“Peach Bowl” Invitation Brings Back Memories

1986 Peach Bowl
It’s a fuzzy old picture, but the board clearly says “Virginia Tech, 1986 Peach Bowl Champions”

You hear the phrase over and over again: “The Beamer Bowl Era.” It started in 1993 with an Independence Bowl invitation and continues through today, with the 14th straight invitation, this one to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. It’s a special era in Tech football, but many of us have fond memories of another time as well: Tech’s first-ever bowl win, in the 1986 Peach Bowl. This year’s CFA Bowl invitation takes many of us back 20 years in time, to one of the greatest games ever played in Virginia Tech football history.

It’s hard to believe that as good as Tech has been for the last 14 seasons, they haven’t made a trip back to Atlanta for the Peach Bowl. Atlanta is just a little over 400 miles away from Blacksburg, 150 miles closer than Jacksonville, a frequent Hokie bowl destination. But that’s what bowl tie-ins will do. In 1992, the Peach tied itself into an SEC-ACC matchup, and because the Hokies resided in the Big East, all Tech fans could do was eyeball the Peach and be jealous.

Tech’s move to the ACC opened the Peach Bowl back up as a possibility, and it hasn’t taken Tech long to get back there — just three seasons. Something tells me that in years where VT doesn’t win the ACC championship, the Peach Bowl, now called the Chick-fil-A Bowl, will be a frequent destination for the Hokies. We can only hope, at least.

In any event, this year’s invitation sparks memories for many Hokies, including me. I was a senior at Tech in 1986, the year that Bill Dooley’s Hokies overachieved, went 9-2-1, and surprised a lot of people … including me. I had never been to a bowl game before, and when the Hokies got the invitation to the Peach Bowl, several dozen of my friends and I chartered a bus, and off to Atlanta we went.

I’ll take a pause right now and say that it’s very difficult to figure out how to approach this article. Should it be a history lesson, recapping the 1986 season and the bowl game? Should I reminisce and recall the season and the game through the eyes of a VT senior? Maybe just the game? I don’t know. I’ll just jump in with both feet and see what happens.

Frustrating Times

To be a VT football fan back then meant frustration, in my opinion. I was never fond of Bill Dooley as a coach. He was in his ninth (and final, it would turn out) season at VT in 1986, and while I liked the Hokie defenses he put on the field, I despised his offenses. They were boring, run-oriented, and never seemed to feature a lot of talent, except at the tailback position. There were some talented offensive linemen as well, but at the skill positions, not many players stood out.

In Dooley’s tenure, the Hokies were stacked with pro-quality players on defense: Bruce Smith, Jesse Penn, Mike Johnson, Ashley Lee and others came through Blacksburg in the mid-1980s, but very few players with that kind of talent cycled through the offense. In Dooley’s years, only four offensive players got drafted: RB Kenny Lewis (1980), FB Tony Paige (1984), TE Joe Jones (1985), and RB Eddie Hunter (1987). One more of Dooley’s offensive players was drafted after Dooley left following the 1986 season, tight end Steve Johnson in 1988. During that same time period (the 1980 draft through the 1988 draft), ten Hokie defenders were drafted, so the defensive guys outnumbered the offensive guys 10-5, and they generally went higher in the draft.

(One of those “defensive guys” was actually basketball point guard Al Young, who was drafted by the Giants in 1985 as a defensive back. But I digress.)

When Dooley and the athletic department fell into turmoil early in the 1986 season, and Dooley was dismissed, I wasn’t upset. As an uninformed student, I was clueless about what the circumstances were regarding Dooley’s dismissal (those circumstances were detailed in “The Year of Our Discontent” Part 1 and Part 2), and I felt that a new coach could take Tech to greater heights.

Under Dooley, the Hokies couldn’t get over the hump. As the Division 1-A “haves” started to separate themselves from the Division 1-AA “have-nots” in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dooley, as both AD and football coach, insisted on scheduling the have-nots. The Hokies regularly played Appalachian State, William & Mary, Richmond, and VMI, as well as 1-A teams like Duke, Tulane, and Wake Forest.

