BLACKSBURG, Va. - Charles Steger was attending a conference last December when the concierge at the hotel where he was staying rushed over to show the incoming Virginia Tech president a story from a local newspaper about Hokies quarterback Michael Vick and the team's subsequent Sugar Bowl national championship game against Florida State.
It wouldn't have been surprising, except for the location of Steger's meeting as a member of the board of the World Institute For Disaster Risk Management. It was in London, where sports pages devote as much space to American football - especially college football - as papers in the United States give to cricket.
"That sort of publicity, particularly over there, is remarkable," Steger said last week in recalling the incident.
More than a century after it began playing football, this public university of 25,000 students tucked away in the state's New River Valley had never received anything close to the acclaim that it did until Vick's explosion last season as college football's most scintillating player.
Vick has picked up where he left off last season, when he led the Hokies to an 11-1 record. Going into tomorrow's road game at Syracuse, Virginia Tech is 6-0 and ranked No. 2 behind Nebraska. Despite some erratic performances, Vick has established himself as the favorite for this season's Heisman Trophy.
Given all that, some joke that the university should consider temporarily changing its name while not altering its initials.
The new name: Vick Tech.
Given the fact that the Hokies have yet to play a ranked opponent this season, Vick is the reason Virginia Tech is in the hunt for this year's national championship.
Where would the Hokies be without Vick?
"I think we'd still be a good team if we had somebody else at quarterback," said sophomore cornerback Ronyell Whitaker. "But there wouldn't be a lot of the attention - the scouts, the media. I think we'd probably be in the top 20 by now, but we wouldn't be ranked as high as we are."
Vick's influence here goes way beyond the national rankings.
Athletic fund-raising has jumped from $6.3 million in 1998 to $10 million in the fiscal year ending last June, including nearly $2 million in unrestricted gifts in the past year alone. Given that the Hokie Club has had 3,330 new members - triple the growth in a typical year - expectations for this year are even higher.
"The last two years we've made a quantum leap," said Lu Merritt, the executive director of the Virginia Tech Athletic Fund. "We were concerned how we were going to surpass last year, but if the team keeps winning, I'll think we'll be right back up there."
Not only has the number of high school applicants increased by 10 percent overall in the past year and by 15 percent from out-of-state, but the academic resumes of prospective Hokies have gone up as well, to an average SAT score of 1,177 (out of 1,600) and a median grade-point average of 3.55 (out of 4.0)
Admissions director Karen Torgersen, whose father, Paul, retired earlier this year as the school's president, said this trend dates to the mid-1990s and might have as much, if not more, to do with Virginia Tech being "hot technology-wise."
But she grudgingly admits that having one of the nation's top football teams and its best player is certainly not a deterrent.
The school's VT logo might have been recognizable before in places such as nearby Radford and Roanoke, but it now has a much broader appeal. What was a steady income of $300,000 a year in licensing fees through the 1990s jumped to $540,000 last year and could go as high as $700,000 this year.
"I think he's been a tremendous asset in terms of raising the visibility and name recognition of the school, and in getting our name in front of people," Steger said of Vick during halftime of last week's nationally televised victory over West Virginia. "As the name recognition goes on, people discover that there's a pretty good university behind it."
U.S. News and World Report ranks Virginia Tech No. 26 among public universities. Paul Torgersen, who withheld his retirement until a day after last year's Sugar Bowl and is still teaching a course here, said earlier this week that Virginia Tech's rise in football has not been as dramatic as some might think.
"Beginning in 1993, we've been to seven straight bowl games," said Torgersen, whose 6 1/2 -year tenure as president mirrored the team's rise to national prominence. `The increase in national television appearances was a positive step. So was joining the Big East. It didn't come out of nowhere. But Michael Vick is something else, there is no denying that."
The electricity on campus, especially on game days, is palpable. Hokiemania has taken over. When Virginia Tech played in New Orleans last January, more than 40,000 fans followed the team there to watch Vick and the Hokies play the highly favored Seminoles close before succumbing, 46-29.