Today, I’m going to preach, so have your money ready when the collection plate is passed.
The sermon is about believing. Faith. Taking an opportunity and turning it into something.
Just like Virginia Tech’s football team is doing.
You see, if you turn in your hymnals back to the beginning of the season, fans were singing a different tune. They said the Hokies had no talent. Fans weren’t giving enough money. The team had wannabes instead of 4 and 5 stars, the kind of players YOU BOOMERS bring up when you talk about the glory days of the 90s.
But that doesn’t work today, they said. Belief, team chemistry, one man maximizing all his God-given talent and leaving it all on the field…that is just nostalgic fantasy, so go home to your rotary phone, be quiet and drink your Metamucil.
They’re partly right, as only a fool would bet on a team of underdogs when playing a rich group of 5-stars. As one of my old friends who has spent most of his life out in the country would say, “every dumb jackass knows THAT.”
But to quote noted philosophers Buffalo Springfield, “something’s happening here, and what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Brent Pry knows he has to play with the hand he’s been dealt and has turned many a deuce and an occasional Jack into what looks like a winning hand.
How he’s doing it is what I find interesting.
Several times this week I’ve seen writers talking about what a surprise the Hokies have been this year, sitting at 3-1 in the ACC and having a chance to play in the league’s championship game. How are they doing this, the pundits ask.
It’s not rocket science. Look at the very bottom of the ACC standings. That’s where the wins came from. Then look at the top and you’ll see where the loss came from.
But this is more than just capitalizing on a weak schedule. With each win this team seems to change.
I think the best coaches I’ve met in being around sports all my life are part teacher, part carnival barker and part psychologist. They show their players the right way something needs to be done, they reinforce when it works so they will believe it CAN be done, and then they look for that button we all have that drives us crazy to prove we are good at what we do.
The great ones add one more skill: They listen. And I am coming around to the belief we are in the midst of watching some great coaching happening in Blacksburg.
Let’s go back in our hymnals to the beginning of the season. The team wasn’t very impressive to watch. Quarterback, coach and team were not on the same page. The offensive line is terrible, they said. We have no running game, they said. The defense can’t stop anybody, they said.
But it’s all related. A tired defense that’s on the field all the time will struggle to stop someone late in a game. An offensive line struggling to learn to play together will look bad at first with an offense featuring a drop back pocket passer. If the passing game is no threat, defenses will stack the box and your running backs will be launching themselves into a brick wall.
No one believed. Each play was like going to a tedious job. Nobody was having any fun.
Some thought Grant Wells being injured and Kyron Drones becoming the starting QB was the moment everything changed for the better, but I disagree. They continued to run the same offense with Drones they did with Wells, and things did not get appreciably better.
I don’t think things changed for the better until somebody – probably Pry – had what we call in the South a “Come To Jesus” conversation about changing the offense to fit what Drones did best. You saw it first against Pitt, as they rolled Drones out more to throw on the run, which in turn allowed the offensive line to not be sitting ducks for the pass rush and blitzing safeties.
All of a sudden the offense was no longer as predictable as a jet sweep under the previous regime. Plays that previously hadn’t worked this season started to have promise. Running backs found seams in those brick walls. Receivers gave it that extra burst on patterns knowing their work would be rewarded with a pass their way.
You could see it in many a player’s step as they returned to the huddle. It was like when my daughter reached her mid-20s and realized “maybe Dad isn’t as dumb as I’ve been thinking these last 10 years.”
Totally overlooked in all this is just how difficult this transition can be. Football coaches I’ve known don’t run their teams as democracies, and devising anything by committee is usually seen as a sign of weakness. Tyler Bowen devised his offense based on everything he’s learned as a player and coach in his life, so to come to a realization what you’ve poured your passion and effort into wasn’t working had to be like someone saying to you that your baby is ugly. You’re going to be very defensive about it.
But the change was made, and it hasn’t stopped. Pry has been like the conductor of a symphony, waving on the change, reinforcing what worked to all who would listen, and pushing for more. Players are hearing the change, seeing the results, then lining up with what noted philosopher Big and Rich refer to as “a little zing in your zang zang.”
No longer is a fatigued defense saying “Ole’” as an opponent’s running back sprints down the middle of the field in the fourth quarter because they’re now getting to rest while the offense burns up chunks of time with long drives. The Terrordome has returned to town and Antwaun Powell-Ryland is putting the “sack” back in Sacksburg.
The team with no running attack now has genuine stars in Bhayshul Tuten and Malachi Thomas. The special teams with John “Radar” Love are once again special. The passing game stretches the field like the 1970s Oakland Raiders.
Football is fun again.
So with all this said, can the Hokies keep this up against Louisville, which has more talent, more money, is playing at home and will be heavily favored? I mean, they even have good Wifi and LED lights in Louisville. How can you compete with THAT?
Smart money would say no. Analytics gurus would say there’s no way. And they could be right.
But football is an emotional game where sometimes, a good coach who knows how to press the right buttons on his team can do the improbable. Faith is a powerful thing. He who believes, it’s been said many times, can move mountains.
Right now, this Virginia Tech team believes.