A Rare Black Diamond

From 1973 – 2005, each fall whether it be in September or October, you could find on the college football schedule a game that meant something to two neighboring states and two loyal fan bases.  But much like many things in this world, it went away with conference shifting and has been played just one time (at a neutral site) since 2005.  Tomorrow for the 53rd time West Virginia plays Virginia Tech.

          To be quite honest, while the teams played every year from 1973 to 2005, it wasn’t until they were part of the same league that West Virginia began really considering this a rivalry.  The Mountaineers biggest rival has always been Pittsburgh, less than an hour away from the Morgantown campus.  Former WVU coach Don Nehlen said that after he arrived in 1979, he didn’t consider Virginia Tech much because they were down in the mountains of Southwest Virginia and his teams’ fan base cared more about Pittsburgh.

          Virginia Tech vs West Virginia has always had more of an importance to the Southern part of the state and particularly those counties that border Virginia.  In many places in the border counties, it takes about 45 minutes and out-of-state tuition to go to Virginia Tech.  Going to West Virginia requires about a three-hour drive to Morgantown. 

          Outside of both being land-grant universities, the schools really have few similarities.  Virginia Tech is and always will be primarily an engineering and agricultural-based school.  You can often walk to class on a windy morning and smell the aromatic smell of “cow shit.”  The University has tried to shift some focus away from that core base by starting a school of osteopathic medicine and partnering with health care organization Carillion to start a medical school, but it’s 40 miles to the East in Roanoke.  A party school it’s not.  You’ll rarely find a wild Saturday night in Blacksburg. 

          WVU wants to be the school for West Virginians.  To that end, it has a medical school, law school, dentistry school, nursing school, and pharmacy school all in hopes of training the states’ best students and hoping they’ll stay home.  They’ve also expanded to two additional campuses, Potomac State College of West Virginia University in Keyser and the West Virginia University Institute of Technology (WVU Tech) in Beckley.  A party school, it is.  From the frat houses to the burning couches, throwing down at WVU is just a way of life. 

          But when it comes to football, the two universities are very similar.  There’s a national perception that these two fan bases suffer from an over-inflated importance of themselves on the national landscape.  West Virginia “unofficially” played for a National Championship in the 1988 Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame and Virginia Tech played in the 1999 BCS National Championship against Florida State in the Sugar Bowl.  Perhaps what the “national” writers and broadcasters call “over-inflated importance” is better called passion, and these two fan bases don’t lack for that.

          The WVU fan base frankly gets a bad rap sometimes as a bunch of rowdy drunks.  And some of it is deserved.  There have been plenty of drunken incidents at WVU over the years including the infamous 1996 meeting with Miami when someone threw a trash can out of the student section (how the hell they got it in there is a mystery) and hit a Miami assistant coach on the head.  Getting to the visiting locker room requires the opposing team to be exposed to WVU fans leaning over a fenced area where they can easily get pelted with anything and everything.  Coaches are often seen shouting at their players to keep their “head gear” on until they get into the locker room.

          Meanwhile the Virginia Tech fan base is loud (nothing wrong with that) but are also what I’ve often referred to as Jihadist in nature.  They are willing to die for the cause and many (if not most) forget that long before “Beamer Ball” it was nothing but a nice little regional program that mostly catered to locals.  As an independent, the schedule was chocked full of the VMI’s, Richmond’s, William and Mary’s, and Cincinnati’s of the world.  They used to beg people to come to the games in a 40,000-seat stadium.  Now without a donation, and a 66,000-seat stadium that’s a little more difficult.  The school alienated plenty of those people who were long-time season ticket holders from the days when the team was really bad to mediocre by requiring them to either start making an annual donation or move to the South endzone from the sideline seating area.      

          What really made these two programs, and their annual game is a conference affiliation, and what is making their football lives more difficult these days is their respective current conference affiliations. 

          The Big East Conference was formed as an eastern based basketball league in 1979.  That was its focus and with Georgetown, Villanova, and Syracuse the league was a basketball powerhouse.  But we all know that the tail that wags the dog of college sports is football and in the early 90s, the Big East wanted part of that. 

          The Big East decided in 1991 to add football and form the Big East Football Conference.  The Conference invited football independents Miami, Virginia Tech West Virginia and Rutgers to join its football playing schools Syracuse, Boston College, and Pittsburgh.  Of course, West Virginia and Virginia Tech weren’t stupid and immediately said yes.  Going the route of an independent – unless you are Notre Dame – is no way to run a rodeo. 

          From 1993 – 2003 some of the best football in the nation was played in the Big East.  West Virginia won the first conference championship in 1993 going 7-0.  They added another in 2003.  Virginia Tech won or shared 3 Big East Titles in 95, 96, and 99.  Miami was the powerhouse.  The “U” won or shared championships in 95, 96, 2000, 2001, and 2002.  And there was a time Syracuse was actually good at football.  The Orange won or shared Big East championships in 96, 97, and 98.  The conference produced players like Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb and Geno Toretta, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1992.

          The Conference made West Virginia and Virginia Tech players on the national scene.  It gave Virginia Tech particularly a recruiting boost.  You can more easily convince a kid to come play in a league where if you win you are going to premier bowl games and play for championships.  If you are an independent it’s a hard sell to a really good player to convince him that win over Richmond will propel them to an exotic location like Shreveport, Louisiana for the holidays. And in those days, the soccer moms hadn’t taken over and we didn’t have 45 freaking bowl games so not everyone got a trophy.  

          The television exposure improved tremendously.  Tech couldn’t get a TV game prior to the Big East.  With the Big East, they had a regional network, a national TV deal with CBS Sports, and were among the first schools to embrace ESPN’s Thursday night football.  The stadium doesn’t expand without those Thursday night games. 

