On Saturday, Virginia Tech finally walks into the football room of that exclusive athletic club known as the Atlantic Coast Conference. The way many Hokies figure it, that's 51 years and a few months overdue.

"I think we should have been in the ACC when it was formed in '53," said Tom Gannaway, who earned two degrees from Tech, a bachelor's in 1946 after he'd served in World War II and a master's in urban and regional planning at age 48 in 1973.

Director of Athletics Jim Weaver wants the Hokies to be pleasant but pushy partners.

"I challenged our entire department," Weaver said. "We want to be competitors in everything we do. We're going to take this next year to assess each and every person in their respective roles to see how we can get better across the board."

The football assessment begins here with the Hokies close to a four-touchdown favorite in the league opener against Duke. Most observers in the preseason picked Virginia Tech to finish in the middle of the league, but its competitive showing in a loss to top-ranked Southern Cal and 63-0 mauling of Western Michigan has caused at least some slight rethinking.

The conference schedule seems as benign as even Tech partisans could expect, as the Hokies avoid Florida State and play pivotal games against North Carolina State, Virginia and Maryland at Lane Stadium. The nonleague game with West Virginia also is at home.

"New conference, new teams, new competition -- of course you've got to get excited about that," senior offensive tackle Jon Dunn said. "I won't say it's a dream come true, but I can't wait."

Neither can fans and players, many of whom thought hard about ACC schools before choosing Tech.

Many of the Hokies' true freshmen agreed with versatile Eddie Royal, who said the new league was "a big deal" in his college decision. Added quarterback Sean Glennon, who considered Virginia and Georgia Tech: "I still might have come here regardless. But that was the clincher."

Coach Frank Beamer has all sorts of ACC connections. Beamer was born in North Carolina and raised in southwestern Virginia. He said his heart was always with Virginia Tech, but that he considered Wake Forest as a high school senior until the Demon Deacon staff decided it did not want a 5-foot-9 quarterback and canceled a scheduled visit.

His first job in college football was as a graduate assistant at Maryland. One of his closest friends in coaching is Maryland's Ralph Friedgen. His first game as Tech's coach, Sept. 12, 1978, was against Clemson. His second was against Virginia (Tech lost both). Some four years ago, he nearly took the North Carolina job that eventually went to John Bunting.

"This is the week we've been waiting a long, long time for," he said.

It's close to impossible to measure the degrees of frustration, disappointment and bitterness for Beamer and other longtime Hokies. In the early 1920s, Tech and dozens of prominent football schools were part of the Southern Conference. Then came several defections, the largest of which became the Southeastern Conference in 1932 and the ACC 21 years later. That explains why Tech has played North Carolina State 44 times, Wake Forest 32 times and Maryland 26 times. It's only played former Big East Conference partners Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Rutgers 42 times combined.

During all the maneuvering, Tech withdrew from the Southern Conference in 1965 and played as an independent before joining the Big East in 1991. Tech was ideally located for the ACC, but never drew an invite.

Still, Saturday's celebration won't be spoiled by any lingering resentment or by the possibility of an inordinate amount of rain from Hurricane Ivan. ACC Commissioner John Swofford will be in attendance, and each fan will receive a two-inch wooden replica of a commemorative coin the athletic department had made.

Joy extends to practical matters for many fans, among them Will and Betsy Cutler. They live about 15 miles south of Richmond -- and road trips to six ACC schools (Virginia, Wake Forest, North Carolina, N.C. State, Maryland and Duke) will be easier than the trips to Tech's home games.

"We were in Greensboro the day after they made the announcement" that Tech had officially been accepted in the ACC," Betsy Cutler said, "and we went to the headquarters, put Virginia Tech paraphernalia on and took pictures."

The Cutlers' emotions are close to universal here: "We're absolutely thrilled."

Virginia Tech's Jimmy Williams (2) and Vincent Fuller trap Western Michigan running back Daniel Marks during Hokies' 63-0 win Saturday.