Special Team Unbeaten and unabashed Virginia Tech has proved itself worthy of playing for the national title

December 06, 1999

As the final seconds of the game elapsed last Friday evening,
Virginia Tech president Paul Torgersen rushed from the north end
zone of Lane Stadium, along the sideline and toward the home
bench, where he would join in the celebration of the Hokies'
38-14 victory over Boston College.

He paused to pluck from the mud a small sugar cube, one of the
thousands that had been thrown from the seats, stared in wonder
at it through his wire rims and wrapped it in his fist while
nodding resolutely to himself as if the impossible had just come
true.

What was the word Torgersen had used four days before the game?
Perturbation. That was it. He had sat in his office, housed in a
limestone castle at the center of the Blacksburg, Va., campus,
and marveled at the success of the Hokies. "I don't consider us
to be in the same league as Nebraska or Florida State, in terms
of being a football school," he said. "This year is a
perturbation." A 67-year-old industrial engineering professor
who has been Virginia Tech's president since 1993, Torgersen
flipped open a dog-eared dictionary to check himself.
"Perturbation," he said, tracing the definition with his index
finger. "'A disturbance of the regular.' Does that sound right?"

Damn straight it does. The Big East-champion Hokies, outsiders
in the closed society of football powers, have crashed the
party. The win over Boston College completed their first perfect
regular season (11-0) in 81 years and left them in position to
play Florida State for the national title in the Sugar Bowl,
pending only the release of the final Bowl Championship Series
rankings this Sunday. It also left Virginia Tech fans with the
giddiness that comes only in tasting sweet success for the first
time. "Right now, this campus is in a fog of exhilaration," said
James Robertson, a distinguished Civil War scholar who has
taught history in Blacksburg for 32 years. "There's an
excitement here, every day, that's almost akin to Christmas."

In the aftermath of the win over BC, fans tore down both
goalposts and carried not only coach Frank Beamer and brilliant
redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Vick from the floor of the
stadium, but Torgersen as well. The field was awash with fans in
maroon and orange clothing, a distant cry from scarcely a decade
ago, when Beamer walked across the campus and saw students
wearing baseball caps and T-shirts from Georgetown, North
Carolina and Notre Dame, but none from Virginia Tech. Now,
campus bookstores can't restock Hokies gear fast enough, and
soon Tech fans presumably will paint Bourbon Street in their
colors.

Presumably. To play in the Sugar Bowl, the Hokies must finish
first or second in the BCS ratings, a complex and secret formula
that factors into play poll rankings, computer ratings, team
records and strength of schedule. Florida State, also 11-0, is
already guaranteed the No. 1 spot, and Virginia Tech, the only
other unbeaten team from one of the six major conferences, is
No. 2. The Hokies' margin over No. 3 Nebraska more than doubled
last week, which seems to ensure their place in New Orleans, but
they will have to await the outcome of Saturday's Big 12 title
game between Nebraska and Texas and the final BCS numbers.

If Nebraska were to end up in the Sugar Bowl, it would be an
embarrassment to college football because this season Virginia
Tech has outscored its opponents by an average of 41-10 and won
just one game--a 22-20 victory at West Virginia--by less than a
touchdown. It defeated four ranked opponents (Virginia,
Syracuse, Miami and Boston College) by a combined score of
167-28 and beat the three opponents it had in common with
Florida State (Virginia, Clemson and Miami) by 39 more points
than did the Seminoles.

The long view is even more arresting.
One-hundred-twenty-seven-year-old Virginia Tech--the school's
unwieldy full name is Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State
University, hence it was long known as VPI--is situated on a
beautiful campus of limestone buildings in the small town of
Blacksburg, which sits on a scenic bluff, 2,100 feet above sea
level, between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. Tech's
engineering program is nationally respected and the major of
more than 5,100 of the school's 21,180 undergraduates. The
Hokies have played football since 1892--largely without effect,
even on their own campus. "Football games were something you
attended if you had nothing else to do," says Jean Arnold, a
Mobile, Ala., attorney who was president of the class of 1974.

