After a delightful bye week — Tech went undefeated — we are back and ready to talk about more football matchup history. This week, Tech heads to Charlottesville to take on the Virginia Cavaliers, who bedevils us, sure, and particularly on the road. However, one could argue, as I will, that we have already notched the ultimate and most meaningful win one could possibly have. To tell the story of the matchup between Virginia and Georgia Tech, it would be improper to not frame it in the context of 1990.
Sure, you could say I’m being opportunistic, talking about 1990 this week, of all weeks. Of course, the more I think about it, the more it seems quite purposeful that the ACC Network does happen to be dropping their documentary about the 1990 ACC football slate on the week that Georgia Tech plays Virginia. Few things, I have learned, are really and truly coincidental in life.
Of course, as we all know, the story of the 1990 season begins and ends with the discussion of Georgia Tech. Of course, football doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I think we can all name the particular event in Columbia, Missouri that comes to mind first for this one. As much as we know that, and as much as the story of 1990 is the story of Georgia Tech, it is absolutely an oversimplification to cut the rest of the conference or the schedule out of the picture, particularly the Virginia Cavaliers.
Over the years, in this space and the general history column, repeatedly the recommendation to cover various more recent history events comes up. First and foremost, well, that’s coming, eventually. In the meantime, the biggest reticence to talk about them sooner isn’t a dedication to chronology. Rather, my biggest problem is that, no matter what I watch or read or speak to someone about, I can never be truly as educated on an event as a person who lived through it. For a not-insubstantial chunk of the Georgia Tech fanbase and alumni base, that is exactly the case for the events of 1990.
As people who love sports, and Tech sports in particular — let’s be real, if you’re reading this site and this column, you’re probably not here by accident — and you weren’t around for Tech’s most recent football title, you probably do at least a moderate amount of thinking about or wishing to see that moment. I will admit I do, at the very least. As a sports fan, it sometimes feels a bit odd to see people on the “other side” of a game, them feeling sad not because your team won, but because their team lost. Sure, in the anecdote I picked out above, it is certainly also rooted in feeling no particular attachment at all to sports, but I think the same communication gap still crops up, regardless. I imagine it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to apply this same vein of thinking onto the fans of the Virginia Cavaliers.
It is not a stretch to say that Virginia’s golden age has been over for more than a century. Despite having a revolving door of coaches in the first two decades of the twentieth century, Virginia claims four Southern titles including three from 1900 to 1902 and another in 1908, and also won the South Atlantic Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1914 and 1915. As college football moved south, Virginia, along with Vanderbilt, in particular, was one of the first great programs. However, all of that came crashing down in the years of the Great War.
In the war years, Virginia took two years off from competition, and, following the war, did manage to see somewhat of an uptick, but the sustained 28 years of play above .500 is a feat that the Cavaliers are still yet to equal, and they slid back down into the murk in the 1930s. As the 40s turned to the 50s, though, Virginia was once again winning football games, though their end of season rankings — they finished ranked just once before joining the ACC, a 13th place finish in 1951 — despite losing no more than four games, and often far fewer, from 1943 until their penultimate year of independence in 1952.
On the verge of joining the ACC, the bottom immediately fell out on the Cavaliers, including back-to-back winless campaigns in 1959 and 1960. They would manage just two seasons above .500 before 1983, which is conveniently also a good time to mention Georgia Tech.
One defining characteristic of the days of Tech independence, much like the early heyday of John Heisman, is the magnetic pull Tech had for getting teams to play Tech at home. That one of the draws of independence was the ability to draw good and interesting teams to the Flats makes sense, but the similar, but crucially different trait, that Tech had the ability to convince lesser programs to make unrequited trips to Atlanta, is what led the Cavaliers to Grant Field four times in the 60s and 70s. This is unsurprising — in one 11 game season, Georgia Tech managed to get eight home games on the schedule. Even in today’s 12 game schedules, 8 coming at home is difficult to comprehend, and it is only more so to think about that happening with just 11. By the time Tech joined the conference in the early 80s, sure, Virginia was still not too great, but, in 1982, they hired a man named George Welsh.
