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Virginia Tech learned painful lesson in loss to Pittsburgh

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By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 10, 2002

Football coaches teach competitive, ambitious young men to block, tackle, run, throw, kick and catch, but tutorial passions should be no less in instilling the game's mental demands.

Frank Beamer believes in it.

Athletes, depending on personal needs, must be prodded in such arts as demeanor, judgment, class and self control. For a coach to shortchange this work is dumb, shortsighted and sure to be destructive.

Virginia Tech works at it.

Even so, a week ago, the Hokies saw a budding season of greatness come down like a shed in a tornado due to a nonsensical, immature loss of control by Tech cornerback Ronyell Whitaker.

Virginia Tech had a 7-0 record. Three years ago, with freshman quarterback Michael Vick, the Hokies reached the national championship game before losing to Florida State. Beamer, an extraordinary coach, had the Blacksburg bunch afire again and searching for another shot at BCS glory.

Pittsburgh was a powerful opponent, but Tech was dominating before a roaring multitude at Lane Stadium. Rolling to a 21-7 lead in the third quarter. Everything was tilting in the Hokies' favor.

With the two-touchdown lead, Tech's defense stonewalled the Panthers, smothering a third-down pass. Pittsburgh was hurting. Heads hanging. Assembling to punt, as Tech's momentum snowballed. "I thought we were about to block another kick," Beamer said.

That's when it happened.

Whitaker pulled college football's most stupid stunt of 2002. Players were strolling back to the line of scrimmage after Pittsburgh's errant downfield pass. Ronyell was at the shoulder of the Panthers.

In a fit of macho arrogance, Whitaker shoved an opponent in the back. Not in the heat of combat; just walking along. Officials were looking. Flags fell. Tech was penalized, giving Pittsburgh a first down. No punt. Momentum was gagged.

"It was huge," Beamer admitted.

Restored to life, Panthers quarterback Rod Rutherford hit a long pass, setting up the next throw. Freshman receiver Larry Fitzgerald made the catch in the end zone with Whitaker trying to defend.

From there, Pittsburgh became unstoppable. Tech lapsed into a fatal skid. From that 21-7 edge, about to get fresh possession of the ball and loaded with emotional and physical pluses, the Whitaker act had put the Hokies into a nonstop stumble.

The Panthers scored another time, then again, winning the game 28-21 and deflating the No. 1 dreams of Beamer's crew. Everything turned on the Whitaker mugging.

The skid continued Saturday when Virginia Tech, which looked to be heading for a Saturday of Big East (and national) decision against Miami on Dec. 7, lost to Syracuse 50-42 in overtime.

I feel bad for the Hokies, especially Whitaker.

Lesson learned? I hope. But how painful.

* * *

BLITZES: I've switched my Heisman choice two times, maybe three, but I'm now locked into Iowa senior Brad Banks, a quarterback who has performed magnificently after receiving zero mention in preseason trophy blabbings. He was 10-for-10 with three touchdowns in Saturday's rout of Northwestern. ... Howard Schnellenberger's puffy vow to coach football babe Florida Atlantic into the SEC or ACC within five years is off to a snoozing start. The Owls got their first win Saturday, beating Morris Brown 34-13, and are 1-9. ... There can't be a worse coaching job in America this season than what Bobby Williams, who was fired Monday, did at Michigan State. ... We protect a few while so many youngsters are exposed to criticism, so why not allow referees to announce the numbers of college players who commit penalties? ... Who's the biggest has-been college football coach? Please don't suggest Bobby or Joe. I think it's Jackie Sherrill of Mississippi State. ... How long before a couple of big-time schools show up in Tampa, offering extended deals worth millions, coming after USF football coach Jim Leavitt?

* * *

READER'S RANT: E-mail from Turner Lord of Clearwater shouts, "Zip your mouth, Hubert, because we don't need college football playoffs. BCS is enough. A flawed system, perhaps, but it satisfies me. I'm an Ivy League fan, so my interest is moderate and the respect even lighter.

"Athletes do not need to miss more academic time. Listen to them speak and it's clear most should spend 20 hours a week in English class rather than practicing football. Even the former players who become TV announcers are semi-literate at best."

* * *

HUBERT'S REPLY: Most major football schools are unquestionably in need of academic improvements, but this sport causes athletes to miss far fewer classes than do basketball, baseball or most any other. A young fellow can play an 11-game season and miss maybe four days of work.

Ivy League football is fun, but I'm guessing networks couldn't sell telecasts for billions. What I do know is that big-time college football is major entertainment, bringing in billions of dollars annually to the NCAA family of universities.

Therefore, the best possible product is a high priority. My feeling is that, without question, playoffs would be a colossal hit that would make the BCS seem a lounge act in comparison.

Whatever happened to Jeff Hostetler?

-- To contact Hubert Mizell, e-mail or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.

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