The team mascot is a dancing turkey. The players are called the Hokies. The school's official name is the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and one of its most celebrated basketball heroes is named Bimbo.
If all this doesn't exactly sound like a recipe for athletic greatness, keep in mind that when Dave Braine accepted the job as Virginia Tech athletic director on Jan. 1, 1988, he had yet another teeny-weeny hurdle to clear. Both the Hokie football and basketball teams were on NCAA probation. "Applicants for the job weren't exactly lining up at the door," Braine remembers.
Maybe they couldn't find the door. After all, Tech is located in Blacksburg, an outpost deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, a town affectionately known to most nonresidents as Bleaksburg. "I don't want to say the place is remote," says Tech football coach Frank Beamer, who has lived in the area most of his life, "but you drive through Mayberry and Mount Pilot to get here."
But Braine had a few ideas. First, he re-signed the popular Beamer, a former Hokie player with no connection to the NCAA violations, to a long-term contract to reconstruct the football team. Then in '91 he hired Bill Foster, who had already built up three college programs—at UNC Charlotte, Clemson and Miami—to revive a moribund basketball team whose biggest previous claim to fame was the 1973 NIT title it won with forward Allan Bristow. In '90 Braine maneuvered the Hokie football team into the Big East, and last summer he initiated the basketball team's shift from the soon-to-be-defunct Metro Conference into the Atlantic-10, locking up the significant television revenue that comes with major conference affiliation.
Suddenly Virginia Tech is the feel-good hit of the winter. The Hokies basketball team has no high school All-Americas, just over-achievers spurned by most other programs—the Foster children of college hoops, so to speak. But after last Saturday's 71-55 demolition of La Salle, Virginia Tech was 9-1 and ranked 11th in the latest AP poll, the team's loftiest ranking ever. This hardwood success follows fast on the heels of the best football season in Hokie history. On New Year's Eve, Virginia Tech capped its Big East conference title by stomping Texas 28-10 in the Sugar Bowl, Tech's first major bowl appearance, to finish 10-2 and 10th in the AP poll.
"If anybody had told me in 1988 that this year we would win the Sugar Bowl and our basketball team would be in the Top 15, I'd have said, 'What are you smoking?' " Braine says. "But all you need are a few athletes with the courage of Ace Custis."
That would be Adrian Llewellyn Custis, a junior forward on the Hokie basketball team and the poster boy for the entire Virginia Tech athletic program. The closest thing to a star on a team full of no-name players, he has traveled a hard road to get where he is today.
Custis grew up in Eastville (pop. 310) on Virginia's remote Eastern Shore. His father and mother separated when he was a baby, so Adrian, his two sisters and his brother were raised in a trailer home by their mother, Barbara, and stepfather, George Ruffin. Adrian spent a lot of time with his grandfather William, who referred to the boy as his "number one ace," a nickname that seemed to suit the kid far more than his given name.
Ace and his brother, Antonio, who was four years older, grew up playing hoops in the backyard, shooting at a rim 11� feet high. Because there were no asphalt courts and no YMCA, and the school gym was kept locked all summer, Ace and Antonio played for hours on dirt courts, watering the surface with a hose between games to keep the dust down. Ace always vowed he would one day beat his brother, but he never got the chance. Early on a Saturday morning in March 1988, Antonio was driving along Route 13, the main road that bisects the Eastern Shore, when he fell asleep at the wheel, crashed and died. "When I saw the person that I had idolized lying under that sheet, I just wanted to give up," Ace remembers. "It was like I couldn't go on without my big brother. Eventually I decided that every time I went out on the court I'd play for Antonio and myself."
Ace became a star at Northampton High in Eastville, but the summer before his junior year, in '90-91, he began to worry that he wouldn't be noticed by college recruiters because he played in such a remote area against weak competition. So in hopes of attracting some notice he joined Boo Williams's All-Stars in Norfolk, one of the most-renowned AAU programs in the country. In order to attend a practice and a game each week, Ace had to drive via the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which meant each three-hour round trip cost him $18 in tolls, plus gas money. He did it even though he started out as the last man on the bench for a team that included future college stars Allen Iverson and Joe Smith.