Heard it From Hoard: Column 63This is the story of a mediocre college football program that joined the BIG EAST conference and became a national power. It is not about Cincinnati. For its first 12 years, the BIG EAST didn't even have football because there were only three Division 1-A programs in the league: Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Boston College. Needing at least eight teams to have a decent schedule, the BIG EAST added Miami, West Virginia, Rutgers, Temple and Virginia Tech and football was launched in 1991. Virginia Tech was 5-6 in the league's first season, and 2-8-1 in its second. "I don't think a lot of people in the 80's thought that Virginia Tech could compete in the BIG EAST," said Hokies broadcaster Bill Roth. "When Tech was added, it was so that WVU and Pitt would have somebody to play. We were supposed to be the guaranteed win." But under Head Coach Frank Beamer, the Hokies won a BIG EAST championship in the league's fifth season and repeated as champs the following year. In 1999, less than a decade after joining the BIG EAST, Virginia Tech played for a national championship. Could Cincinnati conceivably follow a similar path? Roth, in his 21st season as the Voice of the Hokies, says it's possible. "Cincinnati is much further along than Virginia Tech was when I started," Roth told me. "The facilities they've built, and the commitment they've made is great, and they're in the BIG EAST and that's what got Virginia Tech going. If you look at 1989, there was absolutely no difference between Virginia Tech and Cincinnati. But the BIG EAST gave Virginia Tech television, it gave them the opportunity to go to bowl games, and as a result it gave the coaching staff a great vehicle to recruit. They were able to say, 'If you come to Virginia Tech, you're going to be able to go to great bowl games, and you're going to get on television,' and that wasn't the case before the BIG EAST." Roth's broadcasting partner, former Hokies tight end Mike Burnop agrees. "When I played at Virginia Tech we were an independent and we stayed that way for years and years," Burnop said. "When I came to Virginia Tech they had just played in two Liberty Bowls and I thought, 'They're on the map now.' But it was proven that you couldn't survive as an independent unless you were Florida State or Notre Dame. The BIG EAST was absolutely the key to their whole success." But the BIG EAST wasn't the only key - after all, Temple joined the conference at the same time only to get kicked out in 2004. The Hokies growth as a football power coincided with population growth in Virginia. "Virginia has grown by more than a million people since Coach Beamer got hired," Roth said. "Virginia is the 12th most-populous state in the country and so there are quite a few high schools that didn't even exist in the eighties. As a result, he doesn't have to do as much out-of-state recruiting. There are so many more prospects now, and these kids have grown up watching him win and I think that's a key - the population of the state really increased dramatically." Another key has been stability at the top. Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden are the only FBS coaches who have been at their current school longer than Beamer - now in his 22nd year at Virginia Tech. "Once Frank got it going, he's the best thing that ever happened to Virginia Tech and what he's been able to do is absolutely phenomenal," Burnop said. "He could run for governor and probably win." Tech not only held on to Beamer - his associate head coach and his three coordinators have a combined total of 89 years of experience at Virginia Tech. "Clearly you're going to have to hang on to coaches - that's an important thing, you've got to take care of the coaches," Burnop said. "Coach Beamer was adamant - he didn't want the money for himself. He had great assistant coaches and he wanted to keep them in the upper echelon of what assistant coaches around the country make. I think that was so important." So let's review: You've have a school in a state with abundant high school talent. An administration that has dramatically increased salaries to retain the head coach and his assistants. And membership in the BIG EAST conference, which provides national television exposure and the opportunity to play in prestigious bowl games. Sound familiar?
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Enjoy this week's photo of the handsome lad watching the Bearcats while enjoying his favorite beverage - ice cold milk.
(This column originally appeared in a recent edition of the Bearcat Sports Digest)