The team mascot is a dancing turkey. The players are called the
Hokies. The school's official name is the Virginia Polytechnic
Institute and State University, and one of its most celebrated
basketball heroes is named Bimbo.
If all this doesn't exactly sound like a recipe for athletic
greatness, keep in mind that when Dave Braine accepted the job
as Virginia Tech athletic director on Jan. 1, 1988, he had yet
another teeny-weeny hurdle to clear. Both the Hokie football and
basketball teams were on NCAA probation. "Applicants for the job
weren't exactly lining up at the door," Braine remembers.
Maybe they couldn't find the door. After all, Tech is located in
Blacksburg, an outpost deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of
western Virginia, a town affectionately known to most
nonresidents as Bleaksburg. "I don't want to say the place is
remote," says Tech football coach Frank Beamer, who has lived in
the area most of his life, "but you drive through Mayberry and
Mount Pilot to get here."
But Braine had a few ideas. First, he re-signed the popular
Beamer, a former Hokie player with no connection to the NCAA
violations, to a long-term contract to reconstruct the football
team. Then in '91 he hired Bill Foster, who had already built up
three college programs--at UNC Charlotte, Clemson and Miami--to
revive a moribund basketball team whose biggest previous claim
to fame was the 1973 NIT title it won with forward Allan
Bristow. In '90 Braine maneuvered the Hokie football team into
the Big East, and last summer he initiated the basketball team's
shift from the soon-to-be-defunct Metro Conference into the
Atlantic-10, locking up the significant television revenue that
comes with major conference affiliation.
Suddenly Virginia Tech is the feel-good hit of the winter. The
Hokies basketball team has no high school All-Americas, just
overachievers spurned by most other programs--the Foster children
of college hoops, so to speak. But after last Saturday's 71-55
demolition of La Salle, Virginia Tech was 9-1 and ranked 11th in
the latest AP poll, the team's loftiest ranking ever. This
hardwood success follows fast on the heels of the best football
season in Hokie history. On New Year's Eve, Virginia Tech capped
its Big East conference title by stomping Texas 28-10 in the
Sugar Bowl, Tech's first major bowl appearance, to finish 10-2
and 10th in the AP poll.
"If anybody had told me in 1988 that this year we would win the
Sugar Bowl and our basketball team would be in the Top 15, I'd
have said, 'What are you smoking?'" Braine says. "But all you
need are a few athletes with the courage of Ace Custis."
That would be Adrian Llewellyn Custis, a junior forward on the
Hokie basketball team and the poster boy for the entire Virginia
Tech athletic program. The closest thing to a star on a team
full of no-name players, he has traveled a hard road to get
where he is today.
Custis grew up in Eastville (pop. 310) on Virginia's remote
Eastern Shore. His father and mother separated when he was a
baby, so Adrian, his two sisters and his brother were raised in
a trailer home by their mother, Barbara, and stepfather, George
Ruffin. Adrian spent a lot of time with his grandfather William,
who referred to the boy as his "number one ace," a nickname that
seemed to suit the kid far more than his given name.
Ace and his brother, Antonio, who was four years older, grew up
playing hoops in the backyard, shooting at a rim 11 1/2 feet
high. Because there were no asphalt courts and no YMCA, and the
school gym was kept locked all summer, Ace and Antonio played
for hours on dirt courts, watering the surface with a hose
between games to keep the dust down. Ace always vowed he would
one day beat his brother, but he never got the chance. Early on
a Saturday morning in March 1988, Antonio was driving along
Route 13, the main road that bisects the Eastern Shore, when he
fell asleep at the wheel, crashed and died. "When I saw the
person that I had idolized lying under that sheet, I just wanted
to give up," Ace remembers. "It was like I couldn't go on
without my big brother. Eventually I decided that every time I
went out on the court I'd play for Antonio and myself."
Ace became a star at Northampton High in Eastville, but the
summer before his junior year, in '90-91, he began to worry that
he wouldn't be noticed by college recruiters because he played
in such a remote area against weak competition. So in hopes of
attracting some notice he joined Boo Williams's All-Stars in
Norfolk, one of the most-renowned AAU programs in the country.
