The Road to Contention: A Deep Dive Into How VT Can Become Great Again
Without a doubt, the greatest stretch for Virginia Tech football was from 1995-2011.
Numerous 10-win seasons, conference championships, and major bowl appearances defined the peak of legendary coach Frank Beamer’s career.
For 17 years, VT hardly ever fell outside the Top 25 rankings and was often considered a Top-15 program. Many of those seasons saw the Hokies in National Championship Contender conversations.
But that run ended beginning in the 2012 season when annual 10 or 11-win seasons were replaced with seven or eight-win seasons. An aging legend in Beamer and his staff were unable to bring the most out of their players while quickly falling behind to other surging programs on the recruiting trail.
The Hokies saw some of their most abysmal offensive performances in the Beamer era. As donations around the nation began to increase, the Hokie Club flatlined.
Virginia Tech has spent every season since trying to get back to that early-2000’s dominance.
They tasted it again, briefly, in Justin Fuente’s first two seasons after replacing the retired Beamer. The Hokies combined to win 19 games in the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
However, that success was short-lived, as the next two seasons saw only 14 wins. The Hokies most recently went 8-5 while posting the 76th-ranked recruiting class.
Granted, there are plenty of positives to take away from that season, but those numbers are still not enough to consider the Hokies “back” just yet.
So the question is, what would it take for the Hokies to become national contenders again? Let’s take a deep dive into some other programs that figured out how to find similar success.
It is important to note which programs I have chosen to look at. If I were to look at programs such as Nick Saban’s Alabama or Urban Meyer’s Ohio State, I would be wasting my time. The Hokies simply do not have anything close to their programs’ long-term history. We have to look at programs with a more similar history to the Hokies.
Frank Beamer’s Virginia Tech (1995-2011)
What better example to look at first than the string of success we are trying to replicate?
Starting in 1995, the Hokies were a force to be reckoned with nationally. They managed to win 10 or more games in 13 of 17 seasons, while also winning seven conference championships and playing in eight BCS bowls.
Their breakout came during the 1995 season when they beat ninth-ranked Texas in the Sugar Bowl. This was a major win over a major opponent in a major game. It was the exact performance the Hokies needed to take that big step forward.
Beamer’s squad maintained a fairly high level of success leading up to that magical 1999 season.
We all know the story. An overachieving, underrated defense. The most revolutionary quarterback in football history. One quarter away from a National Title.
This game and season propelled the Hokies from “solid” to “contender” in the nation’s eyes.
Beamer’s coaching and Michael Vick’s legacy propelled the Hokies into the stratosphere, with support from the Southwest Virginia community booming and many of the school’s highest-ever rated recruits being signed, including Kevin Jones, Marcus Vick, Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Williams, Macho Harris, Logan Thomas, and Bryan Randall.
Beamer and his staff also managed through that stretch to produce NFL talent from undervalued recruits, such as Brandon Flowers, Duane Brown, Darryl Tapp, and Kam Chancellor.
Beamer found a long, 17-season model of success by taking an undervalued roster and overachieving, with both the 1995 Sugar Bowl and the 1999 Championship run.
These seasons, as well as a transcendent QB in Vick, gave the Hokies momentum, which Beamer was able to capitalize on. His ability to sustain success while capitalizing on the momentum by getting donors and recruits to buy into the program set Virginia Tech apart for years.
Dabo Swinney’s Clemson (2009-present)
The first non-VT example I want to look at is from the coach that has become the Gold Standard for program builders: Dabo Swinney.
Clemson’s ascent to arguably the best program in the country in such a short time is truly legendary. Even if Swinney retired today, he would still probably go down as one of the greatest coaches in NCAA history.
The accomplishments speak for themselves: six ACC Championships (including five straight), five consecutive College Football Playoff appearances, four CFP Championship game appearances, and two National Championships.
What is important to note about the current Upper Echelon of teams in college football is that Clemson by far has the least expansive history.