          But the Big East began to crack just after the turn of the century.  Virginia Tech had always coveted a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference.  The University of Virginia had always blocked them from any chance at that goal.  That all changed in 2003.  Seeing the seismic shift about to happen, ACC Commissioner John Swafford was proactive in seeking out expansion targets.  His wish list was Syracuse, Boston College and Miami, but not Virginia Tech. 

          Enter then-Virginia Governor Mark Warner.  He turned the screws on the University of Virginia (a public institution subject to state oversight) and instead of Syracuse, the expansion included Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech.  West Virginia continued in the Big East which added Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, and Connecticut.  And they did well there also, winning or sharing 5 more championships.

          Like most Shakespearean tragedies, however, the lead character is often the mastermind of his own undoing.  And that was the case for the Big East. Its leadership failed to either notice or appreciate the intra-conference, all for himself, back-stabbing that was occurring inside its ranks.  They walked away from a multi-million-dollar television deal with ESPN in some mistaken belief they could do better on the open market.  The basketball schools didn’t like football being the controlling sport and the football schools saw better opportunities elsewhere. 

          In 2011, Syracuse and Pitt pulled out for the ACC.  West Virginia – then under new A.D. and former quarterback Oliver Luck – joined the Big 12, out-bidding Louisville for that spot in what was a no-holds bar catfight between the schools.  The basketball schools had enough and split off, took the Big East name with them, and combined with some non-football schools like Creighton, Marquette, and Xavier to return to the Big East roots of basketball.

          The remaining schools, Louisville, Cincinnati, U-Conn, South Florida and Rutgers joined up with SMU, Texas, and Central Florida to form the American Conference. The American was unstable since the start and remains that way.  Rutgers moved to the Big-10 in 2012 and Louisville got the last laugh on WVU.  Having lost the spot in the Big-12 to the Mountaineers, Louisville joined the ACC, a much better landing spot for their athletic program.

          Big East football was long gone and not coming back and one of the casualties was the annual Virginia Tech-WVU game.  They played in 2004 and 2005 after Tech moved to the ACC, but after the 2005 meeting in Morgantown, they wouldn’t meet again until a season opener at Fed Ex Field in Landover, Maryland in 2017. 

          The game has a traveling trophy – the Black Diamond Trophy – which hasn’t done much traveling lately.  Virginia Tech took it to Blacksburg in 2005 and it’s remained there ever since, having won the latest meeting in 2017.  If West Virginia doesn’t win it this year, then it may stay in Blacksburg in perpetuity.  The schools meet in Blacksburg next year and with no foreseeable future game scheduled, the trophy is going to wind up in someone’s trophy room for a long run.

          In the bigger picture, it’s difficult to determine where these two programs are right now.  Virginia Tech was the dominant team in the ACC’s Coastal Division during Frank Beamer’s tenure and at the beginning of Justin Fuente’s tenure.  That’s no longer the case.  Justin Fuente is clearly coaching for his job after going 5-6 last year and not doing much to endear himself to the fan base.  I don’t think he’s an asshole. I just think he’s a quiet, focused on football personality.  You can do that when you are 10-2.  You have to be a little more warm-and-fuzzy at 5-6. 

          He’s off to a good start having beating North Carolina in the first game.  If the Hokies win Saturday they are a win over Richmond away from a 4-0 record heading into an October 8th home game with Notre Dame.  They are recruiting better and have apparently shifted focus from recruiting North Carolina to mining their home state again. The jury is still out and a loss to West Virginia will make the one-time hottest coach in America a step closer to looking for work as an offensive coordinator somewhere.

          It’s complicated nationally by the fact that ACC football is pretty shitty.  Clemson is head and shoulders above anyone else in the league and frankly it isn’t close.  North Carolina was supposed to be good, they aren’t and frankly other teams on Tech’s schedule like Pitt, Boston College, Duke and Georgia Tech range from bad to mediocre.  If Fuente can’t win in the ACC, then where can he?    

          As for West Virginia, they finally have a head coach that gets it.  Neal Brown understands the state and its people.  Rich Rodriguez was from West Virginia, but he didn’t hesitate one second to make a disastrous career move to Michigan because he was better than the place he grew up.  Bill Stewart was also from West Virginia.  But putting him in charge of the program was a little like putting Jed Clampett in charge.  It wasn’t going to work, and it didn’t. 

          Dana Holgerson couldn’t have cared less about West Virginia. He did have to build a Big-12 team out of Big East level talent and he did improve that, but his night owl lifestyle and general arrogance put off a lot of people. Trust me, no one was sad to see him leave for the “party-bus” in Houston.  

          Brown gets it, but he’s already under fire for the lack of winning.  He’s in his 3rd year at 12-12.  He needs a big win and Virginia Tech would be it.  The landscape may also soon change for West Virginia football again.  The Big-12 is losing Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC.  On one hand that’s good for Brown and West Virginia because they cannot compete with Oklahoma.  On the other hand, adding Cincinnati, Central Florida, Houston and BYU doesn’t exactly make the Big-12 live up to its name and so winning the new “Big-12” isn’t going to be the same.  WVU says it’s committed to the Big-12.  I’m not buying it.  Let the Big-10 or ACC come along, and they are gone.              

  Despite their divergent paths over the past 16 years, these two schools need to find a way to play this game every year.  Tech seems content on playing Big 10 schools like Wisconsin and Penn State in the future.  WVU remains a traveling road show in the geographically challenged Big-12.  Whatever the future holds for West Virginia and Virginia Tech for one Saturday the rivalry is back, one that means something to their respective fan bases, and one that may be the most important game yet to both coaches at this point in their respective careers so let’s all enjoy the rare black diamond.

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