Thursday, January 01, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: More work, less play

MIAMI -- Sitting at the podium Wednesday morning in his final news conference before the Orange Bowl, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer looked down at his right hand. A reporter had asked about the huge piece of jewelry on his ring finger and whether there was any significance to his wearing it this week.

"This is from last year, the ACC championship," Beamer said. "And usually I just wear the one from last year."

Ah, last season. How would we characterize that for the Tech football team? A good one? A great one? A flop?

It all gets so fuzzy, really, without a bowl win. And despite the ring, despite the ACC title, Tech did not get a bowl win.


Hence, an evolution.

The fun is over now for the Hokies. But unlike previous seasons, this bowl week in South Florida was never solely about fun. Tonight's Orange Bowl matchup against Cincinnati is a chance to stamp a season the right way, to remove the fuzz, to spend the offseason feeling fulfilled for a change.

And change -- long overdue, significant change in their bowl preparation -- has been the theme for these Hokies. They bumped up curfew by two hours. They collided more in practice. They demanded more in meetings.

In other words, they sacrificed quite a bit. And we're about to find out whether that can make the difference in bowl games, where Tech has won just one of the past five and is 6-9 overall under Beamer. The Hokies lost to Kansas 24-21 in last year's Orange Bowl.

"I feel good," Beamer said. "I feel very good at how we prepared. Now it's taking it to the field and playing that way."

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If this works, Tech fans can take partial credit. They've been the ones challenging Beamer on his bowl record during offseason functions. They've been the ones constantly questioning why bowls have been labeled "rewards" by the coaching staff.

And ultimately -- finally -- Beamer listened. The players have repeated the company line all week.

"We know how important it is to go out and play like we know how we're capable of playing and not go back with any regrets this time," Tech junior Dorian Porch said earlier this week. "So it's definitely been a big point of emphasis. The whole approach to practice is different. Meetings are different. The night before the game, we're staying at a different hotel. They really made it a point this year."

Will it work? The first 15 minutes tonight should answer that. The Hokies looked sloppy and out of sync against a well-prepared Kansas team and fell behind 17-0 in last year's Orange Bowl. Tech's offensive struggles this year provide no reason to believe the team can overcome such a deficit.

Tech will have to be sharp. Crisp. Alert.

This week's revamped schedule has been a primer for that. The Hokies practiced shortly after noon all week, demanding a good night's sleep. And the distractions of last year have been absent, the players say.

Kicker Dustin Keys said that last season, many players showed up to practice already consumed with their evening plans.

"But this year, when we go to practice, we're focused on practicing," Keys said. "Nothing else. When we get back to the hotel, we have our free time, and then we go to bed.

"We wake up in the morning more focused going into practice than last year, when we had a lot more free time before practice. We have a lot of meetings this year. Yeah, we want to have fun, but we're also down here to play a game and represent the ACC."

Tech's ticket sales have been sluggish for this game. There are plenty of factors at play -- the economy, the repeat destination, the lack of a big-name opponent. But there's another reason, too. Many are tired of spending their money to watch the team blow a bowl game.

The Hokies have reacted to the skepticism the right way.

And tonight, a business trip could suddenly become an unfamiliar pleasure, as a new ring is crafted for every hand.

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