Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2017 and is being re-published now.
We’re living in a different world than we were when West Virginia Mountaineers last took the field opposite the Virginia Tech Hokies. Just think, when these two teams squared off under a Morgantown sun on the first day of October 2005, Hurricane Katrina was a fresh memory, barely 4 weeks old. President Bush was well into his second term and Barack Obama was a guy with a funny name that a few people remembered from a convention speech the year before. Donald Trump was a nascent reality TV star and up in Morgantown Rich Rodriguez was happily coaching his alma mater, well into a program re-build that was still in search of its first bowl win.
WVU hadn’t seen a BCS-level bowl in nearly 12 years and had never hoisted a trophy after one – not that either of those things were on anyone’s radar. Most Mountaineer fans could barely pick Pat White, Steve Slaton or Owen Schmitt out of a lineup and nobody had ever heard of an iPhone. Uber was a fancy way to say “ultimate” and twitter was a thing little old ladies did at tea.
Like I said, it was a different world.
That world was one where every Mountaineer fan hated Virginia Tech, because they knew Virginia Tech. In fact many of us of a certain age probably hated them more than Pitt. To fully understand that hate, though, you had to be there. It wasn’t a rivalry steeped in any deep tradition. There wasn’t grainy footage of Mountaineer fans storming the field around maroon-helmeted players and none of us were weaned on storied games against the Hokies on our granddad’s knee. It wasn’t a hate we inherited, it was a hate we built. It was a hate that was OURS. In the early 90s on through the new millennium we saw a border battle evolve from an annual game to a venom-infused rivalry.
I can tell you exactly when it started: October 7, 1989. I’d celebrated my 10th birthday two weeks before and up until that day Virginia Tech was just a team I knew in passing. My hero Major Harris hadn’t lost any of his last 16 regular season games, and when I made just my second trip to Morgantown to watch him and my #9 Mountaineers, I was positive VT represented another a small bump in the road. I’d even brought the new WVU hat I’d gotten for my birthday to try to get Harris to sign.
Three hours later the Hokies had inexplicably held the Maj to 10 points and won on the strength of 4 field goals. The injury of loss was compounded by the insult of VT players proudly holding a fan-made sign at midfield they’d stripped from the stands. My hat had no signature. It was a bad day.
The succeeding years would stoke my VT hatred as I learned that familiarity really does breed contempt. I attended every home WVU - VT game between 1989 and 2003 (with roadies to VT in 1990 and 1998 tossed in), the lone exception being a thrilling 14-13 win in the magical 1993 season (sidenote: I’m still bitter at whatever moron on the Hayes Jr. High faculty scheduled homecoming for that Saturday - a fact I didn’t realize it until I’d already asked a girl who was a good friend and I didn’t have the heart to crawfish on her for an afternoon with Jake Kelchner. I also didn’t know how great a game it would be).
Most of those trips would end in disappointment for me and every time my frustration with the improving VT program would grow. But it wasn’t just the losing that pissed me off. I’m man enough to admit that the biggest part of my hatred was rooted in good old fashioned envy. As the years passed and the programs went in somewhat different directions, I just couldn’t believe that they were just so damn lucky. And it was the most frustrating kind of luck -that random “right place in the right time” kind of luck The middle manager who started at Microsoft in 1988 and retired on those stock options he’d never thought twice about when he got them. The random housing speculator who got in at JUST the right time in 2003 and made a fortune. It’s not so much their talent or work that feeds the meteoric rise as it is timing that they fell into.
That was always Virginia Tech to me. They were a middling program at best heading into the late 80s / early 90s before they found moderate success in the middle of the decade and made the type of run we see from programs all the time at the end of the decade. Only they happened to do it right as college football became wildly popular and ESPN GameDay an institution. Michael Vick couldn’t have arrived on the scene at a better time and their 1999 undefeated run through the regular season could not have been better calibrated to maximize positive vibes and exposure.