Every season, there were 8 or 9 yawners on VT’s 11-game schedule — not that some of those teams didn’t beat the Hokies, mind you — and two or three big games. Clemson and West Virginia were mainstays on VT’s schedule back then, with the occasional Florida or Florida State thrown in. The rivalry against UVa was interesting as well, but there were only two or three games per year that were measuring stick games.

Tech nearly always lost those games, usually because the Hokies couldn’t muster anything on offense. From 1981-1985, Tech lost five straight to WVU by a combined score of 94-28 (an average of 19-6). Clemson beat Tech in 1984 and 1985 by the scores of 17-10 and 20-17. Miami beat the Hokies in 1980 (Peach Bowl) and 1981 by scores of 20-10 and 21-14. Always a dollar short on offense were these Hokies, and only regular beatings of Virginia kept us all from going insane.

Dooley took the Hokies to bowl games in 1980 and 1984, but Tech lost those games, of course. The Hokies just couldn’t take the next step under Dooley.

1986 Starts off the Same … Then Catches Fire

There was no reason to think the 1986 season was going to be any different. Tech had finished strong in 1985, winning five of their last six to go 6-5. Going into 1986, they had a strong tailback tandem in Maurice Williams and Eddie Hunter, but VT was going to break in a new QB and new offensive line, and didn’t have any star power on defense like Bruce Smith, Mike Johnson, or Jesse Penn. Not a lot was expected of these Hokies.

Tech had an uncharacteristically tough schedule in 1986, featuring road games at Clemson and Syracuse, plus home games against WVU, South Carolina, and Virginia. When Tech started the season with a gut-wrenching 24-20 home loss to Cincinnati, a game the Bearcats won partially because they converted a late fourth and 10 on a tipped pass, it looked like 1986 might be a tough season.

Then the Hokies did the unthinkable: they went down to Clemson and beat the powerful Tigers 20-14, breaking a nine-game losing streak that dated back to 1955. Tech confounded the oddsmakers again the next week, winning on the road at favored Syracuse. After a breather against ETSU, the Hokies broke another losing streak, beating WVU in Lane Stadium 13-7.

Suddenly, the Hokies were 4-1 and had a special season on their hands. By this time, Dooley had announced he was leaving at the end of the season and was in a nasty public spat with the athletic department, but the conflict crystallized the focus of the football team and made them overachieve.

The 1986 Hokies were not ultratalented, but as the saying goes, they knew how to win. For the remainder of the season, the cardiac Hokies tied South Carolina 27-27; took a pounding at the hands of Temple and Heisman candidate Paul Palmer, losing 29-13; walloped Virginia 42-10; squeaked by Kentucky 17-15 on a last-second field goal; got by Richmond 17-10; and finished off Vanderbilt 29-21.

1986 Peach Bowl
Even before the Peach Bowl started, my buddies and I knew Chris Kinzer was the key.

Placekicker Chris Kinzer was the personification of Tech’s grit and determination to win. Kinzer started off the season by missing two field goals against Cincinnati — two field goals the Hokies desperately could have used — and then ripped off 17 in a row, several of them critical. Kinzer’s field goals provided the winning margin against Clemson, Syracuse, WVU, Kentucky (he kicked a 49-yarder as time expired) and Vandy (when he had five field goals in the game), and his 46-yarder late in the fourth quarter kept the Hokies from losing to South Carolina.

It was a season-long roller coaster ride, and it ended with a bid to the Peach Bowl to face North Carolina State.

The 1986 Peach Bowl Was a Different Peach Bowl

The Peach Bowl was undergoing a name change back then, just like this year as it transitions from the Peach Bowl to the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Back in 1986, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce took over the bowl and insisted that everyone call it “The New Peach Bowl,” not just “The Peach Bowl.” Profound, I know, and nothing nearly as shocking as when sponsors started incorporating their company names in bowl names. Nonetheless, all the literature and memorabilia from the 1986 game refers to it as The New Peach Bowl.

(Ironically, when the Atlanta Chamber took over the game, the new executive director of the bowl was former UVa coach Dick Bestwick.)

The bowl was played outdoors in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium then, as the Georgia Dome was still about five years in the future. The stadium was also home to the Atlanta Braves, of course, but by the time the Tech-NC State bowl was played, the grass was nice and green — no pitchers mounds or base lines here — and the end zones were painted orange and maroon at one end and red and white at the other.

