Those of us who read the message boards, listen to the podcasts (especially the Sons!), and have a Twitter timeline which mainly consists of articles and media with a definitive Orange and Maroon tint, understanding who we are as Hokies seems so obvious. The center of our universe revolves around a small Appalachian town easily passed on the interstate without a second thought. For most of us it is so easy to connect with what it is that draws us to an expanse of limestone buildings that to others may seem drab and depressing (seriously this is how my coworker described Hokie Stone). To us the clash of colors on the same side of the color wheel and the explosion of a turkey gobble elicit some of the most primal feelings that immediately turn those clashing colors and the mating call of a bird into a work of art and a musical symphony. The athletic department hit the nail on the head with the most recent marketing slogan: Virginia Tech is home to Hokies.
As someone who is pretty crazy about college football, the idea of culture has always intrigued me the most about our sport. The bands, the rivalries, the unique mascots, the tailgating and the legends of great plays of the past seem to fill articles every off season as we patiently wait for that week when August fades into September. These are the things we know will bring forth that long-lost love we all share. This isn’t an article ranking team entrances, mascots, fight songs, or tailgate scenes…what has been running through my mind lately is much more personal than that. What is Hokie Football Culture? What has the Hokie culture been? What has worked and hasn’t worked? Where is the Hokie culture going? We all have our opinions on coaching and recruiting, but in reality, we as the fans do not have much influence on this program that we support. What I wonder, and hope to define in this series, is what can we influence and what should we influence?
Although Tech fans all join together on Saturdays in Lane, there are often times a vast difference in the people filling the seats. We know that we come from many different areas across the state and region (just the differences there can be pretty staggering), but what I want to focus on is the time frame in which we became fans. For this exercise I’ll separate fans into four categories: The Old Guard (pre-Beamer days), OG Beamerballers (Beamer’s arrival to 1998), Powered by Vick (1999 – 2011), The Jaded (2012 – Present). Each of these different groups of fans has a very different perspective of the Hokie program, because those time periods were so incredibly different from one another.
The Old Guard
The Old Guard are typically a hardy group. These fans typically consist of alumni or the children of alumni. They have been there through the thick and the thin. These fans are keenly aware of the days of football Independence and a fierce rivalry with VMI. It’s hard to imagine a day when a late November matchup with the Keydets could attract anything but groans from the Hokie faithful, but this was the state of Virginia Tech football. During the vast majority of seasons, Virginia Tech was nowhere near any national conversations where college football was concerned. Here’s some perspective to newer fans- the AP college football poll began in 1936. In the 50 years that this poll existed from its inception to the end of the Old Guard era, Tech appeared, let me repeat that…APPEARED not FINISHED, in the AP top 25 poll, a total of 13 polls. In 50 seasons, Tech was ranked for 13 weeks. Nine of these ranked weeks occurred in 1954, with the highest ranking achieved in the Old Guard era being achieved at 14th (they finished 16th that season). The Gobblers spent 3 weeks ranked in 1956 finishing the season unranked. Finally, in 1986 following the very first bowl victory in the then 94 year old football program, Tech was ranked just one week in the final poll at 20th. Through these years of less than stellar football performance, these Old Guard fans have stuck by Tech, not because of records, not because of who’s neck the head whistle hung around, but because of their undying love for this institution.
Those that ride that line of Old Guard and OG Beamerballers were coming off that first bowl victory only to be followed by the gut punch. One of the most successful head coaches for the Gobblers, Bill Dooley, was not only leaving the team and athletic department he built (Dooley served as both head football coach and athletic director at the end of his tenure), but also leaving the Hokies on probation with the NCAA in both football and basketball (specifically a 20 scholarship penalty against the football team). From this public embarrassment of the athletic department, a real sense of the importance of integrity found itself deeply rooted in the fan base and still persists across most fans to this day.
The transition from Old Guard to OG Beamerballers was a very slow one, but one that has a definite beginning with everyone’s favorite Hokie and dare I say the original Son of Saturday, Fancy Gap’s own, Frank Beamer. As most of us know Coach had a difficult time getting the ball rolling struggling in his first six seasons in Blacksburg. Despite the difficulties on the field these OG Beamerballers saw one of the most important bricks in said foundation laid when Tech football joined a conference for the first time since 1964 when the Big East invited the Hokies to join in 1991. Many OG’s understand what could have been had the Big East passed on Virginia Tech during their period of expansion. As the conference began to explore the option of adding football, Penn State was the original prize the conference sought, but negotiations fell through with other members already in the conference from Pennsylvania. Had Penn State been offered admission into the conference, there is a likely situation that Virginia Tech would have been left out in the cold and remained an independent.
Adding to the exposure that comes with conference membership Coach Beamer led Tech to some of the greatest feats accomplished buy a team wearing Orange and Maroon. First the second bowl victory in Hokie history in 1993 (kicking off a bowl streak that lasts to this day and hopefully will continue until the eventual heat death of the universe). In 1995 they beat the Miami Hurricanes for the first time, won their first conference championship since 1963 and beat Texas in the Sugar Bowl. And went toe to toe with Nebraska in their first Orange Bowl in 1996 (one of the gutsier performances during the OG Era despite coming up shot on the scoreboard).
