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Tight end Ken Whisenhunt, not quite clad in a towel, stood in the raucous Georgia Tech locker room and spoke like an oil baron who remembers all the dry holes. Last January, the 6'3", 237-pound Whisenhunt found out the day before he was to attend an NFL scouting camp that the NCAA had passed the retroactive redshirt rule, giving him the chance to return for a fifth year of college ball. In his four years the Rambling Wreck had gone 11-32-1, a record that included but a single victory in each of his first two seasons.
"In 1980, when I was a freshman." Whisenhunt said, "I had to play six positions: tight end, wide receiver, running back, quarterback, defensive back and linebacker. I played quarterback in the Notre Dame game, and we tied the No. 1 team in the country 3-3. I didn't know what I was doing." Now he assuredly did, and so, it seems, did all the Yellow Jackets. Tech had whipped highly touted Clemson 28-21, halting the Tigers' ACC winning streak at 20. and was 3-0 for the first time since 1970. "I came back," said Whisenhunt, "because I knew what this team could do."
But no one knew better than Bill Curry, who's in his fifth year as Tech's coach. The Yellow Jackets were 1-7 in 1983 before winning two of their last three games and coming within an eyelash of upsetting Cotton Bowl-bound Georgia in the season-ender. Three days later, Curry called a team meeting—"while that feeling of accomplishment was still fresh," he says—and had his returnees, 17 of whom were starters, write down their goals for '84.
Though the squad was supposed to keep its goals private, Curry publicly spoke of one of his at a Tech booster club dinner in May: He guaranteed that the Rambling Wreck would win the ACC championship this season. After finishing strong in '83, the Yellow Jackets had looked promising in spring practice. Curry knew that Tech wouldn't play Maryland and that, because of Clemson's ACC probation, the game against the Tigers wouldn't count in the conference standings. Most important, he knew that, for the first time since returning to his alma mater as head coach, he could look at the squad's two-deep and really call it a depth chart.
"A great team creates what appears to be a bludgeon," Curry says. "Every time it comes on the field, it hammers you in different ways. If you've got a crack, it will find it, and you shatter."
Last Saturday the instrument was more scythe than bludgeon. Tech dangled senior tailback Robert Lavette, the man who brought break-dancing to artificial turf, as a decoy and then sliced the aggressive Clemson team into ribbons. Quarterback John Dewberry staked the Rambling Wreck to a 21-0 halftime lead by artfully utilizing the naked bootleg to pass for 188 yards and a touchdown and to run for 57 yards, and fullbacks Keith Glanton and Chuck Easley cut against the grain for a combined 108 yards and two touchdowns, including Easley's game-winner with :33 left.
The 6-foot, 192-pound Lavette gained 69 yards on 23 carries. Admittedly those aren't very good stats for a prospective first-round pro draft choice who has rushed for 3,232 yards and scored 36 touchdowns in little more than three years. He had picked up a total of 286 yards in his first two games this season. But stats don't show that Clemson keyed on Lavette all afternoon. "He made a lot of great two-yard runs today," Curry said. And Lavette said, "Everywhere I went, the whole defense went with me."
"We knew they were a much improved ball club," said Clemson coach Danny Ford, whose Tigers, 26-23 losers to Georgia two weeks ago, are now 2-2. "But I guess it didn't soak in too good."
How hard could it have been to realize Tech was for real? The Yellow Jackets had whipped Alabama 16-6 and The Citadel 48-3. Entering Saturday's game they led the nation in scoring defense (4.5 points per game) and total defense (193 yards per), were sixth in total offense (467 yards) and ranked in the Top 10 in four other categories. "It's hard, awful hard, to believe that a consistent loser is really good," Curry says. "When I played, the coach would get up and say, 'This team has really improved,' and we'd get out there and look across the line and there would be the same guys we beat the year before. 'Them?' we'd say. 'Beat us?' "
Curry, 41, played for the best: Bobby Dodd at Georgia Tech, Vince Lombardi at Green Bay and Don Shula at Baltimore. Curry also played on three world championship teams, two with the Packers, one with the Colts. A two-time Pro Bowl center (he weighed 248 then, but he has dropped 53 pounds) and president of the NFL Players Association from 1973 to 1975, Curry retired before the '75 season and spent four years as an assistant before returning to Tech to replace Pepper Rodgers. Thus began a painfully slow learning process.