While Atlanta was a great destination, the Peach Bowl itself was nothing special at the time, not like it is now. The modern bowl game has sold out ten straight times, pays $2.8 million per team, boasts great matchups annually, and produces some of the highest bowl game ratings in ESPN’s network. But back then, the game was on shaky footing, and the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce was hoping to breathe life back into its 18-year old game.

Boy, did they ever, but it was due more to the efforts of the Wolfpack and Hokies, both known as cardiac teams, than it was to the bowl’s organizers.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Down to Atlanta

In college, I was fortunate enough to be part of a very large group of friends, a bunch of guys and girls that numbered about a hundred people at its peak (we know, because we kept track, but that’s another story). When the Peach Bowl invitation was announced, we immediately chartered a bus (or two?), and in late December, we headed for Atlanta.

1986 Peach Bowl
A ticket to the game (note the price).

Here’s the thing about me: When I go to a bowl game, I tend to be focused on the game, not the tourism possibilities. New Orleans is mostly wasted on me, for example. I eat a little food and wander up and down Bourbon Street, but I’m really just marking time until the game starts. Shreveport (1993 Independence Bowl) is more my type of destination — not much to do, so let’s just piddle around a little and then play the game.

Given that, my memories of Atlanta itself from that 1986 trip aren’t very strong. I remember we stayed in a Super 8 Motel, I remember partying after the game in a really nice hotel downtown (Marriott, maybe?), but I really don’t remember much else.

But I remember the game. Oh, yes.

A Classic

The 1986 Peach Bowl is one of the greatest football games I have ever seen. I’m not just saying that because Tech was involved, and I’m not just saying that because the Hokies won on a last-second kick by Kinzer. I say that because the game was one of the most gut-wrenching roller coaster rides I’ve ever been on. First I thought the Hokies were going to romp, then I thought they were going to get crushed, then I thought they had lost it for sure, then they kicked the game-winning field goal … this game was full of more twists and turns than Silence of the Lambs, and it left me feeling just as wrung out.

1986 Peach Bowl
The view from our seats in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Erik Chapman is shown throwing across the middle.

This was the nature of the two teams all season long, so it was only fitting that they waged a back and forth battle in their bowl game. After stopping NC State on the Pack’s first possession, the Hokies’ Maurice Williams peeled off a 77-yard run on VT’s first offensive play, down to the Wolfpack one yard line. (My VT yearbook has a picture of the play and incorrectly states that Williams scored a touchdown.) Eddie Hunter took it in from the one to make it 7-0, Hokies, just four minutes in.

From that auspicious beginning, things rapidly went downhill. For almost three full quarters after that, it was all Wolfpack. First the Pack blocked a Hokie punt and recovered it in the end zone to tie the game. The Hokies responded with a Kinzer field goal near the end of the first quarter to go back up 10-7, but then the Pack dominated quarters two and three.

The Wolfpack featured future NFL QB Erik Kramer at the helm, and under coach Dick Sheridan, NC State boasted a more complete offensive attack. They looked bigger, faster, and stronger, for the most part. Their uniforms were snazzier and more modern, and their fans, decked out in red, outnumbered the Hokies in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Tech had brought 17,000 fans to Atlanta, no mean feat for a school that averaged barely twice that much (38,000) in home attendance, but NC State topped that, with 21,000 fans.

Those 21,000 Pack fans, who were not only resplendent in red but were loud as well, made a miserable second quarter for the Hokies that much harder to take. Chapman threw two interceptions in the second quarter, and the Wolfpack turned both into touchdowns to take a 21-10 half time lead. Things looked bleak. All the Hokies had to their credit was a 77-yard run that had set up a TD. Other than that, Tech was getting whipped. The Hokies were outgaining the Wolfpack, but as usual were making too many mistakes in a big game.

For most of the third quarter, the Hokies couldn’t put points on the board, but then they ripped off a nice 15-play, 72-yard drive that ended in a one-yard TD run by Williams. Tech missed the two-point try and trailed 21-16.

With momentum firmly on their side, the Hokies got a stop when Kramer ran for an 18-yard gain but then fumbled on the Hokie 41 yard line. Tech put together another strong drive, going 59 yards in 11 plays and scoring on a six-yard pass from Chapman to tight end Steve Johnson. Again the Hokies missed the two-point conversion, but Tech now led 22-21 with 9:38 remaining. After being nearly dead in the water at half time, VT had stormed back to take the lead.

