Day 7: Big East entry helps Hokies go from chumps to conference champs
For Gators, Trojans and Longhorns, championship foundations are brick-and-mortar basic.

Sell your storied heritage and alluring locale to the region's elite prospects, mix with virtually unlimited resources and build another trophy case.

Virginia Tech never had those assets. The Hokies could not compete with Florida's offensive sizzle, Southern California's Heismans or Texas' honky tonks.

Until the school stuck with its home-grown coach, groveled its way into a fledgling conference, developed recruits otherwise prized by VMI and overcame a humiliating loss to a five-touchdown underdog.

A decade ago, this hash of ingredients forged the cornerstones of an undefeated regular season that carried Virginia Tech to the national title game against a card-carrying dynasty in Florida State.

"I never dreamed we could play for the national championship," assistant coach Billy Hite said on the eve of his 32nd season in Blacksburg. "I left the University of North Carolina (in 1978), and I always thought they had a better chance than what we did.

"The best thing that happened to Virginia Tech was when we got into the Big East."

A football independent since leaving the Southern Conference in 1965, the Hokies were charter members of the Big East's football arm in 1991. It brought them unprecedented television exposure, bowl access and recruiting cachet.

Dave Braine, then Tech's athletic director, recalls the Big East's basketball wing (Georgetown, Providence, St. John's and Seton Hall) vehemently resisting football. He credits then-Miami athletic director Sam Jankovich and recently retired Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese with overriding those objections.

"If it hadn't been for Miami," Braine said, "we wouldn't have been in a football-playing conference."

But league membership wasn't Braine's only football concern. In Frank Beamer's first six seasons as head coach, 1987-92, the Hokies were 24-40-2, a product of his inexperience, a thorny schedule and NCAA-mandated scholarship cuts.

The temptation was to fire Beamer. But the NCAA sanctions were for infractions committed under former coach Bill Dooley. Moreover, Beamer was a Hokie, class of '69.

Tech's patience paid incalculable dividends.

In 1993, the Hokies began a streak of bowl appearances that is 16 and counting. In '95, they rebounded from an 0-2 start, won the Big East and closed the season with 10 consecutive victories, including a Sugar Bowl win over Texas.

Led by linemen Cornell Brown and J.C. Price on defense, and quarterback Jim Druckenmiller and tailback Dwayne Thomas on offense, Tech finished No. 9 in the coaches' poll that season, the program's first season-ending top-10 ranking.

"We learned a lot from that 1995 team," said Jamel Smith, a senior linebacker in '99. "A lot of us redshirted that year. It showed us Virginia Tech could get to the highest level."

Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring, a Tech assistant since 1993, recalls what Beamer said immediately after the victory over Texas.

"We deserved the opportunity to be here, and I can promise you this: We'll be back, and we'll be better."

The Hokies repeated as Big East champions in 1996 and lost to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. A program that previously reveled in Liberty, Peach and Independence bowls was hunting with the big dogs.