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Program Twilight, and the Talent Factor: Looking at the Hokies Then and Now

Before the Beamer Era, we could count our number of NFL players drafted with a deck of cards or so. Talent is the key to everything, so let’s take a look at when that began to shift for the Hokies before we look at the Talent issue in general. Hokies first, always.

The high point of a difficult season. 2018 Commonwealth Cup Celebration
John Schneider - SB Nation

We talked about the variables in an equation, (Money+Prestige)*NFL Draft=Talent, that leads to the factor that all teams need to win championships; Talent. We aren’t just talking about player talent, though that’s a major component. We are talking about the total talent picture of a football program and an athletic department constructed to recruit and use that talent effectively. There are quite a few issues to cover, but the first one is the story of the Virginia Tech Hokies, and the rollercoaster of events and acquisitions that brought us to this point in the Twilight.

Talking Virginia Tech Starts with the Fighting Gobblers

The Hokies have, over the past 50 years, experienced most of the variations related to talent and winning. In the 1970’s (71-77) the Charlie Coffey and Jimmy Sharpe teams played competent pro-style football, and produced modest records in modest conferences (mostly 1-AA) as an independent (Don Strock was a Charlie Coffey QB). The issue became something of a minor match of wills. The academic side of the school had little interest in football in particular and intercollegiate sports in general. The feeling back then was that the school was going to make its reputation with quality engineering and agricultural sciences, not football. Jimmy Sharpe’s disaster of a 1977 season (3-7-1 - Suffered through that one. It was sad.) sealed his fate, and brought in Bill Dooley, the name Virginia Tech, instead of VPI, and the Hokie Bird instead of the Fighting Gobbler. It took Dooley a few years to build up a pool of talent that could attract bowl attention, and managed to grab an invitation to the 1980 Peach Bowl. It also was an eight-year struggle as the athletic department and the school tussled. There were law suits and settlements… and a few people were forced to resign including the school President.

The entire affair and eight-year Dooley tenure did change something, though. It brought us national attention, three bowl games of which we finally won the Peach Bowl of 1986 with a 10-win season (because of the Temple forfeiture of all of its games). It also brought us Bruce Smith and a number 1 draft pick. There were other talented players before Bruce, but he added that other factor to the mix. Virginia Tech finally had a top-level draft pick, and that school name would flash on TV screens for every sack or story registered about Bruce Smith. It’s our own example of how Talent is how championships are won… Talent brings money, prestige, and NFL exposure, which brings in talent, money, prestige… you get the picture the (M+P)*N=T equation feeds on itself. It also causes the reverse to happen.

Virginia Tech saw that after 1987, the recruiting controversy, the NCAA sanctions taking away scholarships, the firing/forced resignation of the winningest head coach in program history, and then the hiring of a relative unknown 1-AA head coach and VPI alumni Frank Beamer in 1987. The beginning of the rest is not history that many people would like to reflect upon.

Changing the Direction and the Tone

The immediate Hokie lesson to learn in the 8-year transition period of Bill Dooley is that regardless of the politics and the interest level of the administration a determined Athletic Director and Coach (Dooley was both) can make critical changes that turn the Money and Prestige factors around. That effort is then rewarded by Talent acquisitions like Bruce Smith, who then go on to create an up impulse in the self-reinforcing feedback loop. If it weren’t for the acrimony of the charged recruiting violations, NCAA scholarship sanctions, and then the sour departure of Dooley is talent acquisition spiral would have improved as Tech’s record and prestige improved. The past is the past, and what happened, happened. It took Frank Beamer every bit of six seasons to get the program turned around. Tech’s new, barely above the horizon Prestige, was in the basement, and the newly interested Hokie Nation was restless.

Something interesting happened, though. Frank Beamer developed his own talent pool. Tidewater and Southside Virginia were long neglected recruiting zones. The players from those regions filtered into the ACC on teams like Clemson, North Carolina, NC State, and even Maryland (back when it was an ACC School). There was a sort of ripe for picking aspect to a Virginia born and raised coach who was fully aware of Oscar Smith, Booker T. Washington, Bayside, Hampton, Denbigh, Phoebus, and the high schools in Danville and Lynchburg. Those schools really didn’t pop into the minds of many college recruiters. Well, they overwhelmed the mind and imaginations of Frank Beamer and Bud Foster.

Talent Is More than Players on the Field

Speaking of player talent, there is another critical accelerator in the spiral, and that’s coaching talent. In fact, the coaching talent is the launching point for all positive spirals. Most great coaches have three things in common; time, money to spend on the program, and access to talented assistants. If folks really hadn’t noticed, college assistants seem to flow with their head coaching mentors. That is until the head coach runs out of steam, or the assistant is so attractive that they receive the chance to build their own “system”. That’s right, it’s a “system”. Coaches that learn to break the downward spiral and give positive impulse to their management of the Money, Prestige, and NFL prospects (this is work folks… almost as difficult and “tightropey” as recruiting), the program will begin to attract talent, just like a big planet attracts asteroids and other interesting stuff; just call it Program Gravity.