Against this backdrop Virginia Tech's rise to national
prominence rivals Kansas State's as one of the most remarkable
ascents in recent college football history. Unlike K-State, the
Hokies were never ranked by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED as the worst
program in the nation, but they also never aspired to greatness,
laboring for most of their history in either the now defunct
Southern Conference or as an independent. "I marvel at what
they've done," says Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel,
"because I don't know why it happened."

What happened was that on Dec. 22, 1986, Virginia Tech athletic
director Dutch Baughman hired 40-year-old Murray State coach and
Tech alumnus Beamer as coach, a serendipitous marriage of man
and job that often is lacking when colleges seek builders for
their football programs. "So many schools hire good coaches who
don't know the place where they're going," says former Syracuse
and New England Patriots coach Dick MacPherson. "Virginia Tech
got a guy who understood the whole package."

He understood it because he had grown up in Tech's shadow.
Beamer was raised on a 70-acre farm in the tiny village of Fancy
Gap, an hour south of Blacksburg. He was one of four children
born to Raymond, an assistant county highway engineer, and
Herma, an elementary school teacher.

One story explains much about Beamer's childhood and his
fortitude: In 1954, when Frank was seven, he was helping burn a
pile of trash. After the job was finished, he took the push
broom he'd been using into the garage, unaware that it was still
smoldering. The broom ignited a can of gasoline, which exploded
in front of Frank. His 11-year-old brother, Barnett, rolled him
in the dirt outside the garage, extinguishing the flames, but
Frank was left with severe burns on the right side of his neck,
shoulder and chest. He underwent 30 operations over the next
four years, most of them unsuccessful attempts at skin grafts.
"I remember feeling sorry for myself a lot," says Beamer. "Then
my mother would walk me down the hall of the hospital to see
some people who were really hurting, and that would take care of
that." A long scar and permanent swelling are still visible on
the right side of his neck. He also has disfigured skin on his
chest and shoulder from the burns and on his back and knee from
the grafting.

Despite his injuries he became a star quarterback at Hillsville
High and a 5'9", 170-pound starting defensive back at Virginia
Tech from 1966 through '68. "There's no denying that this school
is a special place to me," says Beamer, who majored in
distributive education. For several years after his return as
football coach, his experience was more agonizing than special.
Burdened by NCAA penalties levied against the program of
Beamer's predecessor, Bill Dooley, the Hokies won a total of
five games in Beamer's first two years. They improved to 6-4-1
in '89, 6-5 in '90 and 5-6 in '91, but a 2-8-1 disaster in '92
put Beamer's job in jeopardy. "Plenty of people wanted us to
fire Frank," says Dave Braine, who was Virginia Tech's athletic
director at the time and now holds the same position at Georgia
Tech. Braine and school president James McComas stuck with
Beamer, although they told him to fire three assistant coaches
and gave him the money to hire ostensibly better ones.

Since that crisis Virginia Tech has won 64 games in seven years
and, by Jan. 4, will have played in a bowl in seven straight
postseasons. This apparently was achieved without any sudden
lowering of admissions standards for football players. "It
hasn't happened here, and it won't," says Torgersen. Rather, the
advent of Big East Conference football in 1991 gave the Hokies
access to major bowls and some opponents--principally Syracuse
and Miami--that recruits would find attractive. One of the
assistants hired in '93 was Phil Elmassian, who installed a
variation of the attacking, eight-in-the-box defense that would
become the rage across college football in the mid- and late
'90s. That defense gave the Hokies an identity, as did Beamer's
fanatical emphasis on special teams. Since '87 Tech has blocked
75 kicks in 149 games and scored 57 touchdowns on defense and
special teams, including eight in '99. In Blacksburg this is
called Beamer Ball.

