Virginia Tech Coach Bill Dooley likes to enliven his football training table lunch of pressed turkey and fruit cup, so he often asks if anybody would like some ice cream, which then moves him to tell his favorite recruiting story.
Several seasons back, when he was coaching North Carolina to six bowl games in eight years, Dooley took more than a passing liking to a certain high school prospect. He decided he simply must have this young talent, who indeed seemed to feel the same way about North Carolina, until the deadline came around and he suddenly signed with Clemson. When Dooley was finally able to get up out of his sickbed, he made a trip to South Carolina to find out where he went wrong, and the conversation went like this:
"Didn't you like me, son?"
"I liked you, coach."
"Didn't you like my staff?"
"I liked your staff."
"Then what was it?"
"Coach, Clemson has this great soft ice cream at training table."
Naturally Dooley's listeners laugh, and naturally they then say, "You've got to be kidding me," because while most football players would mainline the stuff if they could, ice cream nevertheless seems a pretty frivolous way of deciding on a college. But Dooley just smiles and says, "I'll be right back." About a minute later he returns with a gorgeous, swirling soft cone.
"The first thing I did when I got to Virginia Tech," Dooley says, "was have an ice cream machine put in."
It should be noted in the context of that story that Dooley sent three players to the NFL from last year's 8-4 Independence Bowl team, including defensive tackle Bruce Smith, the Outland Trophy winner who was the first player chosen in the draft, by the Buffalo Bills. This was some kind of accomplishment at Virginia Tech. In fact, Dooley's record of 39-18 and two bowl games over the last five years makes him a giant in the football history of a school that is better known for turning out brilliant young veterinarians.
Never mind that when you drive through the front gates of Virginia Polytechnic Institute a herd of cattle scatters and the first thing you see is the campus dairy. It is the next thing you pass that strikes you as particularly funny: the football arena. A pretty, sunken structure called Lane Stadium, it would be perfectly dignified except for the bold letters that proclaim it the "Home of the Fighting Gobblers."
None of this is to suggest that VPI isn't a fine and modern school, which it is, or that the Gobblers, who have become more commonly known as the Hokies, cannot play football, which they can. It's just that it takes a lot of work and occasionally something like an ice cream machine to lure NFL-conscious teen-agers to this small southwestern Virginia mountain town to play for a little-known team named after Thanksgiving dinner.
Dooley said, "People still say, 'VPI? That's that military school down in Lexington, isn't it?' "
The NCAA, in fact, found some low-voltage irregularities in the recruitment of Smith and seven other Hokies, enough to try to keep those players out of Tech's bowl appearances. Courts overruled the NCAA.
The Hokies open their season Saturday at the University of Cincinnati, unknown again. While an experienced and adequate offense returns, 13 starters are gone overall, eight from a defense that has been the heart of the team for five years. Among the losses was the entire secondary.
"We're a no-name team," Dooley said. "Let's say it's a regrouping year."
But Dooley smiles when he says no-name, and hesitates to use the more conventional term "rebuilding," because that implies that VPI won't really be very good at all. What the Gobblers hope and suspect is that they may surprise a few people with some of the little-known talent that Dooley, the younger brother of Georgia Coach Vince Dooley, has been quietly stockpiling since he arrived from North Carolina in 1978. Underestimated each year, the Hokies last had a losing season in 1979, when they went 5-6.
Virginia Tech's steady improvement has been largely due to Dooley's development of defenses. The Hokies have been among the top 10 in the country in fewest points allowed each of the last five seasons, including 1981 when they went to the Peach Bowl. In addition to Smith, some of the talent Dooley coaxed to Blacksburg includes defensive end Jesse Penn, a second-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys, and defensive back Ashley Lee, recently cut by the Atlanta Falcons.
Dooley had a pretty good idea of how to recruit in Virginia, because he used to mine the state all the time out of North Carolina. After rebuilding the Tar Heels and taking them to six bowls in 11 years, largely with Virginia talent, Dooley was ready to start from scratch again. Offered the position of athletic director as well as coach at Virginia Tech, he decided it was worth a look. What he found buried in Blacksburg was a school rich in facilities, including an indoor artificial-turf practice field, and potential.
"I knew I could sell this," he said. "A lot of people were shocked when I left North Carolina, but it was a new challenge, and I knew I could recruit here. I spent a lot of time telling people they didn't want to stay in Virginia because they couldn't play football for a bowl team. Now I tell them they don't have to leave."
As a result of last year's bowl appearance, Dooley was rewarded with a contract extension through 1994 as athletic director and 1989 as head coach. There won't be any more rebuilding ventures.
"I'm tired of starting from scratch," he said. "You see this gray hair? It used to be brown."
It's a good bet, then, that Dooley has some talent hidden on his seemingly lackluster roster. The chief no-name is Joe Turner, a defensive tackle from Portsmouth who has the job of replacing Smith. The 6-foot-3, 255-pound junior thought of leaving school his sophomore year because he saw no chance of getting playing time behind the Outland Trophy winner. Now he is being given the responsibility of mounting some sort of pass rush along with Morgan Roane, a junior who was "that other tackle" opposite Smith last year, to prevent opposing teams from taking advantage of the inexperienced secondary.
"The stars are gone," Turner said. "We aren't going to get the big hit from Bruce anymore, so the whole defense is going to have to be the star. I'm not going to be Bruce Smith, No. 78. I'm just going to be me, a defensive tackle."
The only returning player with significant playing time in the secondary is a curious fellow named Raymond (Quality) Fitts, a senior cornerback who worked as the top reserve last season when he wasn't practicing his hobby of cutting hair. If most Hokies seem to have the same hair style, it is because Fitts will give you a nice conservative cut he calls "the Philly" for a dollar.
While the Hokies are gaining playing time on defense, the offense led by alternating quarterbacks Todd Greenwood and Annandale High School graduate Mark Cox will have to carry them through much of a schedule that includes Florida, Syracuse, Clemson, West Virginia and Virginia.
The strength of the offense, young and inconsistent in 1984, is in a squad of tailbacks affectionately referred to as "the Stallions." Senior Maurice Williams gained 574 yards last year, Eddie Hunter gained 558, and Otis Copeland, who gained 709 yards in 1983 but dropped out of school briefly last year, decided to return.
"I'm sure a lot of people think that because we lost Bruce and a lot of the defense we aren't going to be as good," Williams said. "But they just haven't heard the new names yet. We'll put some points on the board and let it mature. Each year we do a little more than we did before."