In order to attend a practice and a game each week, Ace had to
drive via the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which meant each
three-hour round trip cost him $18 in tolls, plus gas money. He
did it even though he started out as the last man on the bench
for a team that included future college stars Allen Iverson and
On July 18, 1991, Ace's 19-year-old stepbrother, Anthony, was
shot to death in a neighborhood argument. On the day before
Anthony's funeral, Ace had to decide whether to attend the
service or join his AAU teammates for a tournament in Jonesboro,
Ark. With a heavy heart, Ace went to play ball. "I wanted to pay
my respects to Anthony, but I had to do my best to get somebody
to notice me," Custis recalls.
Sure enough, it was during that tournament that one of Foster's
assistants spotted Custis and began recruiting him. Foster
eventually offered him a scholarship in the early signing period
in November, and Custis accepted on the spot.
But just two months later, lightning struck again. Just like his
brother, Ace fell asleep at the wheel while driving home on
Route 13. Soon after midnight on Jan. 25, 1992, his car flipped
and landed on its side in a ditch, about three miles from the
spot where Antonio had lost his life. Ace suffered a broken nose
and jaw and some facial lacerations, but he stumbled to a nearby
relative's house, where, after seeing his injuries in a mirror,
he fainted and was rushed to the hospital.
Custis missed two months of his senior season while on the mend
and lost 18 pounds during the time his jaw was wired shut, but
he arrived fully intact at Virginia Tech the next fall. Then on
Nov. 22, 1992, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his
left knee during practice and was lost for the year before the
season had even begun. A week later he called home, determined
to quit school. "He told me he was giving up," his mother says.
"I reminded him that he'd come so far, survived so many
heartbreaks, there was no way he was leaving school."
After redshirting for the '92-93 season, Custis returned the
following year and made the Metro Conference All-Freshman team
as the Hokies finished 18-10, their first winning record in six
seasons. As a sophomore last season, he averaged a double double
and topped the conference in rebounding--despite standing only
6'7"--while leading Tech to its second NIT title. He was the
first Hokie since the inimitable Bimbo Coles, now with the Miami
Heat, to be voted first-team All-Metro.
"When I look back at my life, it's like a puzzle," Ace says.
"It's hard to figure out. I've had my share of setbacks, but
I've grown stronger each time."
Custis, who averages a team-high 15.0 points and 10.7 rebounds,
is the centerpiece of a team stocked with replaceable parts, a
group so alike that three Hokies are named Shawn and three
others are named Jackson. Nine Virginia Tech players have
already scored in double figures this season.
The word TRADITION, in maroon block letters, is bolted to the
wall of the Hokie locker room, but until recently a fair
question would have been: what tradition? After all, Tech hasn't
even participated in the NCAA tournament since '86. Last year
the Hokies finished the regular season with a 20-10 record but
were snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee. "In the
eyes of the NCAA establishment, Virginia Tech is like a bastard
at a family reunion," Foster says. "Our acceptance is a slow
process, but we're becoming harder and harder to ignore."
In the five seasons that Tech has been a football-playing member
of the Big East, the Hokies have played on national television
25 times, more than the previous 12 seasons combined. They will
have six regular-season basketball games on national television
this season, the first such games since Foster became coach.
Tech is now grasping the meaning of revenue sports. The football
team earned $3.5 million from its affiliation with the Big East
last season, and the basketball team will finally turn a profit,
as a member of the Atlantic-10. Even the women's basketball team
has reached the NCAAs each of the last two years, its first bids
"The secret is getting out about our little school lost in the
mountains," Braine says. "Hey, a lot of people don't know where
State College is, but they know Penn State. People don't know
where Blacksburg is, but they know Virginia Tech. I hope people
will start to see us as the Penn State of the South."
It is this brand of optimism that guides the entire staff at
Tech. When a friend told Foster recently that there was a 70%
chance of rain on a day he had planned to play golf, Foster
replied, "Well, we'll just play in the 30 percent sunshine."
Foster types a snippet of wisdom at the top of every practice
schedule. He then asks a player to interpret it. Foster's
favorite is "The road to success is always under construction."
Foster should know. He has spent his 29-year career weaving
straw into gold for 503 victories at five schools, but he is
still regularly confused with the Bill Foster who coached Duke
in the late '70s.
Tech is almost certain to earn a spot in the NCAA field, and in
the midst of this magical year in Blacksburg you can't ignore an
intriguing coincidence. Foster will turn 60 on April 1, the same
night that the NCAA championship will be decided. "It sure would
be great to still be playing basketball on my birthday," Foster
says. "Wouldn't that be a wonderful end to the fairy tale?"
A hokey climax to a Hokie story.