CHARLOTTESVILLE -- All in all, it seemed heavenly. As a rose-orange blanket of sunset covered the University of Virginia, the nation's top-ranked football team finished its work on a practice field and other students, some of whom had been reading literature while taking ease in rocking chairs outside their rooms on the historic Lawn, moved through the fading light to dinner. It isn't your ordinary State U., even if its football team is No. 1.
This Saturday, Virginia is in the rare position of defending its extraordinary football ranking against No. 16 Georgia Tech while trying to advance to a perfect season and prove to a national television audience, scores of bowl representatives and an unprecedented 350 reporters on the scene that it belongs lumped with such traditional football powers as Notre Dame, Nebraska, Auburn, Illinois and Houston -- even ahead of them. "The season would be destroyed if we were to come out of the game losing," said Herman Moore, the Cavaliers' outstanding receiver.
That's how much the players care about winning on Saturday. It's enough to give their coach, George Welsh, even more the look of a man whose shoes are too tight. He's cautioned them not to leave their emotions on the practice field, counseling them to "build" toward Saturday afternoon so that, as quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Shawn Moore put it, "we'll be ready to burst out onto the field and play a good game."
The rest of the student body seems to be approaching Saturday properly. The students can be counted on to pour out their emotions (and a few cool ones) on game day, but the anticipation was certainly muted enough on a brilliant midweek afternoon to allow academics their full flower. Outdoor classes were the order; various teaching assistants addressed students seated amid the fallen leaves. This scene was repeated in McIntire Amphitheatre, on this lawn and that, and on the Lawn, which is not just any grass.
"In the medieval world . . . " one TA was saying.
And another: "Sometimes I make harsh comments, but I mean it only in a constructive way . . . " That was the harshest thing heard on a day filled with all sorts of possibility in the precious setting that surely was imagined centuries ago by . . . you know who.
Speaking of 'Hoos, as in Wahoos, the other Virginia nickname, all kinds of variations of 'Hoos sweatshirts and T-shirts, never before seen, are hung in store windows along University Avenue near the Lawn. The shirt "Look Hoos No. 1 in the Nation" is said to have been the inspiration of a medical student who, being in his fourth year, had a few moments to think of less weighty matters. Since Virginia is going for its eighth victory, the "7-0" shirt might only have a closet shelf life.
As Charlottesville legend has it, "Wahoo" stems from the 1890s and a baseball rivalry with Washington and Lee. Their students supposedly began chanting "Wa-hoo-wah" at the Virginia players. For some reason Virginia adopted the name in 1893.
A Wahoo could be a fish, a bush, a tree, a great cheer or, as a Wahoo said, "anything you want it to mean." What it means now is No. 1.
This is stunning since the only history lacking here involves football.
All right, there was Bullet Bill Dudley, and Don Majkowski, and quite a few outstanding players in between. But history? Virginia managed only two winning seasons in the 29 years before Welsh's arrival from Navy in 1982. He's brought winning seasons and bowl games and now a national ranking that makes him wince as if it were a curse. No, he doesn't "enjoy" being No. 1, but, yes, he can "appreciate" it.
He spends parts of six days every week trying to downplay Saturdays.
He's making it hard on himself.
A trim man of 57 with angular features, once the quarterback of Navy's 1955 "Team of Desire," Welsh had to meet this week's media army that's arrived here near the foot of the Blue Ridge in a large room with portraits of former school football heroes, all of whom wore hightops.
"Well, what would make you happy?" he was asked.
"Probably having a polka band and a lot of friends from home."
He's from Coaldale, Pa., a region where high school football rivalries from town to town were intense as he was growing up and knowing how to polka was imperative "or your social life wasn't any good."
Many of Virginia's undergraduates, while smart enough to know who brought them winning football and certainly all in favor of a social life, find the coach slightly quaint and like to mimic his way with words when it comes to important football games. WUVA radio had this "imitate the coach" call-in the other night: "We play 'em one at a time . . . " intoned a Welsh sound-alike. Then there was this one caller who really did sound like the coach, objecting to this nonsense. (It wasn't; he was planning for Georgia Tech, of course.)
Welsh would have to admit Virginia autumns have never brought such wisps of conversation as these: Citrus Bowl . . . Cotton Bowl . . . Sugar Bowl . . . Orange Bowl . . . Hope the weather stays this way until Saturday . . . ESPN . . . CBS . . . 350 press credentials! . . . He's tough; he likes to hit . . . A great pro prospect . . . I'd just like to ask him about his future . . . Heisman Trophy . . . It's a madhouse . . . A zoo . . . Where's this room where Coach Welsh is going to be?"
Orange "V's," attesting to football's recent status, have been painted on University Avenue. One notion had it that the letters were put down with a vegetable oil base paint that would easily wash away, but it's rained several times since and the "V's" are still fresh. The painters must have believed that Virginia football would endure beyond the Clemson game.
Newsmen are staying this week in motels up to 40 miles away, allowing them drive time to appreciate the foliage. Press box seats have been added. Space for bowl scouts has been doubled. The sports information office is running on two fax machines instead of one. The Daily Progress, of Charlotteville, came out Wednesday with a whole supplement: "The Brawl For It All!"
School administrators, meanwhile, are urging caution during what they hope will be a victory celebration. Celebrations are nothing new here, but football ones are and they can get tricky because goal posts can be involved and Cavaliers still are proving how they can handle their goal posts.
The University Journal reported that the Student Council withdrew a resolution that would have encouraged students to "restrain themselves from running onto the field during football games and tearing down the goal posts after the game." But the sponsoring council member reportedly agreed that it would be "more efficient to let students know through a letter in the local news media that 'they should think before they rush the field.' "
John T. Casteen III, the university's president, will be among Saturday's expected record crowd approaching 50,000, and he even will travel next week for "part of the game" at North Carolina, missing a part only because he has to make a speech. As one who believes that top-quality academics and athletics can coexist, Casteen gave an appreciative nod to Welsh, saying, "George has proved a point this season."
Almost inevitably at a school where obscure quotes from the founder have a way of appearing on test essays to support arguments, Welsh was asked what he thought Mr. Jefferson would have thought about his school being No. 1 in football. Welsh said he wasn't sure but that a recent caller to his radio show suggested that Jefferson would "be flying the team plane."
"He was talented enough in so many different areas," Welsh added. He read one biography of Jefferson after he got the coaching job here, but for more definitive answers about Jefferson's thoughts Welsh would feel better equipped after he reads the late Dumas Malone's six-volume biography, a set of which Welsh's wife had autographed for him. Given his time constraints, Welsh plans that reading in retirement, which no one here wants to see soon.