Yes, they did have one National Championship pre-Dabo (1984), but compared to the likes of Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, and Oklahoma, it does not compare. Plus, by the time Swinney took over (2008), that championship was far from most minds.
So how did Clemson get to that point?
It started with Dabo’s first full season in 2009. In that first year, Swinney took a team that had barely made a bowl game the season before all the way to the ACC Championship game.
Despite losing that game to Georgia Tech, this accomplishment was the first step in the Tigers becoming relevant. The team finished 9-5, and the Clemson fanbase had reason to believe again after a disappointing end to the Tommy Bowden era.
After that set of moral victories, Dabo was able to ramp up Clemson’s recruiting numbers. He took the Tigers from 36th to 27th nationally after his first season, then up to 10th the next season.
Finally, in 2011, Clemson had its first true breakout season.
Swinney led the Tigers to their first ACC Championship since 1991, and they gained national prominence for the first time under his tutelage. Their peak ranking was #6 that season.
Not only was the championship a huge milestone, but it also signified a changing of the guard in the ACC.
Since 2004, Beamer’s Hokies had been the most dominant team in the conference. The Tigers beat the Hokies twice that season by a combined score of 61-13.
However, this changing of the guard did not yet include Clemson as the dominant force in the ACC. Instead, Clemson’s dismantling of the Hokies opened the door for Florida State to take control.
The Seminoles went on to win three consecutive ACC Championships from 2012-14, plus the 2013 National Championship. However, Clemson did not fade away during that time.
The Tigers won 32 games over those three seasons, and though they were not ACC Champions, they maintained a high level of national relevancy. Swinney continued to consistently bring in Top-20 recruiting classes.
Then, once again, Clemson had another breakout season.
In 2015, Clemson started its unprecedented run. The Tigers, who were ranked #12 in the preseason, won their first 14 games on their way to the first of many showdowns against Alabama in the National Championship.
Though they lost that game, Dabo’s Tigers had established themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
Not to mention, Clemson had its first transcendent quarterback in Deshaun Watson. Watson was a Heisman finalist, and the program had another face in addition to its gung-ho coach.
Donations to IPTAY, Clemson’s fundraising arm, nearly doubled, going from $19M to $35M according to data gathered by USA Today (https://sports.usatoday.com/ncaa/finances/). Clemson fans saw a level of play they hadn’t seen since the 1980s, and many alumni chose to express their excitement through giving.
And how did the Tigers follow that up? By going back to the National Championship, playing the same team, and winning.
The rest was history.
The Tigers have continued to manhandle the ACC with an annual reservation for the four-team playoff. IPTAY donations have grown almost every year to $44M in 2019. Swinney’s regular Top-20 classes have become Top-10 classes.
Art Briles’ Baylor (2010-2015)
The final example to look at is Baylor’s football program under Art Briles.
Though this one had the ugliest ending of any, with Briles being fired amidst a colossal sexual assault scandal, the success he found in the six seasons prior is worth noting for Hokie fans.
The first breakout season came in 2010. Baylor, a program with almost no winning history, made its first bowl game since 1994.
You read that correctly. It had been 16 seasons since the Bears even made a bowl game.
The next season saw Briles build on that success. The Bears were a national phenomenon, led by quarterback Robert Griffin III, who went on to win the Heisman.
That season, Baylor won 10 games for the first time since 1980. They ended the season on a six-game winning streak, which included marquee wins over Texas and #5 Oklahoma.
Combined with Griffin’s superb season and the Bears’ shining in the big games, Briles’ squad had the whole nation watching.
The recruiting effects were obvious, as Baylor’s class jumped that year from 46th to 26th nationally, including going from 8th to 3rd in the Big 12.
Briles was able to keep that momentum going.
Baylor’s recruiting maintained its improved level, remaining 3rd in their conference three years in a row.
In 2013, Baylor took the next step, winning the Big 12 Championship. They followed that up by winning a share of the 2014 Championship as well, finishing that season ranked #7.