Virginia Tech has grown into a national championship contender
with few nationally recruited high school players. There are
three reasons for this: One, most top recruits haven't been
interested in the Hokies. Virginia tailback and Heisman Trophy
candidate Thomas Jones of Big Stone Gap, Va., who was wooed by
Notre Dame and Tennessee, among others, has to drive past
Blacksburg on his way to Charlottesville, yet says, "I never
considered Virginia Tech." Two, Virginia Tech has done an
exceptional job in keeping many good--if not nationally
pursued--Virginia recruits at home. This is no small factor,
because Virginia talent has long been underrated. "Only Florida,
Texas and California are clearly superior," says MacPherson.
Three, Beamer's staff has been astute at finding less-renowned
players who fit Tech's attacking defensive system and, lately,
its multiple offense, and then making them into solid players.

On the current team, All-America senior defensive end Corey
Moore of Brownsville, Tenn., was dumped from Tennessee's
recruiting list in his senior year and wound up in a junior
college before going to Blacksburg as a 200-pound lineman (SI,
Oct. 25). The other starting defensive end, fifth-year senior
John Engelberger, walked on as a 210-pound tight end and now
weighs 269. Junior cornerback Ike Charlton grew up in Orlando as
a Florida State fan, but the Seminoles dropped him from their
recruiting list in his senior year. Andre Davis, a 6'1",
200-pound sophomore wideout who caught two long touchdown passes
against Boston College and improves with every game, was a high
school track star and, until 11th grade, a soccer player in
Niskayuna, N.Y. His cousin, Rich Bowen, had played at Virginia
Tech in 1995 and sent the coaches a tape of Davis playing
football as a senior; the Hokies staff liked what it saw.
Because of an injury, Shyrone Stith, a junior tailback, only
played in five games as a senior at Western Branch (Chesapeake,
Va.) High, but Virginia Tech took a chance on him, and he has
rushed for more than 2,000 yards in his career. "We just don't
believe in lists," says Beamer. "We believe in finding players
that we like by talking to people we trust."

They believe in lists a little more now. The Hokies' success
over the past few seasons has put their recruiters in the homes
of many top-rated players, and Beamer and his staff now straddle
the fence between joining the chase for the highly coveted
players or continuing to pursue the unwanted.

There's no chance of Beamer's becoming unwanted. Last winter he
interviewed for the openings at Clemson (which went to Tommy
Bowden) and South Carolina (Lou Holtz). He was offered neither,
but the dalliances pushed Virginia Tech athletic director Jim
Weaver to restructure Beamer's contract. In addition to his base
package of $500,000 a year and a $1 million annuity that Beamer
can collect on July 1, 2005, if he stays at Tech, the school
added annual bonuses totaling $525,000, which can also be
collected in 2005, plus a $25,000 annual fee for making Hokie
Club appearances, which Beamer already had been doing. Tech also
dramatically increased Beamer's bowl incentives: He now receives
two months' salary (approximately $30,000) if the Hokies appear
in a bowl game and another $10,000 if they win it, or three
months' salary if Tech makes a BCS bowl and another $15,000 if
it wins it. The national title carries a $100,000 bonus. "We
intend to stay a top program for many years," says Weaver.
Expansion projects costing $15 million, including increasing the
capacity of Lane Stadium from 52,000 to 65,000 by 2003, are on
the board.

All this has made a celebrity of a simple man. Beamer's tastes
run to lazy man's barbecuing in the backyard ("He'll sit out
there for four hours," says Beamer's 22-year-old son, Shane, the
Hokies' long snapper), sandbagging fellow coaches with his 14
handicap on the golf course and listening to Shania Twain, whose
concert he and his wife, Cheryl, attended on Monday night in
Richmond. Yet he refuses to give in to any reverie on the
fulfillment of his or his program's dreams. As he walked through
the postgame darkness last Friday, sidestepping puddles en route
to his office, he said, "What's happened here is the product of
good players and good coaches, nothing else. This is real."

