Sept. 21, 2007
By Jack Wilkinson –
Seventeen years. Seventeen blessed years. Has it really been that long? Yes. No, not just since Georgia Tech last won in Charlottesville, Va. Since the Yellow Jackets prevailed in perhaps the greatest football game I’ve ever seen.
Remember? As Tech returns Saturday to Scott Stadium, hoping to end a seven-game losing streak there, let’s remember:
Saturday, Nov. 3, 1990. Undefeated yet relatively under-the-radar Georgia Tech versus mighty, haughty, top-ranked Virginia. The Jackets, 6-0-1 but 16th in the AP poll, versus the 7-0 and oh-so-potent, oh-so-cocksure Cavaliers. I spent much of that week reporting in Charlottesville, and much of that sun-kissed Saturday and night sitting in the pressbox and trying to believe my eyes and ears. Some memories are vivid still:
Shawn Moore to Herman Moore, again and again and again. Shamu the blimp, hovering high above Mr. Jefferson’s University (and what would ol’ Tommy boy have thought of that?). A patchwork playing field, the dastardly, man-made scorched artificial turf that brought new meaning to the term “rug burns.” Shawn Jones’ arm and mind, William Bell’s legs, Calvin Tiggle’s tenacity and Scott Sisson’s heavenly right instep.
“The Brawl For It All,” one Virginia newspaper headline proclaimed it. It was homecoming weekend at UVa. At a Friday night intrasquad basketball game, the Cavaliers’ celebrity guest coaches were Woody Harrelson and Bruce Hornsby. The mood around campus was euphoric, Saturday’s outcome seemingly assured. The ‘Hoos led the nation in total offense and scoring. Wouldn’t this be easy?
Bobby Ross’ gameday began with an unexpected 6 a.m. phone call. It was Tech athletic director Homer Rice. Vandals had broken into the stadium overnight and set a portion of the artificial turf near midfield on fire. “We may not play this game,” Rice told Ross. Virginia’s maintenance crew, however, was able to repair the field using leftover artificial turf from UVa’s baseball infield. Game on. Crowd gone wild.
When Tech arrived at the stadium, “The fans were spitting at you, throwing ice and soda cups at you, calling you names,” Bell, the running back, later told me that winter. He hadn’t minded the reception at all. “It was just great, the stuff that college football was actually made out of…That’s when I knew that Tech was getting some kind of notoriety. Fans don’t just hate you because you’re not a good team. They hate you because you’re going to cause problems with their team.”
It took Tech time, however. Virginia jumped out to a 7-0 lead, then made it 13-0 early in the second quarter. By then, Tech’s problems were technical, too. Phone problems, in which the phones between the sidelines and coaches up in the booth constantly shut down.
“It was like that AT&T commercial: ‘Hello, Rangoon,'” Tech’s Ralph Friedgen, then the Ralph Kramden of offensive coordinators, later recalled. Friedgen was sitting in a glass booth beside the press box and just above the big-money UVa alumni. The coaches box, however, had no roof, so Ralphie Boy’s booming what-the-bleep profanities filled the air, much to the amusement of the press if not the alums.
Although the phones were eventually fixed, Tech still trailed 28-14 at halftime. But behind Jones’ passing and scrambling and decision-making, with Bell churning for yardage and Tech finally getting defensive, the Jackets tied it at 28-all.
Herman Moore, who caught nine passes for 234 yards, gave Virginia its last lead at 35-28 on a 63-yard touchdown reception. But Bell’s 8-yard run tied it again, and Sisson’s 32-yard field goal gave Tech its first lead, 38-35. The Cavaliers drove to the Tech 1, but two penalties and a terrific knock-down of a third-down pass by Tiggle (18 tackles) forced UVa to settle for a tying field goal.
And then Shawn Jones took the Jackets down the field one last time. It led to Sisson’s 37-yard field goal with 7 seconds left that silenced all of a record crowd save for a pocket of about 1,000 or so Tech fans. They went berserk. On national TV, in Bobby Ross’ home state, the Jackets had dethroned No. 1 on their way to a national championship.
Afterward, in an emotional locker room, as junior tight end Tom Covington unwrapped the tape from his wrists, he whispered, “This one was for you.” For his late father, Thomas Herman Covington, whose initials – THC – Covington always wrote on his taped wrists. Then Bobby Ross had his paternal moment.
As the tear-eyed coach began to speak, offensive left tackle Darryl Jenkins interrupted him. Holding the game ball, Jenkins said, “We decided to give it to someone very special to you.” With that, the players parted and trainer Jay Shoop slowly escorted Bus Ross, Ross’ 86-year-old frail father, toward his son. Six months earlier, Bus had undergone sextuple heart bypass surgery. Now, crying like his son, he took the ball and told the team, “You have made an old man very happy.”
The charter flight home was magic. Players sang and danced in the aisles. Homer Rice politely declined to boogie. After landing at Hartsfield and busing back to campus near midnight, the Jackets were stunned to see thousands and thousands of fans – mostly Tech students – awaiting them.
Offensive guard Jim Lavin, a New Orleans native, later told me, “It reminded me of Mardi Gras and we were the parade coming down the street.” For Shawn Jones, the scene was “like that square in China.” Tienanmen Square. Nose guard Kevin Battle thought, “World War III.” And when defensive tackle Jerimiah McClary was the brave first soul off the defensive team bus, “I didn’t touch the ground for three minutes.” Instead, he became a 279-pound, larger-than-life human beach ball, passed around by the delirious fans.
And in front of the Edge Athletic Center, a shirtless, bare-chested guy with long, stringy black hair and a large amplifier, was strumming a guitar and singing Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.”
The following week, Bell graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, carrying the ball beneath a headline that read, “The Sting.” Two months later, Tech – again with Shamu the blimp watching overhead, this time in Orlando, not far from the real Shamu’s home in Sea World – routed Nebraska 45-21 in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. The next morning, Tech edged Colorado to win the UPI national championship by one blessed vote.
Remember? I do.