NEWS- Taunting Tech: Is it okey-dokey to be anti-Hokie?
Since the first one in 1895, the annual gridiron match-up between the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech has emerged as one of college football's most heated rivalries.
"It's the state rivalry, so it's always a big deal," says Joe Gieck, who trained the Cavalier squad for 43 years.
But much of that animosity was put on hold in April after a Tech student shot and killed 32 people on the Blacksburg campus before turning his gun on himself. Quickly, UVA rushed to offer support to the reeling campus 140 miles down the road.
For weeks, students and faculty in Charlottesville donned the Tech maroon and orange, held candlelight vigils, raised money for a memorial fund, and even left the painted words "Hoos for Hokies" on Beta Bridge untouched for a record 50 days. It would have remained longer, but in June appeared a response in orange and blue, "Thanks Hoos. Love, The Hokies. See you Nov. 24th!" That's the day when the Cavaliers and Hokies will renew their rivalry in Charlottesville at Scott Stadium.
Now as the big game draws nigh, 222 days after the single deadliest episode of gun violence in American history, the pall of April's tragedy lingers. There will be a pre-game commemoration, and the two schools' marching bands will perform together at halftime (as well as at John Paul Jones Arena the evening before the game).
The game is also emotionally loaded for fans for another reason. The on-the-field stakes could not be much higher. Both nationally ranked (Tech is #8 and UVA #16), the two teams are tied atop the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference at 6-1 in the conference and 9-2 overall. That essentially makes Saturday's showdown a one-game playoff for entry into the ACC Championship game.
With wounds so fresh and the game so consequential, what's the proper way for UVA fans to root against Tech?
Already, the rivalry has been renewed on the Internet with a series of YouTube videos made by Boston-based comedian Dean Smollar, and his brother Reed, a UVA graduate. Smollar– a Fairfax native– got the idea to do a parody of the popular Mac vs. PC television ads featuring a UVA student gently pointing out UVA's superiority to a Tech student. Then the events of April 16 happened, and Smollar wasn't sure how to move forward.
"We weren't even talking about the videos at that point," he says. "I knew a lot of students down there, and so I was worried to death."
Ultimately, though, Smollar decided that by August it was again okay to make a little fun of Tech.
"I figured nothing preoccupies a student's mind like a rivalry, and so I felt like this would help take people's minds off [the massacre]."
Sure enough, the videos have been viewed thousands of times, were picked up by the popular CollegeHumor.com website, and Smollar says he hasn't received a complaint from anyone saying it's too soon to needle the Hokies.
"They usually just talk about their basketball team or make fun of me," he says. "They've taken it the way we hoped they would."
That hasn't always been the case with the Virginia Pep Band. Over the years, the band's questionable taste when it comes to making fun of opposing schools has resulted in the group being banned from performing in the state of Maryland, and it provoked the ire of the Governor of West Virginia after one too many hillbilly jokes at one halftime performance.
Barred from playing at any UVA sporting event in 2003, the Pep Band has carried on, playing in the parking lot before football games and continuing to poke their fingers at visiting fans. Given that memories of April are still fresh, Pep Band director and third-year Suzie Wright says her group will take extra care not to cross the line with Hokie fans.
"Obviously, what happened in the spring is not something that will be in our joke material," she says. "We won't take that lightly."
Still, Wright says that Tech can expect the same treatment that opposing fans have come to expect from the orange-vested crew.
"We'll definitely heckle. We're not going to go light on them," she says. "That would take all the fun out of it."
So where exactly is the line between good and bad taste?
"I hate to reference the obscenity rule," says Wright, "but we know it when we hear it. We'll talk about all of it beforehand, and if it makes us groan a little too much, maybe it's not the right time."
As for Gieck, who retired as the top UVA trainer in 2005, he found himself wearing orange and maroon in April.
Gieck has his own place in the history of the UVA-Tech rivalry. On the last play of the 1995 game, as Hokie Antonio Banks ran down the sideline with an interception to seal the win for his team, Gieck stuck his leg out conspicuously close to Banks' feet. The alleged trip/joke resulted in outrage from Hokie fans, national media attention, and Gieck's suspension from UVA's trip to the Peach Bowl.
To this day, Gieck insists he was only trying to "distract" Banks, and he says he anticipates "a spirit of camaraderie" November 24. But he adds that it won't take long for fans to get wrapped up in the game.
"It will be more respectful," he says, "but once the ball's kicked off, these two teams will want to show each other."
The Pep Band's Wright has her own way of knowing if the rivalry survives.
"As soon as a Hokie fan pulls out his keys and jingles them in my face to signify a 'key play,'" she says. "That's when it's gotten back to normal."