Monday, December 08, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Biggest 'reward' would be to win Orange Bowl

TAMPA, Fla. — Let’s begin by identifying what the problem is not. The problem is not riding wave runners. Riding wave runners is fine. People do it all the time. And if you’re in college, and you have an opportunity to take a free ride on a wave runner, you should take it. Even if you’re an NFL prospect and have a big game coming up in a few days.

Somehow, Vince Hall’s ill-fated ride on a wave runner before last year’s Orange Bowl — which resulted in an unfortunate knee injury — has become the symbol of all things wrong with Virginia Tech bowl preparation. That’s nonsense. Hall was a young guy having fun in South Florida during bowl week, and the Hokies should have fun during bowl week. This is college football, not boot camp.

The problem with the Hokies’ bowl preparation in years past is that they haven’t supplemented that fun well enough. They’ve publicly identified the bowl game as a reward, and just a reward. That’s dangerous. The word "reward" implies that the hard work is finished, the standards have been met, and that’s simply not true.

That’s why you probably won’t hear the word "reward" uttered by players or coaches this year. If nothing else, they are learning to say the right things.

Well, most of the right things.

"I guess we’re gonna hit harder," Tech center Ryan Shuman said Saturday, when asked how the preparation might change this season with Tech trying to reverse its struggles in bowls. "I guess we’re going to practice a little harder than what we’ve been doing."

He smiled.

"That doesn’t sound like what I want to hear, to tell you the truth," he said.

The truth is good — and understandable. Really, who wants to lock facemasks for two hours a day in the hot sun when you’ve already been doing that for months? It’s not the most enjoyable way for a fifth-year senior to spend his final days in uniform.

But given Tech’s problems in bowls — the Hokies are 6-9 under Beamer and have lost four straight BCS games since winning the 1995 Sugar Bowl — some changes have become necessary. And Shuman gets that.

"Hey, I’ll do what they tell me to do," Shuman said. "We always want to win. We want to go out on top. I know it’s been a while since we won one. We need to go out there and put on a good show."

Right there you can see that the players take their cues from the top. Coach wants me to hit more? OK, I’ll hit more. No biggie.

In years past, the public message from the coaches hasn’t been clear enough. Is the team there to party? To celebrate a fine season? To win a football game? All of the above?

The Orange Bowl is nearly a month away, but this year’s priority list has already been established.

Coach Frank Beamer’s postgame press conference wasn’t even a minute old Saturday when he addressed the topic unprompted.

"We want to enjoy this for sure," he said of Tech’s 30-12 victory over Boston College in the ACC title game. "But we go to the Orange Bowl with the idea that one win gets us to 10. And I think that would be really, really special for this football team. ...

"This is really special, but we’re going to get right back to work and concentrate and get ourselves ready to go down to the Orange Bowl and play a great football game."

Those words are encouraging. But even more encouraging are the actions behind the words. Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring said the team plans to start practicing later this week rather than inviting rust. Recruiting efforts, usually the focus through mid-December, will share time with extra game-planning and workouts.

And the word "reward" will remain largely unspoken.

"I’m not gonna say it," Stinespring said with a smile. "Our intentions are to make the best possible preparations that we can … with the sole mindset to go to the Orange Bowl and play to our competitive best."

That’s all anyone’s really ever asked. If the Hokies do that and Cincinnati still outplays them, fans will naturally be disappointed. But not half as disappointed as they are when they’re not sure the team is taking the bowl game seriously.

"Alumni don’t forget those things real quick," Beamer said of the bowl losses. "But we didn’t either. I think it’s very, very important that we not only represent the ACC in this Orange Bowl, but we really make a preparation to go and win this Orange Bowl."

The ACC title game showed once again that when the Hokies decide they want to be physical, they can be as physical as anybody. The coaches riled up the players all week with news clippings and sound bites that lauded BC’s hard-edge reputation. The Hokies arrived in Tampa feeling unappreciated and angry — and they dominated.

Their program has been built on toughness and grit. That shouldn’t disappear during bowl week.

And you know what? Neither should wave runners.

After all, that was never the problem. It’s possible to prepare well and have a good time, too.

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