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There Was More Than One Miracle Going On That Day...

With Virginia Tech preparing to play at West Virginia Saturday, many a memory from the 1999 “Miracle in Morgantown” game has been revived, which has really been cool.

But there was actually a second miracle that occurred that day. And those two miracles probably led to a third a few years later.

That the Hokies gave up a touchdown in the final 1:15, then Michael Vick got them down the field just in time for Shayne Graham to nail a 44-yard field goal at the final gun is well known. The videos of that drive with 1:06 left have been shown a gazillion times. That it put Virginia Tech in the national championship game against Florida State is also universally recognized.

But allow me to take you back to the beginning of that season. Driving up for the James Madison game, I’d say there were two other universally held beliefs I and many other Hokies had come to accept. The first was that Virginia Tech would never play for a national championship in football. That was no judgment on where the program was going, but getting into the game involved too much politics and luck.

As seen several times since, you could go undefeated and have the greatest season ever, but if you were not one of college football’s brand names, you were not going to jump a similarly undefeated brand-name team. If all things are equal, college football seems to turn the voting into a popularity contest as if they’re naming a Homecoming Queen.

The second involved the conference the Hokies played in. I became a Hokie fan at the age of 12, but was also solidly under the spell ACC basketball was sending through my television every Saturday with league games and the siren sounds of “Sail With The Pilot” commercials in the background. In a perfect world, I believed, Virginia Tech would one day be in the ACC.

Over the years I had come to accept that was never going to happen either. I had a boss at the Roanoke newspaper named Bill Brill, and he would frequently say the Hokies didn’t add anything in terms of television markets (UVA had that covered) and unless they were playing for national titles in football or basketball, they were never getting in. I hated him for saying that every 17 minutes during the time I was around him, but I couldn’t debate it. He was speaking the truth.

We all gasped that warm September day when this QB we had heard about turned into Superman right before our eyes. I turned to my wife when Vick took off on his first TD run against JMU and told her “I can’t believe it. This is the player we’ve waited our entire life for.” Not soon after that he injured his ankle and had to come out of the game, prompting me to also say “God must hate us.”

No matter how good the Hokies appeared to be with Vick at QB, none of that would have mattered until about an hour before game time on November 6, 1999. Florida State was ranked No. 1 in the country, a ranking they held from wire to wire that year. Penn State was ranked No. 2, and while Virginia Tech still had Miami, Temple and Boston College left to play, beating all three still wouldn’t matter if Penn State kept winning. If both schools were unbeaten, the old boys club of CFB was going to pick the Nittany Lions to play for the national title.

But it turned out there was a second miracle that day, this one in State College, PA. Trailing by 2 with 1:22 left, Minnesota completed an  unbelievable 27-yard tipped pass on 4th and 16, which then set up Dan Nystrom’s 32-yard field goal as time ran out. The Gophers won 24-23, Penn State would no longer be No. 2, and the Hokies had their opening.

If you were nervous before this happened, Minnesota’s upset really turned up the wick. I kept saying out loud in my den “we may NEVER have this chance again; we HAVE to win.”

As everyone knows by now, the Hokies did, and also beat Miami, Temple and BC to end up in the National Championship game. A month later, the greatest trip I ever had walking to the mailbox occurred when I pulled out a Sports Illustrated from the mailbox with Andre Davis on the cover and the bold headline of “They Belong.”

I’ll admit, there was something in my eye for a second. We’d always been one of those teams hoping to be among the elite, and this magazine was saying we weren’t the red-headed stepchild of college football that got lucky this season. It was right there in print: THEY BELONG.

The Hokies would lead 29-28 after three quarters against Florida State, then the Seminoles blew them out in the 4th quarter. While disappointed, none of us had any idea that something strange and wonderful was going on in the background of college football, and just being in that game would have a huge effect.

That summer I was invited to play golf at Grandfather Mountain with an old friend, and one member of the foursome was Bill Foster, the former VT basketball coach who also coached for many years at Clemson. He told us his Clemson buddies had been telling him we were about to be invited into the ACC. Said the ACC knew they had to have better football programs, and everyone was unanimous about Miami. Virginia Tech, he said had enough votes to be the second, but the league could not agree on the third, as the Miami people wanted BC and Syracuse to go with Miami, so everything got put on hold.

I drove home thinking “I sure hope Bill is right.” 

He was. Eventually agreements were made, and in 2004, the miracle I thought I’d never see - Virginia Tech accepting an invitation to join the ACC – happened. For good measure, the Hokies went out in 2004 and won the league football title in their first season. You wanted a strong football program? How about beating everyone in the race for first in year 1.

Turns out there was a lot more going on Nov. 6, 1999 then a football game. That season Virginia Tech went from being seen as a good but not great program, to “They Belong,” to playing for the National Championship, to finally joining the conference they always wanted to be in. All which would make any list of the greatest things to happen in Hokie athletics in the last 25 years.

All made possible by the Miracle In Morgantown.

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