Every time I saw Lee Corso lovingly croon about Vick and company, all I could think of was how my Mountaineers would have been on the receiving end of that same fawning coverage had GameDay been a thing 11 years earlier or had Mama Harris and Papa Harris made their little Maj a decade later. But where timing constrained Harris as a largely regional phenomenon and made his style of play a thing that hadn’t yet been given a serious look by NFL scouts, Vick (in no small part standing on the shoulders of Harris and others of his ilk) became a national superstar and guaranteed #1 pick. The 1988 Mountaineers and 1999 Hokies were in so many ways the same team, separated by 11 years of time and an ocean of circumstance.
So while Major and his Mountaineers were well regarded but ultimately a footnote in the history books, Vick and Virginia Tech became the darlings of college football, riding a wave of positive sentiment that would provide the groundwork for a decade plus of overvalued polling and fawning commentary on the virtues of “Beamerball,” Like Frank Beamer was the first guy to ever realize blocking a punt might be a good thing.
And that was Virginia Tech. A national media darling perennially ranked about 5 spots higher than they really deserved. A favorite of every ESPN talking head and the bane of my existence. To watch coverage of a Virginia Tech team over the last 20 years you’d think they invented special teams and wrote Enter Sandman. I hated every second of it. And I hated it more because they were regularly beating us and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
1999 was the worst. WVU wasn’t anything special that year and seemed wholly outmatched by a VT team that was coming to Morgantown with an undefeated record and #3 ranking. They were on a path to the BCS title game and the Mountaineers were a speed bump in the same way the Hokies had been 10 years earlier. By any logical measure I should have sat this one out. I was by then a junior at the University of Kentucky with a 6 hour drive each way. I had a project due that next week and neither the time nor the money to expend on a fools errand to watch my Mountaineers get slaughtered.
But I had a feeling. It was time for payback.
As the game unfolded it was clear my gut was right and WVU had come to play, riding an uncharacteristically stingy defense (for that year anyway) to a 7-7 halftime tie. Tech built a small lead in the third and then looked poised to put the game away with a score that pushed it to 19-7 with just under 5 minutes remaining. I wasn’t ready to give up yet, though. Brad Lewis, in for an injured Marc Bulger led a quick TD drive to make it 19-14 and as Tech got the ball back and the clock wound under 3 and then 2 minutes, I just knew something was going to happen. I was the lone voice of optimism among my group, turning to my good buddy Dave, a fellow veteran of VT losses and friend since 4th grade and said “they haven’t turned it over all day. They’re due.”
Then Shyrone Stith fumbled.
Lewis took over, drove the ball and lofted a TD pass with just over a minute left. WVU led 20-19 and Mountaineer Field was pandemonium. We’d spoiled their dream season. We embraced. We damn near cried. We all moved down to the front rows, bunching up and preparing for the inevitable field storm.
You know the rest. Vick did Vick things and I spent the next decade going on profanity laced tirades whenever Shayne Graham’s name came up on a fantasty football draft board. We didn’t get our revenge that night.
That night sealed it. I despised Tech as I did no other - even Pitt. I cheered for WVU and whoever was playing the Hokies on any given week. For the first and only time in my life I was happy to see Florida State win a national title when they kept the Hokie trophy case empty at the end of that 1999 season. I hated Virginia Tech more than any other team and I wasn’t even sure who #2 was.
But even though I didn’t know it, the worm was set to turn. Rich Rodriguez took over the Mountaineer program in 2001 and rebuilt it quickly. By 2002 WVU looked like the team we all remembered again and nobody wanted to avenge 4 straight losses to the Hokies more than me. I had the pleasure of watching the game at my new apartment in Nashville alongside a buddy who was a Tech grad. Quincy took off untouched, Grant Wiley stopped them cold and Brian King sealed the deal with his end zone pick. WVU was back.
