As the final seconds of the game elapsed last Friday evening, Virginia Tech president Paul Torgersen rushed from the north end zone of Lane Stadium, along the sideline and toward the home bench, where he would join in the celebration of the Hokies' 38-14 victory over Boston College. ¶ He paused to pluck from the mud a small sugar cube, one of the thousands that had been thrown from the seats, stared in wonder at it through his wire rims and wrapped it in his fist while nodding resolutely to himself as if the impossible had just come true.
What was the word Torgersen had used four days before the game? Perturbation. That was it. He had sat in his office, housed in a limestone castle at the center of the Blacksburg, Va., campus, and marveled at the success of the Hokies. "I don't consider us to be in the same league as Nebraska or Florida State, in terms of being a football school," he said. "This year is a perturbation." A 67-year-old industrial engineering professor who has been Virginia Tech's president since 1993, Torgersen flipped open a dog-eared dictionary to check himself. "Perturbation," he said, tracing the definition with his index finger. " 'A disturbance of the regular.' Does that sound right?"
Damn straight it does. The Big East-champion Hokies, outsiders in the closed society of football powers, have crashed the party. The win over Boston College completed their first perfect regular season (11-0) in 81 years and left them in position to play Florida State for the national title in the Sugar Bowl, pending only the release of the final Bowl Championship Series rankings this Sunday. It also left Virginia Tech fans with the giddiness that comes only in tasting sweet success for the first time. "Right now, this campus is in a fog of exhilaration," said James Robertson, a distinguished Civil War scholar who has taught history in Blacksburg for 32 years. "There's an excitement here, every day, that's almost akin to Christmas."
In the aftermath of the win over BC, fans tore down both goalposts and carried not only coach Frank Beamer and brilliant red-shirt freshman quarterback Michael Vick from the floor of the stadium, but Torgersen as well. The field was awash with fans in maroon and orange clothing, a distant cry from scarcely a decade ago, when Beamer walked across the campus and saw students wearing baseball caps and T-shirts from Georgetown, North Carolina and Notre Dame, but none from Virginia Tech. Now, campus bookstores can't restock Hokies gear fast enough, and soon Tech fans presumably will paint Bourbon Street in their colors.
Presumably. To play in the Sugar Bowl, the Hokies must finish first or second in the BCS ratings, a complex and secret formula that factors into play poll rankings, computer ratings, team records and strength of schedule. Florida State, also 11-0, is already guaranteed the No. 1 spot, and Virginia Tech, the only other unbeaten team from one of the six major conferences, is No. 2. The Hokies' margin over No. 3 Nebraska more than doubled last week, which seems to ensure their place in New Orleans, but they will have to await the outcome of Saturday's Big 12 title game between Nebraska and Texas and the final BCS numbers.
If Nebraska were to end up in the Sugar Bowl, it would be an embarrassment to college football because this season Virginia Tech has outscored its opponents by an average of 41-10 and won just one game—a 22-20 victory at West Virginia—by less than a touchdown. It defeated four ranked opponents (Virginia, Syracuse, Miami and Boston College) by a combined score of 167-28 and beat the three opponents it had in common with Florida State (Virginia, Clemson and Miami) by 39 more points than did the Seminoles.
The long view is even more arresting. One-hundred-twenty-seven-year-old Virginia Tech—the school's unwieldy full name is Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, hence it was long known as VPI—is situated on a beautiful campus of limestone buildings in the small town of Blacksburg, which sits on a scenic bluff, 2,100 feet above sea level, between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. Tech's engineering program is nationally respected and the major of more than 5,100 of the school's 21,180 undergraduates. The Hokies have played football since 1892—largely without effect, even on their own campus. "Football games were something you attended if you had nothing else to do," says Jean Arnold, a Mobile, Ala., attorney who was president of the class of 1974.
Against this backdrop Virginia Tech's rise to national prominence rivals Kansas State's as one of the most remarkable ascents in recent college football history. Unlike K-State, the Hokies were never ranked by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED as the worst program in the nation, but they also never aspired to greatness, laboring for most of their history in either the now defunct Southern Conference or as an independent. "I marvel at what they've done," says Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel, "because I don't know why it happened."
What happened was that on Dec. 22, 1986, Virginia Tech athletic director Dutch Baughman hired 40-year-old Murray State coach and Tech alumnus Beamer as coach, a serendipitous marriage of man and job that often is lacking when colleges seek builders for their football programs. "So many schools hire good coaches who don't know the place where they're going," says former Syracuse and New England Patriots coach Dick MacPherson. "Virginia Tech got a guy who understood the whole package."
He understood it because he had grown up in Tech's shadow. Beamer was raised on a 70-acre farm in the tiny village of Fancy Gap, an hour south of Blacksburg. He was one of four children born to Raymond, an assistant county highway engineer, and Herma, an elementary school teacher.