn't listen.

"When you deal with young people, you have to teach them pride and class, so we were successful at Virginia Tech because that is what we did. I don't care how many games we won. If the alumni says, 'Forget about all that jazz, winning is all that is important,' I still say that should not be and winning is not at the top of my list.

"They asked me to resign and i said no. I told them I never taught my players to quit and I wouldn't quit," Sharpe said.

Defensive back Gene Bunn, a senior to be, said, "He (Sharpe) was like a father to us. There were a lot of things outside the game itself that the big wheels didn't like about him, but we all loved him.

"My first reaction when I heard about him getting fired was to try and get him back," Bunn added, "but I found out quickly that it was impossible."

If it weren't for the Vorhies death, few people outside the state would know, or care, about Virginia Tech.

"Bob Vorhies' death put Virginia Tech on the map and in the minds of people from coast to coast," one alumus said. "That's a sad thing to say about your alma mater, isn't it, but it's true and they are trying to change all of that by getting rid of Sharpe and becoming a national power. It just isn't that easy to do."

Vorhies collapsed and died in his dormitory room after he had run a punishment drill, Nov. 21. He had been punished for drinking and having beer in his room. He was 18 years old.

His punishment consisted of a number of sprints, exercises and laps around an indoor practice field, after the team went through its regular practice.

About an hour after the drill, Vorhies died.

The school announced the following day that he had died of a heart attack and did not acknowledge until a few days later that he died after a punishment drill.

"It just happened," said Bunn. "It's hard to accept because it was after punishment drill. If it were after a practice, people would accept it easier, but Bob is still dead and that's unfortunate.

"I went through the same drills, he went through, a number of times. When we get into trouble in the dorm, we have to run. The nonathletes have to go before the school board and could be expelled. If the choice is between running and the school board, I'll take running every time," Bunn added.

"It seems that with a new coach it is easier to forget about what happened," said fullback Mickey Fitzgerald. "The school and the coaches were all cleared. That's good enough for us."

It is not good enough for Jerome Vorhies, the dead youngster's father. He is bitter and says his son would be alive if it weren't for the punishment drill.

A special grand jury in Christiansburg, Va., near Blacksburg, was called to resolve questions concerning Vorhies' death.

The county coroner said Vorhies had died of cardiac arrhythmia, a disturbance in the heartbeat, and said there are probably some relationship between the drill and Vorhies' death, but there was no way to prove the connection.

The grand jury decided that there was no basis to conclude that anyone at the school was guilty of wrong-doing or neglect in the incident and no charges were filed.

"I think it was proven that there was no wrongdoing," Dooley said. "It was tragic, but those things happen. There's nothing we can do about it now."

Virginia Tech has first-rate facilities for all sports.Its football stadium seated 41,000 last year and will be expanded to 53,000 for next season. Incredibly, plans are to expand to 90,000 seats - if they were expand.

Tech has pleasant, somewhat secluded campus with 80 percent of its students coming from Virginia.

The athletic council has given Dooley virtual carte blanche to do whatever he feels needs to be done to make Virginia Tech a winner. Also the council is hoping it doesn't take Dooley forever to produce.

"Virginia Tech will be there someday," Bunn said. "I just hope I'm still around when it happens.

And Jimmy Sharpe?

"I have no hard feelings. All the kids I coached know the value of winning, but they know other things, too. This whole thing has made me a better man and made me better able to help young people.

"I intend to be a head coach again, and soon."