And then came 2003 and The Conference Split. The new money Hokies, fresh off the only successful run of football their program had ever known, decided to take the money and run to the ACC alongside Miami and Boston College, leaving the only conference that had been willing to give their football program a home in the early 90’s high and dry. It was maddening to watch but once again typical Tech. Right place, right time, right in line to cash that lottery ticket. They were off to the blue-blooded coast where the tailgates drown in chardonnay and the shrimp cocktail glass is bottomless.
We had a parting shot waiting that year though. No way was I going to miss what was sure to be a venom-filled evening of football in Morgantown. I took 2 days off work and drove the 9 hours from Nashville to the Wednesday night matchup in Morgantown (ahh, the old Big East weeknight games!). It was an funny feeling, because while on paper the 2-4 Mountaineer squad seemed once again outmatched by #3 VT, we all felt pretty good about things.
Funny story - a VT fan had the audacity to drive their flag-laden truck into a Mountaineer tailgate in “the Pit.” They were greeted with a full beer can through the air. As the late kickoff approached and the rabid fans grew more and more “lubricated” it was clear something was in the air. I don’t know that I was particularly proud of the way some Hokie fans were treated by Mountaineer fans still angry at the recent conference snub, but I sure as hell was entertained.
It was worth the trip. WVU dominated from the start, shutting the Hokies completely down while Quincy Wilson ran wild. We were treated to the longest scoring pass play in WVU history and I actually got to express my thanks to Rasheed Marshall in person watching highlights in Bent Willy’s later that night.(looking up at highlights on a bar TV) “That was a NICE f—ing pass! ( turns around to see Marshall behind me) “That was a NICE F—ING PASS!!”
The fourth quarter devolved into celebration as one of the pound for pound rowdiest crowds in Mountaineer memory taunted VT players and fans with chants of “ACC!! ACC!!!” I know for a fact any chance of the rivalry continuing after VT’s conference bolt vanished that night as a collection of experiences and complaints from some of the more well-heeled and delicate Hokie donors.....err....fans elicited a vow from Beamer to never return to Morgantown once the contracted games were over. We confirmed that night what we’d always known - VT was soft and they were sore-ass losers.
Tech won a tight 2004 contest and that puts us back where we started: that final 2005 meeting, a 34-17 2005 Tech win that was closer than the score indicated and represented the close of an annual rivalry that had stretched back into the 1950s. The game was most notable among WVU fans (aside from being the lone blemish on a historic 11-1 record) as the breakout performance for Steve Slaton. His 90 yards on 11 carries won him a starting job that he wouldn't relinquish for another 2 and a half years en route to re-writing the WVU record books. Pat White was effective as well, connecting on 9 of 11 for 85 yards and a pair of scores, but he was still only seeing partial duty and the mojo he was to find with Slaton was still 3 weeks away. But the die had been cast.
And unsurprisingly the Hokies took their ball and went home right as the WVU program sat on the cusp of 3 straight 11-win seasons, the creating of an offensive juggernaut and 3 BCS wins in 7 years. That’s Virginia Tech - the right place at the right time, every time. Walking between the rain drops, avoiding disaster like Mr. Magoo. Higher up the preseason poll than they really deserve, bumped up to a new conference on the strength of lobbying from their in-state compatriot (make no mistake, UVa was the driving force behind their 2003 invitation), and then scurrying off the Mountaineer schedule right as the musket was locked and loaded.
But on September 3rd the rivalry is renewed. Sure it’s not an annual right of Autumn anymore, but for a few hours on Sunday it will be just like old times. The Mountaineers will stare across the field at those ugly-ass maroon helmets and get their chance to settle the score. 2016 was a great season and 2017 has the chance to be special. I can’t think of a better way to start things off than vault up the national rankings with a foot planted firmly on the face of an old enemy. Time and circumstance may have faded the feelings that once colored this rivalry, but I can’t wait for a new generation of Mountaineer fans to see the same Tech I saw; an overvalued quantity who’s ridden ESPN studio love and an inflated sense of accomplishment about as far as it can take them - and then some.
It’s time to set things right.