Virginia Tech football was beginning to find its way into the national spotlight as it never had before. With this brought an expectation and an anticipation into the fan base as a whole. The fans that began to fill the corners of those stands on Beamer Way (then Spring Road) began to believe in this program in a way that didn’t seem possible just a decade before. These fans were entering a new reality where the Hokies could hang with powerhouses in big games, but with the appreciation that there was a definitive possibility that Tech could have been relegated to a regional after thought.
Fueled by Vick
The Orange and Maroon tide was rolling like never before in the NRV. Hokie fans all across The Commonwealth were celebrating a huge win in the inaugural Music City Bowl over Alabama. Something that wouldn’t have been considered probable years prior (and yes the Tide was not as dominant in 1998 as it is under Saban or had been earlier in the 90’s, but only 44 teams made bowl games in 1998 compared to the 80 from the 2019 season) had suddenly seemed expected. Still, huge wins against storied programs falls short of the ultimate goal of a team that hopes to establish itself as a power house. When Frank Beamer took the head coaching gig in 1987 at his alma mater, he claimed in his opening press conference that he believed that Virginia Tech could compete for national championships. His strategy of recruiting the state would be the motivating factor in his belief. His prediction would be proven with the help of one of the most talented athletes to ever don the orange and maroon.
Everyone knows the Michael Vick story and this is not the place for a biographical and historical dive into his days in Blacksburg (or his triumphs and struggles after his college playing days were over), but in any discussion on the culture of Hokies, number 7 has to be acknowledged as not only the catalyst for an already incredibly talented team to reach the pinnacle of the program thus far, but also the magnet that drew in the support and recruits that would bring about the Fueled By Vick fans. This is the time period where I became all in as a Hokie fan. Just about every family member I had that attended college went to Virginia Tech (I’ve got the Fighting Gobbler baby bottle to prove it), but the arrival of Michael Vick, that 1999 national championship team, and the growing interest in not only playing sports but becoming a fan of sports for a youngster like myself was the perfect storm to cap off an obsession.
As we all know Virginia Tech capped a perfect regular season with a date against the Florida State Seminoles in the Sugar Bowl for a chance at the BCS national championship. Virginia Tech was now a national name and was drawing eyes across the state and the country. The turn of the millennium Tech teams started finding themselves regularly ranked in the top ten and into the top 5. The highlights on sports center seemed to show Tech every week and orange and maroon gear was now showing up in national retail stores where before it was hard to find any Tech apparel past Roanoke. Tech had tapped into a huge potential of new fans and the growth to come would reach further into the world of the “casual” fan and to those who do not have any academic or family connection to the university.
The addition to the national exposure that began at the beginning of the decade would attract the eyes of the ACC as it had begun a search for expansion. As we all know after flirting back and forth, a law suit, and some pressure from politicians and support of another certain university located in Central Virginia, Tech would be invited to join the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2003 and begin conference play in 2004. The momentum of those Vick years continued to propel the program into ACC play. In the first seven seasons of conference play Virginia Tech would amass 4 conference championships and 4 division titles (in 2004 there were no divisions as Boston College did not join the ACC to meet the NCAA requirement of a 12-team conference to hold a conference championship game). The Hokies won 10 or more games from 2004-2011 and the Hokie faithful were hungry for more. Many of these Fueled By Vick fans were so accustomed to the success this program had achieved found themselves frustrated that Tech was not able to get over the hump and win their first national championship. The support remained strong but the grumbling was beginning to grow.
The Jaded Hokie
As the Fueled By Vick era came to a crashing halt with a 7-6 record (including one of the ugliest bowl wins, if not the ugliest bowl win, in Virginia Tech history a 13-10 overtime win against Rutgers), a new era of fandom emerged at Tech. These new fans who somehow decided to climb aboard the orange and maroon wagon at its lowest win percentage since 1997, were typically new students to Tech (or in the case of my wife those souls lucky enough to marry into the O&M family).
This era of fans is still a group that is finding itself. A little bit of transparency, I have had probably the least amount of interaction with fans from this particular time in Hokie history. Outside of a couple of cousins my interactions are based completely by observations around campus. Through these observations there are two main identities I feel, that the Jaded Hokies tend to find themselves in: 1) the diehard who has immersed themselves into Hokie history and longs for a return to the glory days and 2) the fan that views Virginia Tech sporting events as a party (looking at my wife again here) and once the party is over they are fairly uninvolved until the next party begins.
You the reader may be asking, “Why do I care about the different type of Hokie fan and the culture of Hokies as a whole?” As we continue to dive into the understanding and culture of Hokie football and our place in the college sports landscape, we as Hokies can begin to have a better understanding of our expectations for the team, our expectations of ourselves, and ultimately enable (Sons of Hokie Fandom Enablement perhaps?) us to do our best as supporters of our beloved Institute and State University in the heart of Appalachia. I hope you stick around for the next installment as we dive deeper into Hokie culture, Virginia college sports culture, and how we compare against the types of places that have the success that we desire to emulate.