By Pete WilliamsOn October 15, 1990, George H.W. Bush was president, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was creeping toward 3,000 and computers were little more than typewriters with a screen.
ESPN was a one-channel, one platform operation, the heavily-favored Oakland A’s were planning to steamroll Lou Piniella’s Cincinnati Reds in the World Series, and the best sports coverage came from The National Sports Daily.
On the deserted campus of the University of Virginia, with students home for a four-day fall break, the football team was named No.1 in the nation for the first time ever.
Twenty years ago tomorrow.
“I’ll always be able to say that at one time I was part of the number one team in the country,” offensive tackle Paul Collins said at the time.
“Twenty years. Wow,” Collins said the other day. “I was hoping somebody else would have matched us by now.”
The Cavaliers had begun the year 6-0, rolling over everyone, including ninth-ranked Clemson, which Virginia had never beaten in 29 tries. A Cavaliers team that posted just two winning seasons in 29 years before head coach George Welsh’s arrival in 1982 now stood atop the rankings, ahead of Miami, Tennessee, Nebraska, and Auburn.
Virginia had a powerhouse offense led by two legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates (quarterback Shawn Moore and wide receiver Herman Moore), two budding sophomore stars in tailback Terry Kirby and defensive end Chris Slade, and a half dozen others who would have significant NFL careers: left tackle Ray Roberts, defensive backs Tony Covington, Greg Jeffries, and Keith Lyle; kicker Michael Husted, and back-up left guard Mark Dixon. (Three others – Mike Frederick, Ryan Kuehl, and Charles Way – were redshirted and did not play.)
The team led the nation in famous sons, including Jesse Jackson’s son Yusef (linebacker), golfer Calvin Peete’s son Rickie (defensive end), Bob Griese’s son Scott (special teams), and then-Kentucky coach Bill Curry’s son Bill Jr.
Former Georgia coach Vince Dooley’s son Derek, a former walk-on (and future Tennessee head coach) lined up opposite Herman Moore at split end. Joe Paterno’s son, Jay, was a graduate assistant.
This being pre-Internet, back when ESPN’s programming was mostly college basketball, lumberjack competitions, and soft-core morning fitness shows, Virginia’s rise went mostly unnoticed.
In 1989, the Cavaliers won 10 games and shared the ACC title with a Duke squad coached by Steve Spurrier. Even then, the ole ball coach talked smack, saying a team that never had defeated Clemson had no claim to even half a title.
By the fall of 1990, Spurrier was in Gainesville, but the Cavaliers did not forget the slight, following up their inaugural win over Clemson by traveling to Durham two weeks later and pounding their defending ACC co-champions 59-0.
Welsh served as his own offensive coordinator, though offensive line coach Tom O’Brien (now the N.C. State head coach) assumed the title in 1991. Either way, the offense was unstoppable.
“We could have put 100 on the board at Duke and at halftime we were begging George to let us run it up to 70,” Collins said. “Our offense was a machine. We could have scored against any program in the country.”
Next came a home win against I-AA William & Mary, which defeated Virginia just four years earlier during the redshirt seasons of the nine fifth-year seniors who remained, and a win over North Carolina State at home during which Slade recorded four and a half sacks.
A few hours later, top-ranked Michigan lost to unranked Michigan State, 28-27, after the Wolverines apparent game-winning two-point conversion was ruled incomplete.
“I remember watching that game in the Cavalier Inn (hotel) with my family,” says Slade, who played nine years in the NFL, all but one with the New England Patriots, and now is part of the Virginia football radio broadcast team. “It felt like we had just won the Super Bowl and the national championship at once, knowing we were going to be number one. The whole day was one big party.”
One of my roommates, a medical school student who owned a screen-printing business with his brother, went to work around the clock printing T-shirts that read “Look Hoos #1 in the Nation.” National championship fever swept the campus – or grounds as we say at UVA.
The season helped push me toward journalism rather than law school or a different career. I had interned with USA Today the summer before and spent the fall stringing for The Washington Post. Suddenly I was writing most every day, filing on a Tandy 102, which was considered modern technology at the time. It had a keyboard, five-line screen, and primitive modem, but did the job.
The Cavaliers had five games remaining on their schedule – all against teams they defeated the previous season. Virginia improved to 7-0 by blowing out Wake Forest on the road, 49-14, and after an off week faced No.16 Georgia Tech at home.
The Yellow Jackets were 7-0-1 with an All-American free safety, Ken Swilling, who seemed like the only player capable of stopping Herman Moore, even if the safety had missed two games with an ankle injury. Moore beat Swilling for five of his nine catches (for a whopping 234 yards).
Against Tech, Virginia led 13-0 and 28-14, but the defense faltered. Defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani (now head coach at Boston College) played a five-man front in a bend-but-don’t-break style. Against Georgia Tech, it came apart. Tech’s kicker Scott Sisson broke a deadlock at 38 with seven seconds left and Virginia’s bubble burst.
The Cavaliers rebounded to win at North Carolina the following week. But Shawn Moore broke his thumb in a loss to Maryland. Welsh tapped future NFL backup Matt Blundin as his replacement, but Virginia lost the season finale at Virginia Tech.
In this pre-BCS era, the Cavaliers accepted a Sugar Bowl bid weeks earlier, entering the Superdome against No.10 Tennessee unranked. After losing in New Orleans 23-22, the Hoos finished 8-4, wondering what might have been.
“When I look back at it, we should have won the Georgia Tech, Maryland, and Tennessee games,” says Covington, who played five seasons in the NFL, mostly for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and has worked for non-profit groups for the last decade. “It was the same formula where we attacked early and then came out in the second half and put on the brakes. I think of those three games a lot. Each time we took the foot off the gas and the other team grabbed the momentum.”
Once Virginia was ranked No.1, the national media descended upon Charlottesville for the first time. Before sports media blew up in the late 1990s, the Virginia football press corps was mostly a half dozen writers who showed up on Mondays and Saturdays.
“George tried to keep us focused, but I don’t think we quite knew how to handle it,” Collins said. “I went from doing one or two interviews a week to 20 and Shawn and Herman went from 20 to 100. These days a lot of schools have that kind of coverage all the time, but it was all new to us.”
Those of us that graduated in 1991, including Herman Moore, were the first Virginia class never to see a losing football season. Welsh never had another, retiring after 2000. Only Bobby Bowden has won more ACC games.
Welsh left his successor Al Groh with plenty of talent, including Matt Schaub, Heath Miller, Alvin Pearman, and Chris Canty. After some initial success Groh eventually drove the program back to the pre-Welsh era. Mike London is now picking up the pieces and rebuilding.
Watching YouTube footage of the 1990 Virginia-Georgia Tech game is startling and not just because of the dated CBS graphics. Virginia no longer wears generic white helmets or orange jerseys without names on the backs. Gone (thankfully) is the artificial turf at Scott Stadium, which has been expanded from 42,500 to 61,500 seats.
Collins, a Richmond-based sales manager who travels throughout the southeast, says his blood pressure still rises whenever he drives by Georgia Tech.
Slade, who lives in Atlanta and commutes to Virginia games, says he hears from Georgia Tech fans regularly about the 1990 game. He prefers to reminisce about the magical three-week span when the team was No.1 for the only time in program history.
“Going into that season, I knew we’d be good, but didn’t think we’d blossom so quickly, beating people by 40 points,” Slade says. “It was a helluva run, though. We soaked that 21 days up, enjoyed every minute and it hasn’t been done since. We’re definitely part of history.”