Although the calendar would argue otherwise, folks around Georgia Tech insist that "it's been a hundred years" since the thought of Yellow Jackets football induced severe depression. What had begun with a seemingly innocuous loss in the final Atlantic Coast Conference game of 1986 ballooned into a 16-game conference skid extending for the next two-plus seasons and there were some who wondered if it would take a century for things to turn around.
Apparently, all it took was one Saturday. Winless in its first three games of the 1989 season, Georgia Tech rallied from a 21-7 deficit to beat Maryland, 28-24, in Atlanta then went on to a 7-4 record. Since the Maryland game, Coach Bobby Ross's team has won nine of 10, and when the Yellow Jackets come to Byrd Stadium Saturday to meet the Terrapins, they'll carry a 3-0 record, seven straight victories and the nation's No. 23 ranking.
"We were down for so long and this is such a good group of kids, I was just happy to see them get that opportunity," Ross said after his team beat South Carolina, 27-6, last Saturday on ESPN. "You could see the excitement in their eyes; some people think stuff like television games help recruiting. That may be, but I just enjoyed seeing those kids have such a good time."
In this Saturday's regionally televised game, one of the story lines will be the comparison of two teams that are rediscovering good times -- and the man who is connected to both. Ross was Joe Krivak's predecessor at Maryland, leading the Terps to bowl games in four of his five seasons.
Ross said he initially thought it would take about five years before he'd experience similar success at Georgia Tech but now admits that "we're winning more than I thought we would."
That turnaround began with last season's game against Maryland, a victory that wasn't made sweeter because of his former affiliation but rather because it just came.
"We weren't pointing to them in particular, we were just pointing to get a win period, because we hadn't won an ACC game at all," Ross said. "We were lucky to beat Maryland, being down like we were. But after that game, just to get the win, the biggest change was the confidence factor. Then we played better the next week and beat Clemson."
Krivak said yesterday that Georgia Tech's resurgence is due to the fact that it has better players than in previous years. Ross disagrees to some extent, citing the "mental battle" that his players had to win before victory could be achieved on the field.
The truth has components of both. Linebacker Calvin Tiggle, a senior from Fort Washington, said that in previous seasons Georgia Tech's athletes were good and that "it was just a matter of time" before things came around.
"I realized it last year, even before the start of the season," Tiggle said. "That team worked hard but things didn't go right at the start of the season. Even then we didn't feel like we were losers, we stuck together like a family and we're still sticking together now."
That also pleases the coach, who had just three weeks to recruit before the start of his first season in Atlanta, then suffered the loss of nine scholarship players before the start of the next season.
"We've been able to control things like that better, we've kept a sense of stability," Ross said. "That includes the coaching staff -- we've had just two coaching changes in the four years I've been here. Any starting point is having good players but we always got good players. What we've done now is stop the attrition."
Georgia Tech also has been helped by the fact that its players are much faster than the ones from previous seasons. One of them is sophomore quarterback Shawn Jones, who has passed for an average of 176 yards per game while throwing three touchdowns and rushing for a pair.
"I think that they had a great defense during Bobby's first two years there but they didn't have that kid at quarterback," said North Carolina Coach Mack Brown. "Shawn Jones is such a big factor; he can run, he can throw, he can make a play that's not there."
The Yellow Jackets have not allowed a touchdown this season, giving up seven field goals in victories over North Carolina State, Tennessee-Chattanooga and South Carolina.
The unit, which is ranked in the top 10 nationally and led by free safety Ken Swilling, already has 10 interceptions. That statistic is why, according to Tiggle, the circumstances between last season's game with Maryland and the upcoming one have been almost entirely reversed.
"I thought that last year was more of an ego thing for them, they thought they'd just come down and beat us," he said. "I don't know if they'll be that confident this year -- they've seen our record and they know we can play."