Thursday, April 19, 2007
Hokies resolute about the future at Virginia Tech
By Mark Schlabach
BLACKSBURG, Va. -- The games will go on at Virginia Tech, beginning with Friday night's baseball series against ACC foe Miami at English Field. The school's tennis, golf and track and field teams will participate in ACC championship events out of town, and the softball and lacrosse teams will compete on campus this weekend as well.
But as Hokies athletes and coaches begin to cope with the tragic events of Monday's rampage on campus, which left 32 students and faculty members dead and 21 others wounded in the worst shooting massacre in modern U.S. history, people affiliated with Virginia Tech athletics can't help but wonder what the lasting effect will be on the once-tranquil university in southwest Virginia.
Virginia Tech running backs coach Billy Hite, who has been an assistant at the school since 1978, keeps coming back to an indelible memory of his youth. Hite, who turns 56 next week, was a student at the University of North Carolina on May 4, 1970, when Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on a crowd of students at Kent State during a protest of the American invasion of Cambodia. Four students were killed and nine were wounded.
More than 35 years later, Hite still has a lasting image of Kent State.
"Four dead in O-hi-o," Hite said, referring to the lyrics of the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song "Ohio," which became an anthem for Vietnam War protesters during the 1970s.
"That song still pops into my head all the time," Hite said. "'Four dead in O-hi-o. Four dead in O-hi-o.' Right now, that's what people will always think of when they think of this place."
Virginia Tech basketball coach Seth Greenberg also wonders whether the actions of the Virginia Tech killer -- identified by police Tuesday as 23-year-old senior Cho Seung-Hui -- will become the school's legacy across the country and around the world.
"Is it going to define Virginia Tech?" Greenberg asked. "I think it's going to define tragedy. It's going to define the senseless, heinous act it was. I think it's obviously something anyone associated with Virginia Tech is going to have to address. It's just the way it is. It's not going away. It's reality. There's no way to hide from it."
Greenberg and assistant coaches Ryan Odom and Stacey Palmore planned to visit two high school players Thursday in the Washington, D.C. area. Forwards Jeff Allen of DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., and Augustus Gilchrist of Friendly High in Fort Washington, Md., have signed national letters of intent to play at Virginia Tech this fall. Allen and Gilchrist are two of the most highly recruited players to choose the Hokies during Greenberg's four-year tenure at the school.
Greenberg said he planned to meet with the players' parents to reassure them Virginia Tech was a safe place and that Monday's shooting was an isolated incident.
"It doesn't define who we are," Greenberg said. "I think what defines who we are is the outpouring of support people have shown each other. What defines Virginia Tech is when you see these students being interviewed, you can see how much ownership they take in the university and how committed they are in rebuilding it. The ownership the people have in this place is second to none. It's what makes Virginia Tech special."
Virginia Tech will need that support more than ever before. Before the horrific shootings Monday, Virginia Tech seemed to be nearing its crest. The school had made tremendous strides during the last 10 years, both athletically and academically.
|Frank Beamer and others are confident that this week won't ultimately define Virginia Tech.|
A longtime independent in football until it joined the Big East Conference in 1991 and later the ACC, Virginia Tech reached unprecedented heights under coach Frank Beamer, a Virginia native and former defensive back at the school. Under Beamer's direction, the school won at least a share of three Big East titles during the 1990s, then won the 2004 ACC championship in its first season in that conference.
With electrifying quarterback Michael Vick leading the way, the Hokies played in the 1999 national championship game, losing to Florida State 46-29 in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4, 2000. Virginia Tech has played in 14 consecutive bowl games -- the last time it didn't play in a postseason bowl came after a 2-8-1 finish in 1992 -- and has had seven players selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft since 2000, including Vick, who was the first choice by the Atlanta Falcons in 2001.
"I grew up an hour from here and, of course, I went to school here," Beamer said. "Having spent so much time here, I think what's the most remarkable thing about everything is what's happening is so opposite of what I think of Virginia Tech and Blacksburg. I think of it as a very caring place and being respectful of other people. It's a very close-knit group of people and proud people. This thing [Monday] was totally opposite."
Virginia Tech was rated the 34th-best public university in the country in the latest rankings by US News & World Report, ahead of schools such as Alabama, Arizona, Auburn, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska and Tennessee. Virginia Tech's business and engineering schools were specifically ranked among the best in the country.
"We can't let one guy affect all the great things that happen here -- athletically, academically and socially," Hite said. "One guy can't tear all that down. We can't let it happen."
Beamer said he didn't think the shooting would negatively affect the Hokies' recruiting efforts in the future. Virginia Tech coaches can begin making off-campus recruiting evaluations for four weeks during May. They are allowed to visit each prospect twice under NCAA rules (once to evaluate his athletic abilities, a second time to evaluate his academic qualifications). During that time, Hokies coaches also plan to assure recruits that they'll be safe attending Virginia Tech.
"People have asked me what I think people's perception is of Virginia Tech now," Beamer said. "I always deal in reality. Perception is one thing, but the reality of this whole thing is one person, for whatever reason, took the lives of some innocent people, some very bright people who had a great future at this university. But it was one person. I refuse to let that person give Virginia Tech a [negative] perception."
Hite said the football coaches have been in contact with players who signed national letters of intent in February to play at Virginia Tech this fall. Some high school players the Hokies are currently recruiting have contacted the coaches (this week was a noncontact period for coaches on the NCAA's recruiting calendar).
"We're going to beat this thing. We're going to overcome. This one guy isn't going to dictate how we're going to feel."
-- Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer
"With them, I think they realize it was just one individual doing something," Hite said. "They still feel the same way about Virginia Tech as they did before."
The day after the shootings, Beamer canceled the three remaining spring practices, as well as Saturday's annual spring scrimmage. Football players were released from all activities this weekend and are expected to return to campus for a meeting Monday. With two weeks of classes remaining and then final exams, the players don't figure to do much together as a team again until voluntary workouts this summer. Preseason camp begins in late July, and the Hokies open the season Sept. 1 against East Carolina at Lane Stadium.
The Hokies, who finished 10-3 last season and lost to Georgia 31-24 in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, are expected to be ranked in the top 10 in preseason polls and are considered one of the favorites to win the ACC title.
"Hopefully, they'll have a great season," said Brenden Hill, a starting linebacker on last season's team. "I think they'll have a great season and it will help the students and families. Coach Beamer is going to do whatever he can for this university. He's got a bunch of guys who love this university and that's why they're here."
That's exactly why Beamer, one of Virginia Tech's favorite sons, has always stayed, even when more lucrative offers might have pried others away.
"We're going to beat this thing," Beamer said. "We're going to overcome. This one guy isn't going to dictate how we're going to feel."
|Hokie fans will have to wait until Sept. 1 to fill Lane Stadium as Virginia Tech looks to move past this week's tragedy.|
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.