From Old Dominion, domination

Vick, Virginia Tech open eyes at 8-0, No. 2

November 12, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- They are used to the routine. As the Virginia Tech football team clattered out of Lane Stadium after practice and shuffled into its locker room in an adjacent building Tuesday night, Michael Vick was left behind to retell his story -- and theirs.

"Don't tell 'em no lies," one of Vick's teammates joked as he passed the redshirt freshman quarterback.

It's the story of how Vick came out the state's toughest high school conference, in the shadow of the country's top player; how he chose the Hokies over Syracuse and how he has led Virginia Tech to an 8-0 record and a No. 2 national ranking going into tomorrow's game here against Miami.

It's also the story about how the Hokies have become a legitimate, if still long-shot, candidate for this season's national championship. Ranked in the traditional polls behind only Florida State, they were leapfrogged by once-beaten Tennessee in the latest Bowl Championship Series calculations.

Vick is used to the attention now, as are the Hokies. This will be the fifth time this season Virginia Tech plays on national television, the second time that the folks from ESPN's "Game Day" crew make the trek to a campus tucked into bucolic southwest Virginia.

The Hokies, Vick in particular, have turned heads in this topsy-turvy college football season. His five-touchdown performance against Rutgers was the start. Their 62-0 demolition of the school Vick turned down was the biggest headline-grabber, the most one-sided defeat ever of a Top 25 team.

Tomorrow night's game against the Hurricanes could be what Virginia Tech needs to convince those feeding the BCS computers that the Hokies shouldn't be penalized for an early-season schedule that included games against Division I-AA James Madison and barely I-A Alabama-Birmingham.

"If other teams have lost a game, if Florida State loses to Florida (on Nov. 20 in Gainesville), why not give us a chance?" Vick asked, sitting in near darkness on a bench outside the stadium.

Like many of his teammates, Vick is used to fighting for that extra shred of respect, that sliver of the spotlight. All he heard during his four years as the starting quarterback at Warwick High School in Newport News, Va., was about Ronald Curry, the quarterback at nearby Hampton.

Curry, now a sophomore at North Carolina, was the national Player of the Year as a senior, and, because of that, Vick was not even all-district at his position. But the coaches so respected Vick's talents that they created a separate category -- specialist -- to acknowledge his achievements.

Wrong move by Syracuse

"It inspired me," Vick said of his competition with Curry, which included four straight defeats to Hampton. "I just asked God to bless me when I came to college."

Playing in Curry's shadow proved a godsend for Vick, and ultimately for Virginia Tech. It kept him humble and hungry, and it kept the Hokies in the hunt.

Virginia thought it had signed Curry, so the Cavaliers weren't interested in Vick. It came down to Virginia Tech and Syracuse.

The Orangemen made the mistake of telling Vick that he could become the next Donovan McNabb (the 1999 first-found draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles).

"I thought to myself, `Why not go to a program that's never had a Donovan McNabb?' " said Vick. "Virginia Tech was where my heart was."

Not that the Hokies have been without their stars.

Perennial All-Pro Bruce Smith forged his legend here. Antonio Freeman (Poly) and Vaughn Hebron (Cardinal Gibbons) came down from Baltimore to electrify the fans.

Nor has the program come out of nowhere. It took coach Frank Beamer four seasons to get Virginia Tech into a bowl after his arrival in 1987. The Hokies have made six straight post-season appearances, including trips to the Sugar Bowl in 1995 and the Orange Bowl in 1996.

Some of that success came with a price.

Until two years ago, Virginia Tech was looked upon by some as a poor man's Nebraska, a program that allowed its players to operate under a different set of rules than the rest of the student body. During a 15-month stretch over the 1996 and 1997 seasons, 19 players were arrested, including two for rape.

"I remember watching the Orange Bowl between us and Nebraska in 1996, and they had a list comparing our arrests to theirs," recalled Eric Jacobson, a senior marketing major from Vienna, Va., who now serves as one of the two Hokie Bird team mascots.

Renegade image fades

That image has changed dramatically with the implementation of a comprehensive action plan that began in February of 1997. It laid out a code of conduct for athletes and shifted enforcement from the coaches to the athletic director.

Since then, one football player, who is no longer in school, has been arrested.

"We've now got some programs in place to better educate our athletes," said Beamer.

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