Tight end Ken Whisenhunt, not quite clad in a towel, stood in the raucous Georgia Tech locker room and spoke like an oil baron who remembers all the dry holes. Last January, the 6'3", 237-pound Whisenhunt found out the day before he was to attend an NFL scouting camp that the NCAA had passed the retroactive redshirt rule, giving him the chance to return for a fifth year of college ball. In his four years the Rambling Wreck had gone 11-32-1, a record that included but a single victory in each of his first two seasons.
"In 1980, when I was a freshman." Whisenhunt said, "I had to play six positions: tight end, wide receiver, running back, quarterback, defensive back and linebacker. I played quarterback in the Notre Dame game, and we tied the No. 1 team in the country 3-3. I didn't know what I was doing." Now he assuredly did, and so, it seems, did all the Yellow Jackets. Tech had whipped highly touted Clemson 28-21, halting the Tigers' ACC winning streak at 20. and was 3-0 for the first time since 1970. "I came back," said Whisenhunt, "because I knew what this team could do."
But no one knew better than Bill Curry, who's in his fifth year as Tech's coach. The Yellow Jackets were 1-7 in 1983 before winning two of their last three games and coming within an eyelash of upsetting Cotton Bowl-bound Georgia in the season-ender. Three days later, Curry called a team meeting—"while that feeling of accomplishment was still fresh," he says—and had his returnees, 17 of whom were starters, write down their goals for '84.
Though the squad was supposed to keep its goals private, Curry publicly spoke of one of his at a Tech booster club dinner in May: He guaranteed that the Rambling Wreck would win the ACC championship this season. After finishing strong in '83, the Yellow Jackets had looked promising in spring practice. Curry knew that Tech wouldn't play Maryland and that, because of Clemson's ACC probation, the game against the Tigers wouldn't count in the conference standings. Most important, he knew that, for the first time since returning to his alma mater as head coach, he could look at the squad's two-deep and really call it a depth chart.
October 7, 1984
"A great team creates what appears to be a bludgeon," Curry says. "Every time it comes on the field, it hammers you in different ways. If you've got a crack, it will find it, and you shatter."
Last Saturday the instrument was more scythe than bludgeon. Tech dangled senior tailback Robert Lavette, the man who brought break-dancing to artificial turf, as a decoy and then sliced the aggressive Clemson team into ribbons. Quarterback John Dewberry staked the Rambling Wreck to a 21-0 halftime lead by artfully utilizing the naked bootleg to pass for 188 yards and a touchdown and to run for 57 yards, and fullbacks Keith Glanton and Chuck Easley cut against the grain for a combined 108 yards and two touchdowns, including Easley's game-winner with :33 left.
The 6-foot, 192-pound Lavette gained 69 yards on 23 carries. Admittedly those aren't very good stats for a prospective first-round pro draft choice who has rushed for 3,232 yards and scored 36 touchdowns in little more than three years. He had picked up a total of 286 yards in his first two games this season. But stats don't show that Clemson keyed on Lavette all afternoon. "He made a lot of great two-yard runs today," Curry said. And Lavette said, "Everywhere I went, the whole defense went with me."
"We knew they were a much improved ball club," said Clemson coach Danny Ford, whose Tigers, 26-23 losers to Georgia two weeks ago, are now 2-2. "But I guess it didn't soak in too good."
How hard could it have been to realize Tech was for real? The Yellow Jackets had whipped Alabama 16-6 and The Citadel 48-3. Entering Saturday's game they led the nation in scoring defense (4.5 points per game) and total defense (193 yards per), were sixth in total offense (467 yards) and ranked in the Top 10 in four other categories. "It's hard, awful hard, to believe that a consistent loser is really good," Curry says. "When I played, the coach would get up and say, 'This team has really improved,' and we'd get out there and look across the line and there would be the same guys we beat the year before. 'Them?' we'd say. 'Beat us?' "
Curry, 41, played for the best: Bobby Dodd at Georgia Tech, Vince Lombardi at Green Bay and Don Shula at Baltimore. Curry also played on three world championship teams, two with the Packers, one with the Colts. A two-time Pro Bowl center (he weighed 248 then, but he has dropped 53 pounds) and president of the NFL Players Association from 1973 to 1975, Curry retired before the '75 season and spent four years as an assistant before returning to Tech to replace Pepper Rodgers. Thus began a painfully slow learning process.
"Things come very tough to me," Curry says. "I don't learn easily. That's why I was an offensive lineman." A smile takes its well-worn place on his handsome face, but his eyes remain locked on his questioner. It's a riveting stare. "I'm serious. I needed the repetition a lineman gets in practice. It took me three years to become an established Little Leaguer. It took me four years to start in high school football. I was in the fourth game of my fourth year before I started here, and when I got to the NFL, it was four or five years before I found myself. There were things here I should've done better earlier, like game management, program management, staff selection, recruiting, the whole matrix that is this job.
"There's a story about Thomas Edison. He was working on the light bulb, and he had gone through something like 14,000 experiments, and someone asked him if he ever got discouraged because he had failed so many times. 'Those weren't failures,' he said. 'Those were 14,000 things that don't work.' "
Curry, who attended theology school for a year after college, has a strong sense of right and wrong and an almost evangelical sincerity about him. "I went to theology school with all the answers and left with none," he says. "I haven't had the illusion that I was holier than thou since I was 22."
