Four years ago Virginia Tech consensus all-American defensive end Corey Moore was an undersized, unknown linebacker at Holmes Community College in Mississippi. Second-team all-American defensive end John Engelberger, seen now as the Hokies' top NFL prospect, was walking on to to the Virginia Tech team as a 208-pound tight end. Wide receiver Andre Davis, then a junior at Niskayuna High School in New York, was a standout on the school's soccer team who never had played organized football.
Now, as 1999 comes to a close, all three are looking ahead to a date with No. 1 Florida State in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4 and a shot at an improbable national championship for the Hokies.
It's players such as Moore, Engelberger and Davis--former no-names who were not heavily recruited as high school players--who epitomize the No. 2 Hokies and their ascent to the school's first taste of competition for a national championship.
It's hard to remember now that the Hokies are preparing for a bowl game for the seventh consecutive season, but prior to this streak, the school had participated in six bowl games--none of any significance. However, it's one thing to become a regular participant in bowl games. Virginia Tech wants to become a regular participant in the national championship chase, not just a visitor to it. Many of the required elements quietly have been falling into place in Blacksburg over the past seven years, but Coach Frank Beamer knows the roots that could secure Virginia Tech's position among the nation's elite teams remain tender and in need of considerable nurturing.
"I think we're fortunate to be where we are because you can see how many great players [Florida State] has," Beamer said. "They made the statement a couple of times that they had like 13 guys that were Parade [high school] all-Americans or something like that, and I said that I had two guys who've been in a parade. . . . That's kind of about the way it is. Our recruiting has picked up, but I think we've been fortunate this time. I think the next time we play in a national championship game, we've got to be better."
Searching Far--and Near
In addition to recruiting, Beamer says there are two other parts to building--and sustaining--a top program. One is having a cohesive and consistent coaching staff and the other is the university's willingness to expand the infrastructure needed to support an elite program.
Despite the unprecedented national recognition Virginia Tech has received this season and Beamer's acknowledgment that top recruits must be brought in, he said his recruiting philosophy will not change. The Hokies' top priority will continue to be winning the battle--against the University of Virginia and other national programs--for the state's top high school prospects.
Of the 110 players on Virginia Tech's roster, 65 are from the state of Virginia. The team's other main connections: Florida (15 players), Pennsylvania (7), New Jersey (6) and Tennessee (4). There are also three players from Ohio, two from New York and one each from Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.
"What you've got, what you can put out on the field and what you can develop all gets back to the players you recruit," Beamer said. "That's what I'm saying, I think next time around for us, when we're playing for a national championship, I'm not sure we're going to get a guy that turns out like an Andre Davis or get a guy who turns out like John Engelberger or get a guy like Corey Moore that does so much.
"But on that side, and I've said this many times, out of the top 11 players [in the state of Virginia] two years ago and the top 11 players last year--that's 22 players in the state of Virginia--we have 11 of them here at Virginia Tech. . . . I think that's what has to continue for us. And if we do that, and I do believe this, we will be back in the championship game again."
There is no better example of this than Michael Vick, the Hokies' boy-wonder quarterback who as a redshirt freshman this season was named a second-team all-American and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. Vick, heavily recruited by many top Division I-A programs, wanted to stay in-state--and that meant choosing between Virginia and Virginia Tech.
This is why Beamer always stresses the importance of the annual game between Virginia and Virginia Tech. It is also why, despite mounds of criticism for having a weak schedule, Beamer never faltered in defending his decision to play Division I-AA James Madison this season.
"It's good for football in the state of Virginia," Beamer said. "We want to showcase the state's schools for the state's players."
But beating Virginia is only a small part of winning recruiting for Virginia Tech. High school players--and their parents--are no doubt drawn to stability. Beamer, in his 13th season with the Hokies, has managed to keep the main part of his coaching staff intact. Billy Hite, the team's assistant head coach and running backs coach, has been at Virginia Tech since 1978--well before Beamer arrived. Offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle, aside from a one-year break in 1994, has been with the team since 1987. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster also came in with Beamer in 1987.
Though all three have received offers to coach elsewhere--most notably, Foster turned down a chance to become Florida's defensive coordinator last year--all have stayed.