But the roller coaster took another downward turn. Johnson, in his exuberance, heaved the ball into the stands after his TD, and Tech took a personal foul penalty that led to a kickoff from the 20. That was “typical Tech” — they were outplaying the Wolfpack statistically (the Hokies outgained NCSU 487-287 on the day, and held the ball for almost 37 minutes) but were making key turnovers and bonehead mistakes. NC State took advantage of this one, booting a 33-yard field goal to go back up 24-22 with 7:12 to go. It was more than my 22-year psyche could stand.

VT took possession but couldn’t score. The good news was they pinned the Wolfpack deep in their own territory, downing a punt at NC State’s 14 yard line.

Then, bad news: State fullback Mal Crite peeled off a 40-yard run on the first play, to the Hokie 46-yard line. I remember sitting down in my seat behind the end zone, head in hands. Tech was dead meat.

Then, good news: Tech held, forcing a punt. Then, bad news: NC State faked the punt from the Tech 40-yard line, picking up five yards when they needed four. The game was over, or so it seemed. Nothing could stop the Wolfpack, who were almost in field goal range, and it looked grim.

Jamel Agemy to the rescue. The Tech linebacker made two straight tackles behind the line, forcing a third and 18, and NC State failed to convert. After a punt into the end zone, Tech took over on their 20 yard line with just 1:53 remaining.

Historically, VT had a ball control offense under Dooley, much like under Beamer, and Tech was not a team fashioned for long, game-winning drives. The 1986 edition was a little different, though. Chapman was the best passer Dooley had had at Tech, and in Steve Johnson, he had a sure-handed, reliable tight end.

Chapman found Johnson twice for first downs, moving the ball to the NC State 44-yard line. Despite the clock winding down, Dooley proceeded to call two running plays, which moved the ball down to the State 36-yard line. That left the Hokies with a third and two but less than 30 seconds on the clock.

The Hokies had no timeouts, but in maddening Dooley fashion, they ran yet another running play, a sweep to Williams that resulted in a one-yard loss and double jeopardy: Williams failed to get out of bounds, which meant the clock continued to run, and the Hokies now faced a fourth and three. As the clock ticked, I was in agony.

But Williams was down on the field, and the refs called an officials’ timeout, stopping the clock, while State fans and coaches raged. “I got hit on the shin [on the play]”, Williams told the press later. “Then my leg cramped up on me. I tried to get up, but the coaches on the sideline told me to just stay down.”

The ploy worked, giving the Hokies valuable time to set up a fourth down play. A down and out to Johnson was the call, and Chapman hit him for a nine-yard gain, spotting the ball at the State 28-yard line with 15 seconds left. Elation! The Hokies were well within Kinzer’s range now, for a 45-yard field goal.

Then, disaster. Trying to get the ball closer, the Hokies were whistled for holding, pushing the ball back to the 38 with 11 seconds left. I died inside again — another critical mistake for the Hokies. Now, instead of positioning themselves better for the field goal, Tech was on the outer limits of Kinzer’s range.

With one offensive play left, Dooley and the Hokies went for it all, throwing the ball to the end zone, to wingback David Everett (now with the Hokie Club). The ball fell out of Everett’s reach, but — hallelujah! — a penalty flag flew! Interference! Everett said in the post game, “No doubt about it. If [NCSU safety Brian Gay] doesn’t grab me, I score.”

And there it was. The ball was moved to the State 23 yard line, with just four seconds left to go, for a 40-yard field goal attempt.

Kinzer Time

Tech’s now-legendary kicker trotted out onto the field, and the Hokies lined up for the field goal. Just prior to the snap, NC State spent its last time out to try to ice him.

Kinzer’s response? He did one of the coolest things I have ever seen. He took off his helmet, kneeled down right there in the middle of the field, propped his chin in one hand, and casually waited.

There are players who live for this sort of moment, who embrace it. Jim Druckenmiller in 1995 against Virginia. Michael Vick in 1999 against West Virginia. Both of them were preceded in coolness under fire by Chris Kinzer in 1986, and his signature moment of the season was his casual repose at the 30-yard line, patiently awaiting his destiny, a bored look on his face.

