SI Vault
Frank Deford
September 15, 1980
Winning didn't use to mean a thing at The University, but now football's up, basketball's hot, sports are in
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September 15, 1980

It's V-i-r-g-i-n-i-a-a-a-a!

Winning didn't use to mean a thing at The University, but now football's up, basketball's hot, sports are in

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Nothing can ever be written about the University of Virginia without beginning with a quote of Thomas Jefferson's, and, ideally, closing with one as well.

In the KA house at noon there was an air of intense gaiety. Young people milled about on the portico, in the hallway and in the chapter room, and everybody said, 'Hey! How you?' very loudly to one another. Although it was too early to drink or dance, everybody casually did both, to the noise of horns and saxophones, and the girls' faces became pink and lovely and excited, so certain was each girl that this day was meant for her alone. At the bar, in an atmosphere of calculated darkness, boys and girls stood drinking hot rum from Mason jars.... The football game itself was hardly mentioned: it was only a hurdle to be overcome before the real happiness began.
Lie Down In Darkness

The University, founded by Mister Jefferson, opened The Doors for 68 students 155 years ago last March. Both institutions—the University and Mister Jefferson—are doing quite well. The University endowment amounts to $160 million, among the highest in the world for a public institution. The football team actually had a winning record last fall, and the basketball team won the NIT. Teddy Kennedy went to The Law School. The students, the Wahoos, who live on The Grounds, the most prominent of them on The Lawn by The Rotunda, still sing The Good Old Song, still abide by The Honor System, and in the spring still celebrate Easters, the ultimate in collegiate bacchanalia. Playboy once ranked the Top 10 party schools in the U.S. It started with Miami and went down from there, without—incredibly—rating The University. Then, at the end of the article, it declared that Virginia was in a class by itself as a party school. Another league. Nonpareil.

Mister Jefferson is also doing terrifically. Ask anybody around Hookville. Hookville is Charlottesville, the name apparently deriving from the shape of the apostrophe when it is written C'ville. In Hookville it is always Mister Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson is a name in history books. Mister Jefferson is around. There is always the sense that he'll be back in a minute, that he just went down to the apothecary, or is over at the Sunoco station, kicking whitewalls. At Monticello the places are set and there are fruits and nuts on the table. Oh sure, Mister Jefferson hasn't been especially crazy about making the columns with Sally Hemings the last few years. Now his and Sally's love story has been optioned by Hollywood. But what are you going to do? The epochs they are achangin'. Under pressure of a lawsuit, The University accepted women as students in 1970, 50 years after they got the vote. A University course on Virginia history is taught by an apostate from Youngstown, Ohio, whose theme is: "Ohio turned out to be what Mister Jefferson wanted Virginia to be." And strangest of all, some visionaries think the football team will actually go to a bowl this year.

Mister Jefferson was a redhead, standing 6'2½", gigantic in those days, sort of the relative equivalent of Dave Cowens. And as Alexander Hamilton could tell you, Mister Jefferson could go to his left. And he had a complete game—writing, designing, creating and inventing everything that Ben Franklin never got around to.

Of course, the jury is still out on Mister Jefferson's quickness, inasmuch as he was a WASP. It used to be that there were certain code words that told everybody we were talking about blacks. Now we have that for whites. As soon as you read so-and-so lacks quickness, you know what we are letting on. White guy. If the newspapers headlined Mister Jefferson's Declaration of Independence today, it would read: 56 INK LIBERTY PACT; SIGNERS LACK QUICKNESS.

Well, unfortunately, The University's basketball team has lacked quickness. When the Constitutional scholars in Hookville get to discussing the Three-Fifths Compromise, they mean that only two of the Wahoo starters on the NIT basketball team were black. But never mind. The big man now is Ralph Sampson, a second-year student, who has quickness, grace and touch and, being 7'4" tall, is quite capable of taking the Wahoos to a national championship. Sampson is from nearby Harrisonburg, perhaps the first really sought-after Virginia athlete ever to choose the state university—and, listen, he chose it twice. This summer he refused to let an ungracious Red Auerbach spirit him away to play for the Celtics. So not only is there potential for a basketball championship and a football bowl, but for a trend as well. Ah, but can The University deal with it? As a fanatical alumnus booster named Rennie O'Ferrell says, "After all these years of losing, of struggling to get on top, I'm afraid it's going to be a terrible letdown when we do win." Greg Canty, a star half-miler on the track team, explains the mass disorientation last autumn: "Always before, people went to the football games because it was an excuse to get drunk. When we started winning, people found themselves staying sober. It was all very strange."

Of all American colleges, surely only at The University is victory considered disturbing. Nevertheless, the problem is imminent, and Mister Jefferson is probably puzzled. As he said the other day while he was figuring out a cure for the common cold and how to put Amtrak into the black, "Who's gonna win, who's gonna win, who's gonna win the people say-ay-ay? We're gonna win, we're gonna win, V-I-R-G-I-N-I-A-A-A-A!"

All right, no more blasphemy.

To appreciate how The University got to such a pretty pass in athletics, it is necessary to understand that Mister Jefferson's "Academical Village," as he styled it, has been perhaps the most unusual public institution in America, flourishing with contradictions to the point of schizophrenia. To begin with, The University cannot be divorced from the state, which is, of course, not a state at all but The Commonwealth, Mother of Presidents, home of The Father of Our Country, the land, forever, of tradition. Virginia was not only most prominent in birthing the nation, but also the most responsible for cleaving it. Staige Blackford, a Rhodes scholar graduate of The University, now editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review, says, "Even into the '50s, the Deep South looked to Virginia as sure as it had after Sumter. If Harry Byrd and his organization had not urged the South to follow massive resistance, I'm sure that integration would have moved ahead by five years or more. But remember this too: through all those awful years of turmoil, there was almost no violence in Virginia."

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