The most important thing to note with Baylor’s back-to-back conference championships is their donations.
After each championship, their donations grew by 25 percent. First going from $9M to $12M, then from $12M to $16M according to Baylor Athletics’ Annual Reports (https://baylorbears.com/sports/2018/5/16/annual-reports-html.aspx).
Baylor then had another 10-win season with a Top-15 final ranking in 2015 before the scandal hit.
With all that said, how do we get there?
After reading through what is likely too much information, I’m sure you’re wondering how these other examples can translate to our beloved Hokies finding similar success.
I think, based on this data, it boils down to coaching.
In each example, a coach took an undervalued team and brought the most out of them, sometimes multiple times. We saw Beamer do this in 1995 and 1999, Swinney in 2009, 2011, and 2015, and Briles in 2010 and 2011.
This must be the first step. The elite talent is not going to be served on a silver platter; it must be earned, especially at programs without a deep history, like Tech, Clemson, and Baylor.
We saw Justin Fuente do this early on in his career.
Particularly during his first season, as underrated players such as Jerod Evans, Sam Rogers, the Edmunds brothers, Greg Stroman, Woody Baron, and many more overachieved during that 2016 season.
A team that had barely made a bowl game (and gave up 52 points to Tulsa in said bowl game) won 10 games and was one touchdown shy of an ACC Championship.
Fuente and the Hokies continued that success the next season, winning nine more games.
However, what failed to happen initially after that is the next step to regaining contender status: the momentum must be sustained.
In each of the other examples, there were ebbs and flows and the occasional down season. But each coach was able to mitigate the damage and recover, finding ways to continue to gain momentum. The Hokies must do the same.
Once that momentum begins to grow, it will result in two things: higher-level recruits and more Hokie Club donations.
As Baylor and Clemson improved on the field, their annual donor base grew exponentially, and their recruiting classes generally saw more four and five-star talent.
The Hokies must give donors a reason to give and recruits a reason to come to Virginia Tech.
All the while, in each example, the head coach found support from the community that expanded beyond donations. Beamer and Swinney are/were icons in their school’s local community. Briles gave an alumni base with years of disappointment reason to have hope for their football team.
Fuente has an opportunity similar to Swinney of immersing himself in the Blacksburg community.
Clemson and Blacksburg are similar towns, with similar communities. As Fuente seeks to find success on the field, he must continue to seek the adoration from the New River Valley that Beamer has.
Lastly, the Hokies need a transcendent, Heisman-caliber QB. In each example, the program had a QB who caught national attention and was at least a Heisman finalist, with Baylor’s Griffin winning one.
For Beamer’s Hokies, it was Vick. For Swinney’s Tigers, it was (initially) Watson. Even Clemson’s current elite QB, Trevor Lawrence, has often credited Watson as a major reason for his signing with Clemson.
Looking at the Hokies now, it’s hard to see where that transcendent QB may be. Hendon Hooker, Quincy Patterson II, and Braxton Burmeister are all exceptional players whom Hokie fans should be ecstatic to have. However, it’s hard to imagine any of them taking a Heisman-level jump.
Perhaps the most likely option would have been Dematrius Davis, the highest-ranked dual-threat QB in the 2021 class. But Davis chose to decommit from the Hokies and pledge to join Auburn.
If the Hokies want that QB soon, they will have to look to one of the guys on the roster, or 2021 commit Tahj Bullock.
With regard to regaining the aforementioned momentum, I think the Hokies’ best window is in the next two seasons.
With the roster currently assembled, many of the Hokies’ best players are either juniors or seniors. Household names like Tre Turner, Dax Hollifield, Rayshard Ashby, and Caleb Farley are likely reaching their peaks now.
I fully believe this Hokie team is capable of winning 10 games each of the next two seasons. Doing so will allow Fuente to garner more support from the Hokie Club, improve recruiting, find a transcendent QB, and take Virginia Tech back to the top.
In short: the time is now.