Tech vs. Virginia Historic Results
Tech and Virginia became intimately familiar with one another throughout the 80s. Until the COVID-stricken year of 2020, they had met annually, in fact. For two teams with little more history than that of a one sided, paycheck-type series of games, this was one matchup in particular that required a bit of elbow grease to shine into a storied series, though, as with many ACC teams, it seems, not a full-fledged rivalry, for many, but we’ve talked about the fallacy baked into that logic plenty of times in this space already. In reality, though, the history of the relationship between these two teams can be boiled down into one singular game. The game in question took place on November 3, 1990.
After nine seasons with Welsh at the helm, Virginia had finally crescendoed to a conference championship in 1989. Of course, this is also worth noting that Virginia split the crown with Duke, whom they had beat earlier in the season, as both teams went 6-1 in conference play on the year. In the regular season, Virginia proved very good, dropping their season opener against Notre Dame at Giants Stadium, as well as a midseason contest at a Clemson team that would actually finish the season 10-2 and ranked six spots higher than Virginia. It would take until November for the Cavaliers to be recognized in the polls, and they climbed to #15 in anticipation of their Citrus Bowl appearance against #11 Illinois, who would dispatch them 31-21. With most of the team returning, it seemed that 1990 would be ripe with opportunity for the Hoos.
The Cavaliers, for their part, seemed to be fully aware of this, and functioned as a team of destiny, of sorts, rolling like an offensive bowling ball through a top ten Clemson team and six other opponents by a combined score of 327-80 and earning their #1 ranking. Plenty of folks have covered the actual results of the game, but, suffice it to say, if a regular season game has a dedicated Wikipedia page, it was probably pretty significant.
As the Scott Sisson kick sailed through the uprights with seven seconds left in the game, Tech had completed the comeback to turn a two score deficit at halftime into a narrow three point victory. Legend has it that, despite it being an away game, the goalposts at Grant Field were torn down, and celebratory fires, the story goes, melted the traffic lights outside the stadium. But what of Virginia? So much of this story follows the victors and the celebrators, but it feels perfectly legitimate to say that this single game, or even that single kick, obliterated the Cavaliers.
Sure, Virginia came back the next week to defeat an average an average North Carolina team by two scores, but against an equally mediocre Maryland team, they lost at home. To cap the regular season, they were stomped in Lane Stadium by Virginia Tech, and turned a Sugar Bowl appearance into a loss, as well. Virginia’s only 10 win team, 1989, could have very well become its only national champion in 1990, but a single kick upended the wrecking machine they had so effectively put together in one fell swoop.
All of this isn’t to say that Tech should somehow feel apologetic for this game. It’s sports, that is just a side effect of playing. Virginia would rattle off another decade of above-.500 football, their longest streak since their golden era. They would again tie for the conference championship in 1995 with newcomer Florida State, despite losing four games. Three of those games, however, came in non-conference play, and thus were essentially moot for the standings.
Virginia has since won 9 games three more times, coming in George Welsh’s last great season, 1998, before he retired in 2000 citing health concerns, along with 2007 under Al Groh and 2019 under current coach Bronco Mendenhall.
Thus, I have decided to save any talk about Tech-related Charlottesville curses until, say, not right before we go there to play a game. And, heck, after how Virginia’s charted course towards their one and only true shot at a national championship diverged from reality in one swift kick of the football, we very well may deserve it. Let’s see what happens tomorrow.
Saturday afternoon, Georgia Tech and Virginia will meet in Charlottesville for the first time since 2019, the longest break in the series since 1982. Tune in here at From the Rumble Seat tomorrow for coverage through the gameday thread and the postgame recap, along with live updates via @FTRSBlog on Twitter.
All data compiled by Jake Grant, and sourced via Winsipedia, Wikipedia, and the GT Football Media Guide