EDITOR'S NOTE: I wrote this a year ago about Virginia Tech's basketball game with Louisville, then the game got cancelled due to COVID. They play for the first time since tonight. The message still holds true:
Tonight, the most pivotal game of the Virginia Tech basketball season will come down to a matchup between the Hokies and Louisville.
Of course it will.
Much is written about the rivalry between Virginia Tech and those neighbors to the East in Charlottesville, but when you are discussing a pure and intense rival for another team in basketball, nobody stokes the fires for me like Louisville. I'm sure there's a better and more diplomatic way to say it, but I just don't like them.
Should you be too young to remember, it was the Cardinals who led the movement to cast the Hokie basketball program into the desert to wander around in search of a permanent home for many years back in the mid-1990s. Virginia Tech had joined what was then the Metro-7 in 1978, sharing a league with the likes of Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Memphis, St. Louis, Tulane and Florida State.
Georgia Tech had just left the Metro to become the 8th member of the Atlantic Coast Conference after South Carolina had left, and the Hokies took their place. Eventually, South Carolina would join too in 1983 and as basketball conferences went, it was a pretty stout league.
Louisville, because they would win national championships in 1980 and 1986 under Coach Denny Crum, thought they owned the league. Much like Duke and North Carolina have always pushed the non-tobacco road schools in the ACC, Louisville held the role in the Metro. What they wanted, it seemed, they got.
But not in the Hokies’ first year in the league. Virginia Tech finished 4th in the Metro that initial regular season, then beat Cincinnati in the first round of the Metro Tournament. Dale Solomon was an imposing force for the Hokies in the middle, but in the second-round game against Louisville, he did not play due to a death in the family. The 13th-ranked Cardinals, with players like Darrell Griffith and Scooter McCray, expected to breeze past VT on the way to winning the tournament.
That didn’t happen. With the likes of Wayne Robinson, Les Henson, Marshall Ashford, Dexter Reid and Tic Price picking up the slack, Virginia Tech shocked Louisville 72-68, then would win the tournament the next day while beating Florida State 68-60. That team would also make the NCAA Tournament, win it’s first-round game against Jacksonville, then lose to Indiana State and a guy named Larry Bird.
These were the days Louisville and the Hokies were true rivals. The Hokies would lose the next 5 between the two teams, then sweep both games in January of 1982 on the way to winning 5 of the next 7. But since then, Louisville has owned the series, with the Cardinals winning 11 straight, the Hokies sweeping both games in 1991, and Louisville winning every game since, losing 17 straight.
It’s hard to call something a rivalry when one team wins 28 of the last 30.
Beating Virginia Tech every year like a rented mule, however, wasn’t enough for Louisville. In the early 1990s, Louisville and four other teams decided the likes of Virginia Tech and VCU (which eventually joined the Metro) didn’t bring as much to the basketball table as they’d like, so they pursued a merger with the Great Midwest Conference that became official in 1995.
As the Hokies saw when the Big East went in a different direction, merging conferences has to be done quite carefully, because it is the conference that is assigned credits from the NCAA Tournament that have great monetary value. Leave a conference before it is actually disbanded and you lose the credits. Merge with another conference, and it can be a sticky legal situation that tends to be like a bad marriage headed for divorce: Whoever leaves first loses everything.
Louisville pushed, jostled, and tried everything possible to get Virginia Tech and VCU to go away. After repeated attempts, the league realized that technically those two schools would be the only remaining schools left (since they had nowhere to go) and would be entitled to the credits. The Metro then decided to call a vote and ended up expelling them both. As expected, the two Commonwealth schools sued, and they were awarded $2.27 million to split between them.
Virginia Tech would join the Atlantic 10, but the acrimony would remain. The next time Virginia Tech and Louisville played, Hokie players were all wearing shirts during warmups that said “Thanks A Million” to Louisville and the Metro. Which back in the 90s was still considered a rather large sum of money.
It’s now been 27 years, meaning every player on the floor tonight wasn’t even born when all this happened. To them, it’s just a critical game to keep their dreams of possibly making the NCAA Tournament alive.
But many of us old-timers haven’t forgotten. Between the losing streak and being kicked to the curb all those years ago, there’s a debt Virginia Tech owes Louisville.
Tonight, it’s time for that debt to be paid.