Kickoff between No. 22 Virginia Tech and Virginia may not come until this afternoon in Blacksburg, but the contest between these two in-state rivals heated up months ago -- off the field.
Sitting in the stands at Lane Stadium today will be nearly 25 recruits, all football prospects visiting the campus hoping to decide if they want to play for Virginia Tech (8-3, 3-3 Big East), a team which has lost three consecutive games after starting the season with eight victories and is, accordingly, desperate to stop the slide before traveling to face No. 1 Miami next weekend.
Some of those same recruits already have watched a game at Scott Stadium during a visit to the campus in Charlottesville and watched Virginia (8-4, 6-2 ACC) overcome its own midseason slump with consecutive victories the past two weeks against No. 21 N.C. State (14-9) and No. 25 Maryland (48-13), its most decisive win this season.
On the field, the Hokies and Cavaliers will square off for state bragging rights and to improve their respective bowl positions, but in the process they will be vying for an even more important victory -- in recruiting.
"The coaches don't say it, it's something really that they barely touch on, but it's something that's understood," said Virginia Tech senior safety Willie Pile, a 1997 graduate of West Potomac who also was recruited by Virginia. "If the talent is going to stay in-state they are either going here or to U-Va. So it's understood that winning this game is important. Because U-Va. is a school that's just across the way, we battle every year. Some of the younger teammates I have now wouldn't be here if Virginia Tech wasn't in the position it has been recently."
For years, Virginia had the edge luring local prospects. Consistent success in the ACC under coach George Welsh was enough to entice top recruits. But the tide began to change in the mid-1990s, when Virginia stumbled just as Virginia Tech began to rise. The Hokies, who are one of only seven teams nationally in the midst of a streak of nine consecutive bowl appearances, were winning the recruiting battle while improving their facilities and stadium capacity to match Virginia.
"How many seats do they have up the road?" Beamer would often, if jokingly, ask. "Well, we need more."
But when Virginia brought in Al Groh to replace the retired Welsh two years ago, it was an automatic spark to the Cavaliers' program. Groh's NFL coaching experience and proven record was pitted against the consistency of Beamer's program and the continuity of his coaching staff. The recruiting war was back on, and dead even.
Two of the state's biggest prospects a year ago, quarterback Marcus Vick of Warwick High and linebacker Ahmad Brooks of Hylton, were heavily sought by both programs and ultimately split. Vick sided with his brother Michael's alma mater; Brooks committed to Virginia.
But as soon as Brooks was forced into a stop at Hargrave Military Academy to improve his academic standing, the Hokies began their pitch again. Rumors were flying among fans at both schools at last week's home games on where Brooks could end up next season, an obvious indication that the recruiting rivalry between these two teams -- and their coaches -- has heated up.
"We've got the same lawyer," Beamer teased this week when asked about his relationship with Groh. "We bump into each other every once in a while -- we just don't have reason to be buddy-buddy. But I've known him for a long time."
The two coaches -- both graduates of their respective universities -- agree that winning this game isn't as important as their respective conference championships. But Groh also added that, "Anybody who's involved in this game that tells you that it's not a significant game isn't being forthright with you.
"Games like this are fun, those kind of rivalry games. If you ask me about being [a coach in the NFL] with the Giants, what do I remember? I remember the games with the Redskins. You ask about the Jets, I remember the games with Miami. It's just those kind of games that bring out an intense competitive spirit in all the participants."
The impact that winning the annual meetings actually has on the recruits' decisions is unknown.
"I'm sure that [recruiting ramifications] are there, but that's just part of it," Groh said. "Our team didn't win the game last year and we got a lot of good players."
Said Beamer: "I think recruits, most of them, make their decision on the personality of the school and I think that the personalities of the schools are very different. Whether they like the players there and whether they like the coaches there, whether they like the school itself, that's what they should make their decision on. It shouldn't be on who wins a particular game."
Pile, though, said that while it is the school and the coaches' styles that really impacts the recruiting process, make no mistake: "You also want to play for a winner."
In addition to recruiting clashes, the rivalry between these two programs also is strengthened by personal ties that connect the players and creates a healthy desire to beat a friend from back home or a former high school teammate.
"It's just bragging rights when you go back home," said Virginia sophomore guard Elton Brown, a Hampton native who is friendly with several Tech players. " . . . When they're riding high, they call me, so when we're riding high, I call them."
Brown isn't the only one. Cavaliers center Zac Yarbrough attended Fork Union Military Academy with Virginia Tech defensive end Jim Davis. Several other players from the two schools attended the same high schools, with 65 of the 100 players in Virginia Tech's program growing up in the state and 50 of Virginia's 95 players doing the same.
"This is one that you never want to lose," said Virginia Tech quarterback Bryan Randall, who is from Williamsburg.
Virginia Tech leads the all-time series 42-36-5, and none of the current Cavaliers has played in a win against the Hokies, who have won three straight in the series. Only three of them were even on the team when Virginia rallied from a 29-7 deficit to win in Blacksburg, 36-32, in 1998. For seniors such as Billy McMullen, Angelo Crowell and Jerton Evans, this is the last chance. Of course, they're not the only ones eager to end Virginia Tech's three-year win streak. Even out-of-towners such as Cavaliers quarterback Matt Schaub, named ACC player of the year this week, has warmed to the rivalry since arriving from West Chester, Pa.
"There's a lot of hype around it from all directions," Schaub said. "It's a great contest to play in toward the end of the year when it means a lot for both teams, as it does this year."
And with only eight seniors on the Cavaliers' roster and 12 on the Hokies', in the coming years the annual grudge match could mean even more in regards to rankings, bowl games and recruiting.
"This rivalry divides the state," Pile said. "It has to. You have to choose. You're either for one team or the other. You may know people on both teams, but you're either maroon-and-orange or you're orange-and-blue. You can't be both."