You know the rest. Ball snapped, kick straight and true. The irony? The Hokies didn’t need the pass interference penalty on State. I think Kinzer’s kick would have been good from 55 yards. He really crushed it. But it went in the books as a 40-yarder, and Virginia Tech had their first-ever bowl win.

1986 Peach Bowl
My Hoo brother (right) and I (left) celebrate the win. (Darn right I was sweaty — it was a gut-wrenching game.)

The Aftermath

I have never lived and died so many times in a game, and at the end, I was alive with all the elation that only the young can feel after a football game. Down onto the field we spilled, filling the surface of Atlanta-Fulton County stadium with maroon — well, some maroon, because back then, Hokie fans weren’t as decked out as they are these days, and we were really a mish-mash of colors.

Down on the field, my brother (a Virginia fan, but he had traveled down to see this game with a buddy) grabbed me from behind, and we danced a jig in the end zone. My friends and I milled around on the field for what seemed like forever, mixing in with elated Hokie players and fans, and after the crowd thinned, I took pictures of the scoreboard (“Virginia Tech, 1986 Peach Bowl Champions” it read). We planted a small VT flag on the 30-yard line, at the very spot from which Kinzer kicked his game-winning 40-yarder.

The next day, Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist Furman Bisher wrote a piece commemorating the thrilling game and its success under the management of the Chamber of Commerce. Bisher’s column was old-school sports writing, poetically capturing the drama of the game in literary style.

I was too young and stupid to save the newspaper, discarding it after I had read it, but through the magic of the Internet, I located the column online, in the AJC’s archives. I paid my $5.95 to access it, and it is as good as I remembered. Bisher opened with:

Through the thickening gloom of New Year’s eve afternoon, the trench warriors under the banners of the Hokies and the Wolfpack had been carrying the battle to one another, leaving a trail of bruises and scars. One minute and 53 ticks of the clock were left to play when Virginia Tech, doing business as the Hokies, took the ball at their 20-yard line, two points in arrears to N.C. State, the raging Wolves who had developed a reputation for desperation finishes this season.

1986 Peach Bowl
A hallowed spot of ground: the 30 yard line, origin of “The Kick.”

Bisher, now 88 years old and still writing for the AJC, went on to recount the ups and downs of the game, and he described the post game scene in terms that stuck with me over 20 years:

Out of the stands poured the Hokies with unbridled emotion, and the surface became the color of maroon. From their place in the stands, those of the Wolfpack faith stood transfixed, their red trappings drooping, and gazed down in their stunned state upon the seething scene below. The Hokies had captured the fort and they took over in wild but non-destructive exuberation.

In particular, the line “their red trappings drooping” is the one that stayed imprinted on my memory. In cutting and pasting this into a word processor, I discovered that exuberation isn’t really a word — “exuberance” is the term Mr. Bisher was looking for — but we’ll forgive him. I have a theory as to why Mr. Bisher was so moved by the game: it turns out he’s a UNC graduate. At least a small part of him must have enjoyed watching the NC State Wolfpack lose a game in such painful fashion.

He finished the article with the following passage:

This was a season that Virginia Tech began [by] losing to Cincinnati – the Bearcats, not the Reds – and came to this happy ending in a winning bowl game. This was a Peach Bowl year that began in a state of disarray and unlikely solution, and providently ended at the highest point of its checkered existence. Dooley marcheth out, the New Peach Bowl marcheth in, long live them both.

We thought that the Peach Bowl was a springboard for Virginia Tech, just the beginning, but probation and a new football coach were on the horizon; both set Hokie football back a few years. Probation eventually ended, and Frank Beamer eventually got it right, but from 1987 to 1992, the difficulties Tech football encountered and the nasty circumstances under which Dooley left took the shine off that Peach Bowl win.

I find that with this year’s Chick-fil-A Bowl — heck, I’ll say it, Peach Bowl — invitation, a lot of pleasant memories have come back to the forefront. I’m not 22 years old any more, and in the past 20 years, Virginia Tech football has achieved at much higher levels than a minor bowl game win over NC State, but there will always be a special place in the back of my mind for that trip down to Atlanta two decades ago, for the friends I went with and the game we watched. And won.