A lot of folks around the ACC might question that assessment, particularly after his speech last May. Predicting that the Yellow Jackets would win the league title was the tamest thing he said. "Right before I went up to speak," Curry says, "my wife, Carolyn, asked me, 'What are you going to do?' I said, 'I'm going to light this place up.' She said, 'Oh, no!' "
After guaranteeing the ACC title, Curry said, "What we're doing here is a lot more important than winning games. Let me tell you about the opposition. They cheat, they're vicious, they're dishonest, and they corrupt young minds. They will cheat and sacrifice young minds with drugs [steroids] or whatever it takes to win. We have identified the enemy, and it's more than a game. If you stick with us, we not only will catch them, we'll bring them to their knees."
Curry says now, "You have to understand the context of the remarks. This was 500 Tech people. I was excited. I wanted to get them going." The row his talk started amazed him. "It was flat-out distorted by some people, and I was amazed by the reaction," he says. "I had said the same things many times before. I don't regret it at all. Any attention we can bring to the problem is good." He still refuses to name names. "It would be unethical," he says. "We have forums provided for us by the NCAA. But don't ask me to say everything is wonderful and nobody is cheating."
Curry's idealism helped him land one of the best defensive coordinators in the country. A year ago 41-year-old Don Lindsey was fed up with college football. He'd been a part of the defense for four national championship teams—one as a graduate assistant at Alabama and three as defensive coordinator at USC—but in November he left Arkansas after three seasons, sick of the constant pressure to win and of recruiting kids who didn't have a chance to graduate. "I spent 16 years of my life thinking that the world would stop if there wasn't football," says Lindsay. " 'The ball doesn't have air in it! Oh no! The Russians are gonna come get us!' "
Lindsey spent four months relaxing and looking into business ventures before being slowly reeled in by Curry. "Bill's persuasive because he's a good man," says Lindsey. And Lindsey, on the evidence, is a good coach. "We couldn't slow down the Little Sisters of the Poor last year," Curry says. "This year, with the same guys, there's been a big difference."
Lindsey's stunting defense is built around one linebacker, usually the best athlete, called the Strike or, occasionally, the Bell Cow. "Defense is recognition and reaction," says Lindsey. "If I know where they're going to run the football, that's where I put that person." His current Strike is 6'4", 232-pound junior Pat Swilling, who had a game-high 13 tackles against Clemson.
The Tigers gained 375 yards, most of them in the second half, when quarterback Mike Eppley ran the option to perfection and tailback Stacey Driver rushed for 95 of his 131 yards. With 10:36 to play, Clemson had made up the three-touchdown deficit, but Tech didn't fold. "There's a lot more leadership this year," Whisenhunt says. "Last year we were a great first-half team, and then we'd get beat in the second half. We beat North Carolina and Auburn in the first half, and we lost both games."
After Clemson kicked off with the score tied 21-21, Tech faced a third-and-nine at its own 31-yard line. Dewberry flipped a screen pass to Lavette in the left flat. There was seemingly no room there, and no room five or 10 yards upfield, either. However, with a fake here, a, stutter step there, Lavette somehow gained 19 yards. At least three Tigers grabbed nothing but air.
"What he does is make you miss," says Seattle Seahawks scout Rick Reiprish. "He's got a good initial move." Says Tech's running back coach. Rip Scherer, "He has great vision. He doesn't have Tony Dorsett's great burst of speed, but like Dorsett, he sees things. I ask him. 'Why did you make this cut?' and he doesn't know."
Tech stalled at the Clemson 47, and Yellow Jacket safety Clive Pounds downed the ensuing punt on the three-yard line. Clemson picked up only one first down, and Tech got the ball back at its own 46 with 5:19 to play. After breaking a couple of fullback traps, Tech had a first-and-10 at the Tiger 14, where Lavette once again was bottled up on the left side. "Our defense was on the field for most of the second half," he said. "I was fresh. I was going to make something happen." He cut inside, bounced off several defenders and juked his way to the one. Two plays later, Easley scored. "Robert just got it down there, and we won the game," Curry says. "The fullback plays and the naked bootlegs were all based on Robert."
At Cartersville (Ga.) High, Lavette ran for 5,870 yards, and before enrolling at Tech he hadn't been on a losing team since he was 11 years old. In his first game as a freshman he scored two touchdowns in a 24-21 victory over Alabama, but Tech didn't win again that year. "I was frustrated," he says. "I really hated the place. I considered leaving, and I went in to talk about it to Coach Curry, and he was as frustrated as I was. I thought, 'Wow! It can't get any worse.' "
Lavette gained 1,208 yards and scored 19 touchdowns as a sophomore, but last season, hampered by a sprained ankle and a queasy stomach after eating pregame meals of steak and eggs—"I threw up during plays and in my stance," he says—his totals dropped to 803 yards and five TDs. Now he eats carbohydrates before games, and so does the rest of the team. "Everybody complains that it's my fault," says Lavette. "I think some guys sneak off to Burger King."
No one has thrown up this year. After all, winning is a lot more palatable than losing.