So, We Invent a New Football Term: Program Gravity

The early Dooley led program gravity at Virginia Tech rapidly evaporated. We didn’t see too many standouts in that environment; but there were some remnants and those players left only a tiny bit of any sort of momentum for Frank Beamer to build on. No one is going to pretend that his first six seasons were anywhere near the “prestige” level enough to grab more than the occasional three- or four-star recruit. Between the ‘87 season and the ’92 disaster there was only mediocrity and the Big East was taking a chance. One thing, though, the inclusion into the conference led to some ready-made prestige. The return of a full scholarship cabinet also added benefits.

The “disaster” of the 2nd Big East season (first one was 5-6 but only one conference game was played) 1992 scared lots of folks because the 2-8-1 record included only a 1-4 record in the conference. That’s were a good deal of forbearance; and a huge amount of coaching skill made a major turnaround. The first layer of Talent caught, and the death spiral stopped. Tech’s 1993 season 9-3 record was only 4th in the conference; but the Independence Bowl win started something that the program still hasn’t finished (though sometimes the skin on the teeth was a bit thin). That 1993 season was also the start of the Bowl Streak. It also marked a major change in the self-reinforcing feedback loop. There was some Prestige enhancement happening because Frank Beamer’s teams were beginning to form a personality and a method of doing things. The concept of a difference making special teams squad started to take shape under Bud Foster who later bloomed into the role of Defensive Coordinator (’96). Foster added some panache and branding to the Virginia Tech Defense when he brought the famous Lunch Pail out in 1995. That sort of imagery brings working Talent to the main parts of the defense, and starts attracting the four- and five-star recruits that generate more wins that bring in more recruits. Suddenly “Beamer Ball’s” spark ignited, and the Prestige badge glowed hot.

The Gravity Switches On

The 1995 Sugar Bowl win over Texas lit the afterburner on the (Money+Prestige)*NFL Draft=Talent feedback loop. Within the 10-year period between 1995 and 2011 when the 10-win season record for Frank finally snapped, Tech attracted unknown hard working three-star players who form the major portion of any program (some even developed way beyond their ratings). There is no doubt that the 2-3 seasons between 1995 and 2000 attracted the likes of Michael Vick, D’Angelo Hall, Tyrod Taylor, The Adibi Brothers, the Hall brothers, the Fuller Brothers, and the Edmunds Brothers (who bridged into the Fuente era). It brought offensive line talent that got drafted, like Will Montgomery and Duane Brown.

The Beamer Era Prestige was also enhanced by some incredible championship seasons for both the Big East (3) and the ACC (4). Of course, the #2 ranking, undefeated regular season, and near miss of the 1999 in the National Championship game against Florida State would produce the largest talent draw that Tech had seen in most of its history. In fact, Michael Vick is still sited by some recruits as the reason why they were attracted to Virginia Tech.

All Things Do Cool a Bit

The pilot light on the feedback loop has sputtered a bit. Tech’s draft exposure has been small over the last 9 seasons. The NFL “hero” status has been more of a solid group of journeymen and more than a few assistant coaches in both the pros and college.

Right now, the Fuente Era is having a bit of trouble keeping the pilot light lit. He managed a return to the 9/10-win category in the 2016 season; but then began to shed experienced players in subsequent seasons. The lack of a consistent player flow, consistency at quarterback, small size on the Offensive and Defensive Lines, combined with overall loss of Talent on the defensive side of the ball has resulted in a team that is still searching for an on-field identity.

The near complete coaching turnover of the last three seasons has also pulled down the search for talent in old stomping grounds. Tidewater (now known as its area code, the 757) has become prime recruiting territory for schools that hit the golden tone with more than one of the Money, Prestige, and NFL Prospects variables. The Virginia talent is making a bee line for Alabama, Ohio State, Penn State, Clemson, LSU and the like. So, Justin Fuente is doing what Frank Beamer did, only in other territories. He’s grabbing 4-star talent from Florida, shopping Texas and even California. So far there haven’t been any big 5-star pickups, but a steadier stream of 4-star and high 3-star recruits are beginning to show some promise. It is still just ‘promise’ though, not the big ‘P’ of prestige. That slipped away by 2015 and will have to be re-earned. The new coaching Talent is really wet behind the ears, and has to prove itself.

The program is still in the Twilight, and it’s too early to tell if it’s the dawn twilight, or a longer trip through the evening. Let’s hope it’s the former, and not the latter.

Next Up, what Talent means in terms of Money (more feedback into the loop equation).


Sources for the schedule and personnel information come from: