The 1999 Virginia Tech football team was on the rise. The program had made its first bowl game under Frank Beamer six years earlier and subsequently gained entry into the Big East Conference. The Hokies won their new conference in 1995 and again in ’96, winning the ’95 Sugar Bowl in the process. Though Syracuse and Donovan McNabb had displaced them at the top of the Big East the following two seasons, Virginia Tech was still an exciting program with a much anticipated freshman quarterback in Michael Vick as they approached the 1999 college football season.
Virginia Tech was ranked #11 to start the year, a reasonable ranking for a program that had gone 15-7 over the past two regular seasons. Tech tuned up with wins over James Madison and UAB, as Vick got his feet wet, and the Hokies moved up to #8.
The first big test of the season was a Thursday night game with Clemson, in front of the home crowd in Blacksburg. While Vick had given Tech’s offense a new dimension, defense was still the calling card, as it is today.
Beamer had two elite defenders who would each make All-American by season’s end in defensive end Corey Moore and corner Ike Charlton. Both would play decisive roles against Clemson. With VT clinging to a 17-11 lead in the final five minutes, both Moore and Charlton produced defensive touchdowns and Virginia Tech won going away, moving them to up #6 in the polls.
The “Commonwealth Cup” goes to the winner of the Virginia Tech-Virginia game each year and the previous two seasons had seen the Hokies on the wrong end of the rivalry. ESPN2 was on hand for an early evening kickoff in Charlottesville when the schools faced off on October 2. Vick threw a 60-yard touchdown pass and the team’s meal ticket at running back, Shyrone Stith, ran for three touchdowns in an easy 31-7 win that put the Hokies back on top of the state. And after they mauled Rutgers a week later, they were in the top five nationally, sitting at #4.
One year earlier, Virginia Tech had lost at Syracuse in one of the most gut-wrenching defeats of the Beamer era. In a game to decide a conference title and Fiesta Bowl bid, McNabb beat the Hokies on a desperate fourth-down throw across his body and across the field for a touchdown that won the game, 28-26. It had been a long offseason of wanting revenge, and now the Orange were in Blacksburg for another early evening kickoff, 6 PM EST, to suite ESPN.
The national championship trophy was on the sidelines for the battle with the 16th-ranked Orangemen, but Vick and the defense made the night about as anticlimactic as you could imagine. They trashed Syracuse 62-0, the largest shutout of a ranked team in the history of the AP poll. It was within one point of the largest victory margin.
Virginia Tech was ranked 3rd after that game, although their ability to move up by style points was pretty much gone. Florida State and Penn State, with the game’s two legendary coaches in Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno, held the top two spots and the nation anticipated a potential national championship battle between the two in New Orleans. Virginia Tech would have to keep winning and get a break.
This writer was living in Pittsburgh in 1999 and I was out at Pitt’s old on-campus stadium on the final Saturday night in October to watch Moore play a dominating game defensively and VT to beat Pitt in a 30-17 game that was more decisive than it sounds. A week later was when Tech got their scare. They coughed up a 19-7 lead with five minutes to go at West Virginia and found themselves sitting on their own 15-yard-line late in the game.
Vick helped build his legend, with a series of clutch throws, a 24-yard scramble and he set up the game-winning field goal by Shayne Graham with five seconds left. All the heartache, Hokie fans endured this day would be worth it though—because Penn State blew a lead at home and lost 24-23 to Minnesota, and the door was open for Beamer and his troops to play for the national championship.
Miami was the next opponent up. By this time next year, the Hurricanes would be a formidable foe and be the only team to defeat Virginia Tech in Vick’s sophomore year. If we’d have turned the clock back a few years, they’d have been the power of the Big East. But in 1999, Miami was mediocre, even with a #19 ranking in mid-November. Playing at home, Virginia Tech rolled the ‘Canes 43-10 and then torched Temple 62-7.
Only one more game stood between Virginia Tech and the Sugar Bowl bid to play Florida State. There were faint rumblings that third-ranked Nebraska, sitting with one loss, but more national respect, might get enough momentum to move into #2. But those were never more than rumors and Virginia Tech didn’t give skeptical voters any excuse.
They took on a decent Boston College team, ranked #22, on Black Friday and kept their foot on the gas. Stith capped off an 1100-yard season with an early touchdown. Vick threw two long touchdown strikes to Andre Davis in the second quarter and all of Blacksburg was on a Hokie High, as the 38-14 win capped the undefeated season.
Virginia Tech had arrived as a true national championship contender. The Sugar Bowl date with Florida State didn’t go as they’d hoped. The Hokies fell behind early, rallied to take a 29-28 lead after three quarters, but then saw FSU’s star receiver Peter Warrick go crazy in the fourth quarter. The final score of 46-29 doesn’t reflect how competitive the game was.
The 1999 Virginia Tech football team made a big splash for an emerging program and introduced the nation to a quarterback whose career would run a wild gamut of highs and lows. It was a fun year to be in Blacksburg or to be a Hokie fan.