Having just completed its third Military Bowl in nine years, I have to say, this one felt different for Virginia Tech.
It wasn’t just the fact the Hokies won by a 41-20 margin. In addition to that, folks were happy. Positive. Hopeful. Believing that finally, the program has found its way back from the abyss it’s been residing in the last decade.
That wasn’t the case after the first Military Bowl in 2014. Back then, there was fear in the air that the party Frank Beamer started in the 90s was going to come to an end. The Hokies had started the year with a huge upset of eventual national champion Ohio State at the Horseshoe in Columbus, but limped to the finish line with only a 6-6 record in the regular season.
Nobody should tell a legend it’s time to go, but the air was full of rumors about Frank’s health, stories that he’d lost a few mph off his fastball, assistants were not getting out of the office and recruiting, and general accountability wasn’t happening. Many of us were at that game because if it were to be Frank’s last bowl, we wanted to be there to say goodbye.
The Hokies beat Cincinnati that day to keep the streak of winning seasons going, but we all knew we were going down the road into a lot of uncertainty, and few felt comfortable with what the future was going to hold.
As it turned out, 2015 was Frank’s last year and he was succeeded by Justin Fuente. By the time the Hokies played in their second Military Bowl in 2018, fear wasn’t in the air; resignation was. Fuente started out with a 10-4 season, then dropped to 9-4, then 6-6 going into the Military Bowl. Progress was going the wrong way and people were now saying out loud what they previously didn’t want to admit: We may have picked the wrong man.
Players came and went from year to year so you weren’t sure who was part of the program and who was waiting their turn to enter the portal. Quarterbacks were particularly transient as the likes of Hendon Hooker, Josh Jackson, Quincy Patterson and others started their careers with promise in Blacksburg, but finished at other universities. While Frank’s recruiting prowess in the state faded at the end, Fuente’s never really started. Instead, it was a series of slogans, like from Texas to VT, NC to VT, the Aleutian Islands to VT, whatever. Seemed the recruiting priority was any piece of geography except Virginia.
So in 2018, when fans left the stadium after a loss to Cincinnati (and the end of a streak of winning seasons) the feeling wasn’t one of happiness. It was more of “how much longer do we have to live with this?”
Five years later, things have changed, as there was no fear or resignation in the air today. In only his second year as head coach, Brent Pry started a new bowl streak with VT’s third Military Bowl appearance, and the only black clouds over the game were literal black clouds of rain, making you feel like you were inside a carwash while watching.
People were excited to be there, and aside from some early mistakes that made the score closer than it needed to be at times, Pry and company had the players, game plan and energy to win the game easily. It was particularly impressive in the second half when the offense just flattened Tulane with its running game; while Hokie teams of the past have tended to fade in the final minutes of important games, today’s team got stronger as the game went on.
There were other intangibles that were equally impressive. Look at social media and you saw many former players there on their own dime just to support the family. Players looked happy to just be there on the sidelines waiting for their chances. Previous regimes looked like they were at a job. Today’s Hokies looked like they were at an adventure.
Pry looked as happy as if he were playing in a rain-soaked turkey bowl game Thanksgiving morning. There was an energy surrounding every one as if they were building something, and that the results of today’s game were going to build even more. This team felt like a group building its own, new identity.
It was a college football version of back to the future. Much has been said about getting the Hokies back to the successful environment of the Frank Beamer past. Today actually FELT like that environment.
So unlike what it was like during the previous two Military Bowls, fans today left only worrying about rain and fog on the drive home. They smiled knowing they have a coach. They smiled even more knowing every successful player in today’s game will be back to do the same for next year’s team.
In previous Military Bowls, fans left wondering where the program was going.
After today’s 41-20 win, they didn’t.
Pry and the Hokies left no doubt.