"I've got, I think, the best coaching staff in the country," Beamer said. "Not only from a knowledge standpoint but how they recruit and their relationship with the players. And I want to keep that in place so I try to make it a good environment, a good situation for them to coach. And I have such great confidence in them. Rickey Bustle's got that offense, Bud Foster's got that defense and I get in there and mess with the kicking team. If there's something big, we'll discuss it but basically it's theirs. One of the best things around here is that our staff meetings don't last very long because we know each other so well.
"And then I would hope that they feel, too, that we can accomplish everything here that you could with any other program and that we're in the process of doing it. There's something very exciting about doing it and being in that process, too, rather than going to one that has maybe been there before."
There aren't many programs, Beamer said, that can radically improve their status on the national college football scene for the long haul. Virginia Tech is in the process of it. Florida State has done it, basically starting with Coach Bobby Bowden's arrival in 1976. Prior to that time, the Seminoles never had been among the teams in the final Associated Press media rankings.
But moving from the very good to the truly elite level--and staying there--is extremely difficult. Arizona was No. 4 in the final AP poll last season; it didn't go to a bowl game this season. Arizona State went 11-0 in the 1996 regular season, narrowly lost to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and finished No. 4 in the nation; in 1998, the Sun Devils went 5-6.
However, Virginia Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver said he believes Beamer has the Hokies positioned for a long run.
"I see a lot of similarities between Virginia Tech and Penn State because I was there 30 years ago when it first started for them," said Weaver, who played for the Nittany Lions and then coached under Joe Paterno for six seasons. "And I've seen it happen at Florida State and Florida. In all those cases everyone has had a bell cow who was a real keeper. We've got that bell cow in Frank Beamer."
Said Vick: "It was the coaches here, like Coach Beamer and Coach Bustle, that made me want to come to Virginia Tech. And it was the idea that we could do something special with this program. I didn't think it would happen so soon--I didn't expect to be playing for a national championship or to be invited to [the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York] this season--but I knew it would happen. Now the only thing I want to do is get back there."
As for being able to attract the caliber of player who can keep the Hokies in national championship contention consistently, there are skeptics. Allen Wallace, publisher of SuperPrep Magazine, a national recruiting publication, said he thinks Virginia Tech generally will continue getting the same kind of players it has been, rather than the highly touted impact players Beamer talked about needing to get regularly. That means, in Wallace's opinion, someone such as Michael Vick is the exception, not the rule, although Virginia Tech already has received an oral commitment for next fall from Richard Johnson, a quarterback and defensive back from Baltimore who also had visited Syracuse and canceled a visit to Michigan.
"People want to think recruiting is all about image and it is the easy way and what fans want to think about and that if you have one big year or win one more game, then you are on another level," said Wallace, who ranked the Hokies' 1999 recruiting class 31st in the nation. "A recruit will treat their program with more respect now, but whether that translates into better signings, that is another matter. It goes a lot deeper than when a program wins one national championship and is thrust into the limelight with national programs. . . . One great season is certainly commendable, but I don't think it will make a difference in the signing class itself."
Growing for the Future
In any event, for Virginia Tech to have any chance of maintaining this level of success, the program itself must continue to grow. Already in the works is a plan to expand Lane Stadium, which was expanded by 2,100 seats for this season. Before next season a large video screen will be added to the scoreboard and an additional 3,500 seats will be installed behind the north end zone, bringing the capacity to about 55,500. By the 2002 season, Virginia Tech hopes to add 10,000 to 11,000 seats behind the south end zone. By 2003, the school hopes to have added about 1,100 club seats and 40 to 50 luxury suites in a newly renovated press box. That would increase the stadium's capacity to about 65,000.
"Sometimes when you get to a certain level you say, 'Boy, it's good to be here,' " Beamer said. "But my message to all our supporters is that we've got to get that bigger stadium, and we are, but we've got to sell more season tickets, and we will, and we've got to keep our facilities going. . . . We have to keep it all going.
"I realize how fortunate we are to be where we are right now. I also realize that this is just the beginning for Virginia Tech."
Staff writer Josh Barr contributed to this report.