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Gobbler Country Hokie Round Table: Is Lane Stadium Losing Its Intimidation Factor?

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We are sporting a losing record at home this season. What gives? The crowds are quieted, and disappearing early. The show is hyped and thunderous, but then it’s over. What gives?

Entrance ODU 2017 was very different and the game was, too.
John Schneider - SB Nation

We are 1 and 2 at home this season that is seriously out of whack. We were seeing on field issues as late as last season (remember that fade that I mentioned in the first roundtable article). Even though the goal line stand with Pitt was tremendous, it should have never come to that. This season our home field advantage is gone, or at least hasn’t really shown up.

What is up with our Lane Stadium performances over the last two years? Subtext: If it’s a game against a semi-decent opponent (see: Pitt last year, GT this year) the team underperforms (and this sort of ties into coaching issues)?

John Schneider

So, Sandman and all, Lane Stadium looks like it’s losing both its intimidation factor, and its momentum booster. We seem to be having a real problem. Look, this sort of morale level really can’t be hung on much else but the players themselves.

The show is what it is. The Athletic Department has invested a great deal of time, money and effort in the entrance. The mystique of how tough Lane is to win in has largely ebbed away. I have to call this a curious combination of things.

First, though the players “buy” into the “not in my house” sort of emotion, it’s becoming less fashionable and less meaningful to people who are here for reasons other than “Virginia Tech”. Face it; most of the players on the field are trying to get to the NFL. Tech has been snake-bitten by alarming numbers of “early outs” starting with Michael Vick. I am sure that there have been others, but Vick was the first high profile early NFL departure that actually smarted. It did because the team the next season was amazing, and had Vick been behind center it might have actually gone to and won the National Championship Game. That team was that good. So, since then there is no “legacy penalty” for leaving early and never graduating from the school? Now, quite a few players did and do leave early, with their degrees in their hands with a year of eligibility left. Some move on to other programs, Trey Edmunds comes to mind. Some get drafted in the 1st round for a team that is currently leading the AFC North and improving every game, Terrell Edmunds. Tremaine and Settle leaving early seem to be the new standards. They see no more benefit to playing college ball, so we were only a stepping stone. That sort of attitude seems to be so pervasive; now, the concept of the collegiate athlete is becoming a joke. What’s more, the fans are seeing it too.

The problem is that Lane is intimidating until it isn’t, and it’s a game to game, season to season thing. Last year, and the year before, it was nearly impossible for the opposition to run an offense. The crowd was so loud in 2016 and 2017 that it actually became a factor, accounting for around two dozen offensive procedure penalties. This season that number looks to have been close to zero. It seems that the Lane Stadium crowd would rather get a jump on beating the traffic out of the parking lots. Win or lose, the stands are half empty and relatively quiet by the middle of the 3rd quarter. The lateness of the games lends to that urge to beat feet when it looks like there isn’t much to “see” anymore. That’s regardless of a win (if a blowout) or a loss that looks like we won’t be coming back. The crowd nearly evaporated after Notre Dame by the beginning of the 4th. It was dwindling worse for Georgia Tech. Many people streamed out to the parking lots and shuttles at halftime. The flow increased with each Georgia Tech running play that couldn’t be stopped.

The reality for this season is that folks are showing up for the big show at the opening, and then losing interest. Is that generational? I cannot say for sure, but I see NFL stands relatively empty and the TV ratings plummeting. I see people who don’t have the money to spend to go to games and pay premium prices for everything. I also see a lot of people who won’t do that if the team is going to struggle. Fan is still short for “Fanatic” and Fanatics don’t much like attending poor performances.

Yes, Lane Stadium looks like the luster and intimidation factor is waning as the season wears on. Funny, I don’t know if winning games consistently will change the momentum. I think that we are looking at a major cultural shift where sports become niche events of limited appeal and revenue opportunities. The new generation really isn’t all that interested and the older ones don’t have the spare cash and time to make up the difference.


Joshua Schneider

I think that the biggest issue that obviously comes with ‘home field advantage’ is team quality. It’s really easy to do great at home when your team is significantly better than the opponents that they are facing. Right now it looks bad because, face it, the Hokies aren’t as good a football team as people would like. But I really get tired of the athletic department saying that we’ve got another sellout when obviously we can’t fill the stands. There’s a corner on the east stands that never fills in despite whatever they say.

Part of the problem is we’ve got a fanbase that even when we have success, even when sellouts are announced, never fills the stadium. It’s part of the problem of being a university four hours away from both of your major population centers and alumni bases. Unless your team is going to be QUITE GOOD, no one is going to bother to be arsed to get to your stadium, it seems. The Hokie fanbase is passionate, sure, but generally it isn’t backed up monetarily with donations, attendance, or revenue that puts us where we want to go. 44th in revenue and demanding a top 10-20 product is an eternal teeth-gnashing joke for me.

Now look, part of the issue that I fully understand is that a lot of Tech alumni don’t particularly have the cash to spare. Especially up in Northern Virginia, the cost of living is rather high other than MAJOR markets like San Francisco, LA, and New York. And those cities have between them two football teams that matter, both in LA. To quote Stevie Ray Vaughan, money’s tight, nothing’s free. But considering there isn’t slack being picked up in actual attendance and arrival, it’s not like it’s going to help. The athletic department might like that the tickets are off the shelves, but sold seats and occupied seats are two different things.

