Team traditions: Virginia Tech's cannon deeply rooted in history
The Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets has been an active part of the student body since the school was founded in 1872. Virginia Tech was founded as a military school and remains one of a handful of universities in the United States with an active cadet corps on campus. That rich military history helps explain why there’s so much cannon fire at football games.
For 50 years, Virginia Tech fans (and opponents) have heard “Skipper” booming out during Hokies games. Skipper is the name of Virginia Tech’s working cannon, which fires off a blank blast each time the Hokies enter Lane Stadium and each time they score at home.
As with all great college traditions, Skipper was born out of a fierce rivalry -- in this case, with nearby Virginia Military Institute. VMI and Virginia Tech competed in sports for years, and each time VMI beat the Hokies, students would fire off “Little John,” their college cannon. The VMI cadets also would blast Little John before each rivalry game, then chant “Where’s your cannon!?” Remember, this was pre-Twitter, so chants about cannons were the height of trolling.
In 1963, a couple of Virginia Tech cadets had had enough of VMI shooting off before every game, so they decided to take matters in their own hands. The main masterminds were students Alton “Butch” Harper and Homer “Sonny” Hickam, who collected scrap metal from their classmates in the form of brass plates, buckles, fittings, and spent bullet casings from the school firing range. They found Civil War-era blueprints for a cannon and commissioned a nearby foundry to melt down their scraps. Next, they located a woodworking shop that specialized in era-appropriate wooden carriages for transporting the new artillery.
On November 22, 1963, the cadets picked up the completed cannon and drove it back to campus. During the ride, they heard terrible news: President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas. The cadets decided to name the cannon “Skipper” in recognition of Kennedy’s naval background, and they first fired it in his honor. A few days later, at the Thanksgiving Day game between Virginia Tech and VMI, Little John went off as usual. That’s when the Virginia Tech cadets rolled out Skipper, which was massive in comparison to Little John.
As the legend goes, they never heard “Where’s your cannon” chants again -- possibly because everyone had gone deaf.
Now, Skipper inspires Hokies fans and rattles Virginia Tech opponents during every home game. A special 10-man “Skipper Crew” of cadets is responsible for cannon upkeep and operation, led by a gun captain. The original Skipper suffered a fatal blowout in 1982, but the same foundry that built the original cannon created a new model in 1984. The original Skipper is still on display on campus, and the new Skipper is still blasting off at Lane Stadium -- although it has undergone a few repairs after malfunctioning during a 2010 game against Wake Forest.
As for the two cadets who built Skipper? Harper penned this first-person account of building the cannon, while Hickam became a writer, NASA engineer and the inspiration for the film October Sky. That’s right: The guy who wanted to build a bigger cannon eventually graduated to rocket-building.