That's easy to say when Vick is your quarterback. A 19-year-old
from Newport News, Va., Vick is the difference between a very
good team and a national championship contender. He's a
mesmerizing player who would be a serious contender for the
Heisman Trophy were it not for the voters' practice of favoring
upperclassmen. Against Boston College he completed 11 of 13
passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed for 76
yards, a figure skewed downward by 42 yards in sack losses. He
threw a 69-yard touchdown to Davis that sailed 63 yards in the
air, and he dropped a 30-yard touch pass down the chimney to
Cullen Hawkins for another score. On short passes his lefthanded
release is blurry-quick. At 6'1", 211 pounds with 4.33 speed,
he's a threat to run on every play. That's why Boston College
coach Tom O'Brien compared Vick to 1993 Heisman winner Charlie
Ward and Syracuse's star of the recent past, Donovan
McNabb--when they were seniors.

A sensational high school player from the talent-rich Tidewater
region of Virginia who was named to several high school
All-America teams, Vick is an exception to the Hokies' no-name
recruiting. His choice came down to Virginia Tech or Syracuse,
where he was hosted by McNabb, whom he idolized. "Syracuse had
him, they were sure of it," says one person familiar with Vick's
recruitment.

Tommy Reamon, Vick's coach at Warwick High and a former pro
football player turned actor who performed the role of Delma
Huddle in the 1979 movie North Dallas Forty, is a potent
influence in Vick's life. "Syracuse was never going to happen
for Michael," says Reamon. "I went 2,000 miles away to Missouri,
and my family never saw me play. It was important for Michael to
remain near his family."

Vick's mother, Brenda, was only 15 when Michael's older sister,
Christina, was born, just 16 when she gave birth to Michael and
20 when another son, Marcus, was born. Brenda and the children's
father, Michael Boddie, were married in 1989, when Michael was
nine. All three older children kept their mother's maiden name,
Vick, as their family name. A fourth child, nine-year-old
Courtney, uses Boddie. Michael's parents raised him with help
from Brenda's mother while Brenda finished high school and took
a job at Kmart. She now drives a school bus and pounds one
lesson into her kids: "Don't have children while you're young."

At Reamon's urging Beamer redshirted Vick last fall, when the
Hokies lost two of their last three regular-season games and
finished 9-3. Virginia Tech upperclassmen salivated in
anticipation of Vick's playing in 1999--"Couldn't touch him in
practice," says Moore--while offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle
prepared him for the college game. Early last season Vick sat
indifferently through a week's worth of quarterback meetings and
got only four questions correct out of 12 on that Friday's QB
quiz. Two days later he was read the riot act by Bustle and
reformed.

On the Tuesday before the game against Boston College, Vick
stood alone in a hallway in the football complex, wearing blue
and black surf shorts and a baggy sweatshirt. "At first I didn't
take things seriously last year, so it was good that I was
sitting," he said. Now? "I'm serious about every part of the
job. People are saying I was the missing piece." He smiled
wickedly, full of the juice that comes with getting better every
day and the thought of making Florida State chase him all over
the Superdome.

First, Vick has another job. It seems his little sister is
having a nasty time convincing her fourth-grade friends that her
big brother is really who she says he is. So as soon as he gets
home for a day or two, he's going to her school. "Time for that
class to find out who I am," he said.

That class and a whole lot of other people, too.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS COVER They Belong! Why Virginia Tech Deserves a Shot at The National Title Hokies wideout Andre Davis COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY Bye-bye, Blacksburg The sun sets on Blacksburg, Va.--and visiting Boston College--as Virginia Tech concludes its 11-0 season with a 38-14 victory at Lane Stadium (page 52). [Leading Off] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG FOSTER Blockheads The Hokies' 75 blocked kicks in 149 games under Beamer have helped give them an identity. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: AL TIELEMANS (2) V as in Vicktory The electrifying Vick (right and opposite page) is everywhere, averaging 5.4 yards per carry and 20.4 yards per completion. COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Swarming These Hokies aren't pokey, holding opponents to 247.3 yards a game, third best in the land. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Wet and wonderful Upon securing their first unbeaten season since 1918, the Hokies gave Beamer a Gatorade bath.

"The excitement here is almost akin to Christmas," says
Robertson.

"We intend to stay a top program for many years," says Weaver.

If Nebraska ended up in the Sugar, it would be an embarrassment.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)