NEW ORLEANS Bourbon Street bustles with maroon and burnt orange. Mardi Gras beads mingle with Virginia Tech jerseys. Prototype boxes of “Hokies Toasties” breakfast cereal circulate through a hotel next to the Superdome.
This is the stuff national championships are made of. And as second-ranked Virginia Tech prepares to face top-ranked Florida State in tonight’s Sugar Bowl with the Bowl Championship Series national college football title at stake both the Hokies and their fans are brimming with anticipation.
“I’ve been through the thick and the thin with this team, and this is a dream come true,” said David Fletcher, a Virginia Tech season-ticket holder from Grundy, Va. “It seems like all the stars are in line.”
Led by All-American defensive lineman Corey Moore and outlandishly talented redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Vick, Virginia Tech sports a perfect 11-0 record and has a legitimate chance at the school’s first national championship something many observers once thought impossible for a tradition-poor program from Blacksburg, Va.
“For us to open up a national newspaper and see two, three, four articles about Virginia Tech well, we’ve gone years where our scores weren’t in there,” Hokies coach Frank Beamer said. “From where we’ve come, it makes me and my team more appreciative of the chance to play for a national championship. I know what a long road it is.”
That road began in 1987, when Beamer a former Hokies defensive back returned to Virginia Tech and promptly promised the school would someday compete for a national title.
Critics howled when the Hokies posted a 24-40-2 record over the next six seasons, but derision has since turned to praise as Beamer has guided Virginia Tech to seven consecutive bowl games.
“We’ve kind of come from nowhere,” Beamer said. “It wasn’t long ago that we were 2-8-1 [in 1992]. A lot of our guys weren’t heavily recruited. But they worked hard to become a good team.”
The Hokies have also overcome a troubled stretch that saw 19 players arrested during the 1995 and 1996 seasons on charges ranging from attempted malicious wounding to rape.
In 1997, Virginia Tech brought in Jim Weaver best known for cleaning up the University of Nevada at Las Vegas’ basketball program in the wake of former coach Jerry Tarkanian to serve as athletic director. Since Weaver took over, the Hokies have had just one player arrested.
In Florida State, Virginia Tech faces a program whose success it hopes to emulate. A perennial powerhouse, the Seminoles were the winningest college football team of the 1990s and boast 12 consecutive top-four finishes.
Moreover, Florida State has played in three of the last four national championship games.
“We’re working to be where they are, playing in championship games and being in the top five on a consistent basis,” Beamer said. “Facts are facts: We’re the underdog. Florida State has been here, they started out the season number one, and they haven’t slipped. It didn’t just happen that they’ve won the most games in the 1990s and played in this game more than anyone.”
In order to defeat Florida State, Virginia Tech will need to stop the Seminoles’ high-powered passing game and contain wide receiver Peter Warrick, considered by many to be the best receiver in the college game.
The Hokies also will need solid efforts from the loquacious, relentless Moore the nation’s leading sack artist at 17 and Vick, who finished third in this year’s Heisman Trophy balloting.
Virginia Tech should have a large and vocal cheering contingent, as an estimated 40,000 Hokies fans are expected at the game.
“It’s Hokie-mania on Bourbon Street,” said Carey Fletcher, daughter of season-ticket holder David Fletcher and a Virginia Tech freshman. “We’re going to go nuts.”
Win or lose, the Hokies have unquestionably arrived on the national college football scene. And according to Beamer, that constitutes a victory in itself.
“It’s not so much where you’ve been as where you’re going,” Beamer said. “This program is in a good spot now, but we need to make sure we play well tomorrow. And we need to stay among colleges’ best.
“If we don’t win, I don’t think that’s the end of it. I expect to come back next year with another good football team.”