On top of that, Dad’s right. This fanbase can sometimes have quite a lot of quit in it. Even when things are going WELL, oftentimes I see people streaming out at halftime and third quarter in a blowout WIN. Obviously this game was a matter of ‘hey, it’s a Thursday Night, we’ve got work tomorrow and need sleep, and this team isn’t doing anything, might as well get a headstart on traffic’; that’s a very practical way of looking at things. But it’s not helping the mystique of the stadium.

At the moment there’s just not a good relationship between the fanbase and the team, honestly. The last several home games I’ve seen a ton of complaints about the inefficiency of the ticket gates. The complaints about the team’s media access policies and the amount of information coming out of the program are getting louder and louder. Granted, Frank was a pretty open book, and most stuff that anyone gets out of coaches or players is boring so-and-so, but if your fanbase is telling you ‘it’s hard to get excited when you give us nothing’, sometimes you should listen. When parking passes for football through the Hokie Club at the ludicrously limited parking spots at or around Tech that school controls start at donating $550 bucks for probably only going to one game? That’s not going to cut it at this university. Tech’s fanbase has proven to be pretty fickle and tight with its money. We don’t have the blind, rabid faith that the big blue-blood programs like Texas, Alabama, Michigan, and Ohio State have. And guess what. In order to compete with that, the fans are going to have to step up, probably before the team does. No one’s going to like me saying this, but everyone has to put their money where their mouth is. If you want better collectively, you have to say so AND be willing to foot the bill for it. Counter-intuitively I hear people saying that they’ll pull money away from the program if things don’t get better; I don’t think they get better until more money goes IN. Alabama pays their strength and conditioning coach $535,000 by USA Today, and they’re THIRD on the list. Virginia Tech is 44th. Their total assistant pool is close to six million. Virginia Tech? 3.38 million. We’re not close.

Lane Stadium is partly a factor of the fans, partly a factor of the team that plays in it. Right now the team isn’t as good as many of the fans thought it was. And right now, the fans aren’t as good- or at least, as generous- as the team needs them to be to compete where said fans want them to. And I don’t know what’s going to give where in this chicken or egg conundrum.


Bryan Manning

I actually think Lane Stadium has lost its intimidation factor a few years back. In the late 90s and throughout the first decade of the 2000s, Lane Stadium was a place opposing teams feared. Not only was the crowd wild and crazy, but the teams were good. That’s the biggest difference. Josh nailed it. If you have a quality team, you’ll win regardless of where you’re playing. Let’s face it, in Frank Beamer’s latter years and throughout the Justin Fuente era, Virginia Tech is an above-average program. That means losing to teams like Pitt and Georgia Tech at home. Where, in past years, VT steamrolled these teams.

The presentation of Lane Stadium is actually elite. Not only does the school have the right people in place to hype up games and increase activities around campus for game-day weekends, the Enter Sandman entrance has taken a life of its own. Everyone in college football knows Lane Stadium and Enter Sandman are synonymous with one another.

But everyone, from fans to the media is getting tired of when the flash and substance of Lane Stadium doesn’t match the results. Let’s go back to the Notre Dame game, that was an amazing atmosphere to be a part of. Yet, when the game began the Hokies looked flat. Of course, they rallied in the second quarter to make it a one-point game before halftime. The second half, though, became a rout in favor of the Fighting Irish. Another big game, another loss. This was very reminiscent of the Clemson game last year.

Then last week against Georgia Tech, the crowd was hyped into the second quarter and then the game fell apart. For the aura of Lane Stadium to return, the Hokies need to win one or two big games. Fortunately, they’ll have multiple opportunities this season beginning this weekend when No. 24 Boston College comes to town. After B.C., two huge rivals visit Blacksburg when original Coastal Division favorite, Miami, and current Coastal leader, Virginia, enter Lane Stadium.

Now, no one will mistake beating either of these teams for beating Clemson or Notre Dame, but you have to start somewhere. If the Hokies want to win the Coastal in 2018, they need need to finish the regular season by winning all three remaining home games. Virginia is not going to come to Blacksburg and lay down for Tech. The Hoos are hungry and believe this is the year the streak ends. Does this team want the streak to end in Lane Stadium?

As John and Josh both said, the fan base could do more, too. As Josh stated above, it’s practical to want to leave the game when the Hokies are blowing someone out to get ahead of the traffic. But how often does that happen at Alabama, or Ohio State or Penn State? If you want to be considered a big-time school, the little things do matter. Not only do the players see it, more importantly the recruits see it, too. How about packing Lane during a spring game. Forget getting 20K people in, how about filling the entire place up. That’s when you know you have a hardcore fan base.

Bottom line, things have got to turn around at home. And it can start happening this weekend. Whether or not I believe this team can win out, they have an opportunity and the rest is up to them. So, Hokie Nation, how about you answer the call on Saturday afternoon, too, and show up and support this team.


Conclusion

What is there to say, really. Homefield advantage is only real when the team and the people who populate the venue are operating on a positive footing. Right now, the fans are half into things, and the team is good half of the time. That seems to be about the right amount of balance.

The Hokies are a 2 point dog to Boston College at this point in the action. That might change as circumstances develop; but probably not in our favor. If someone told me to come up with a title for the 2018 season it would have to be: “The Half but Which?” Tech seems to be able to play a half; if that was enough to win, then we won.

We have BC, Miami, and Virginia at home. We should be loving it. Guess that “ain’t necessarily so” write George and Ira Gershwin.

GO HOKIES!!!