If Loving the NIT is Wrong, I Don’t Wanna Be Right

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Wednesday night against Princeton was vintage Cassell Coliseum: full all the way up to the corners, a high-stakes back-and-forth game, fans screaming full throat, willing the Hokies to victory. When it was finally over after 45 minutes of basketball, fans, players, and coaches were all spent, and Virginia Tech had survived and advanced.

It’s not popular to love the NIT, but I love the NIT. As a game experience, it’s a level above a regular-season game, and in many ways it’s a better experience than an ACC Tournament game and yes, an NCAA Tournament game.

The Hokies have a problem filling seats in regular season games, and even when they do, the students, the biggest noisemakers the program has, are isolated to one end of Cassell Coliseum. It’s not a bad gig, and they’ve built their own north end zone-type experience down there, but it does compartmentalize the noise.

Not so with the NIT. The tickets — all of them — are general admission, meaning sit wherever you want. The students still flock to the north end of Cassell, but they also infiltrate the other areas of Cassell, and the noise and energy can be felt throughout.

Zach LeDay goes up against Princeton, in front of a huge Cassell Crowd.
Zach LeDay goes up against Princeton, in front of a huge Cassell Crowd.

As for general admission seating, I love what it does to the game experience. Though the game didn’t start until 8:00, the doors opened at 6:30, and about 3,000 fans filed into Cassell between 6:30 and 7:00, got good seats, and waited for the game to start.

Buzz Williams said later that seeing the fans lined up outside Cassell, and having them there for warmups, excited and energized his players. Indeed, as the players went through their warmups an hour or so before the game, hundreds of early student arrivals ooh’d and aah’d as the Hokies put on a little slam dunk show during their “layup” drills. The NCAA relaxed their rules a few years ago to allow dunking during warmups, so the players and fans had fun with it.

Did I forget to mention that tickets are only $15, and just $5 for students and kids under 18? Those prices are straight out of the 1990s, and kudos to the NIT for holding the line on price to help pack fans into arenas.

It all adds up to a special atmosphere, one that harkens back to the glory days of Cassell, when Virginia Tech distributed close to 5,000 student tickets for each game, and an entire side of Cassell rocked and rolled all game long.

Add in the fact that it’s tournament basketball, where a loss is sudden death, and Cassell winds up being electric, causing me to tweet this as the noise ramped up in the first half:

NCAA bids clearly advance your program, but if you’re a team on the way up, like the Hokies are, the NIT is a hell of a consolation prize, and it gives a team and its coaches a chance to connect with the fans that goes above and beyond the regular season and the ACC Tournament.

I’ve written before that for most of the first season and a half, Buzz Williams talked very little about Virginia Tech fans, and he didn’t seem to be making a connection with supporters of the program. That has changed in the last month or so, as the program has ignited, crowds have improved, and Buzz has acknowledged that the increased attendance is starting to make a difference on the court. Last night went to a whole new level.

“I thought the crowd was easily the best that it’s been since I’ve been here,” Buzz said after the game. “I want to give credit to the fans for the victory… the crowd was phenomenal. The crowd, the students, the season ticket holders, the community were fabulous.”

His post-game radio comments were very similar, and in talking to Tech radio announcer Jon Laaser, Buzz again flat-out gave credit for the win to the crowd.

Chris Coleman works the games on press row, so I attend as a fan, and I can report that with about six minutes to go in regulation, everyone in the Cassell stood … and they never really sat down again, through the rest of regulation and all five minutes of overtime. That just doesn’t happen these days, and it really doesn’t happen during the regular season games.

It was a really special atmosphere, and the NIT is the only place you get it. Buzz was so overwhelmed by it that he directed his players up into the stands after the game, leading to a cavalcade of selfies with the coach and players that threatened to break VT’s little corner of the Internet.

“I just wanted to mark the moment better than just waving at them,” Buzz said of the decision to go up into the seats.

This kind of scene creates a lasting connection between the program and the fans.

Buzz Williams and the team (Zach LeDay shown here) went up into the stands after the overtime win against Princeton.
Buzz Williams and the team (Zach LeDay shown here, along with Shane Henry, Kerry Blackshear, and Johnny Hamilton) went up into the stands after the overtime win against Princeton.

But let’s talk about the elephant in the room: The Oklahoma State job is going to be open soon, and Buzz has been linked with it as a possible candidate. Oklahoma State has six Final Four appearances in their history, T. Boone Pickens’ money is available, and Stillwater is much closer to Buzz’s hometown (and his wife’s hometown) than Blacksburg. So it’s a real threat.

On Kyle Bailey’s final show on SuperSports101.7 FM this week, he asked Buzz Williams to address the rumors, and Buzz would only say (a) that he’s focused on the NIT and doesn’t want to address the rumors, and (b) when it comes to things like this, he’s always going to do what’s best for his family. (The show is archived here – look for 3/15/16, Hour 1).

But what is right for Buzz’s family? Is it to move back closer to home, or is it to put down roots here in Blacksburg, which is a great community to raise a family? Buzz remains an enigma.

I do know this: I think that the Virginia Tech community, Hokies AD Whit Babcock, and Virginia Tech fans have done all they can do at this point to keep Buzz in Blacksburg. The only one of us who has any other cards to play is Whit, who has said that he’ll have a conversation with Buzz this week, and once again when the season ends.

Last night was special, and Buzz seems to be waking up to the idea that he can really connect with the fans here, and that he and his players have something special going. Buzz seemed taken aback and very appreciative of the high-level support and noise last night. He’s got to know deep down in his heart that he can build something special here, and that every new achievement vaults him to a new level with Hokie fans. He can walk on water here, if he plays his cards right. Is that true somewhere else? The answer is already given above: OK State has already been to Final Fours. Virginia Tech hasn’t, and an achievement like that will set Blacksburg on its ear and lead to talk of Buzz Williams statues being erected in the Cassell entryway.

The Hokies have a very tough, short turnaround to play at BYU Friday night. If they can get past the Cougars, they’ll return to Blacksburg for one more game, and I can guarantee that if that happens, the roof might just blow off Cassell Coliseum.

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50 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. I was kind of worried about the long delay between the last ACC tournament game and the Princeton game, 6 days. You can practice all you want but it’s like dreaming that you’re awake, you’re head is not completely there. So, short turnaround, yes, but as long as you get the rest in, it’s best just to stay in the moment and play. Good luck guys, this will be tough.

  2. Bimbo Coles last game at Cassell was the loudest in my college days. Still remember that day…

    1. Loved those Bimbo Coles’ led teams. Bimbo driving the paint for a bucket, and free throw to make it three. Bimbo dishing it out to Wally Lancaster behind the line for three. Those were really fun teams to watch.

      1. I was living in Birmingham, Alabama in the Coles era. They came to play University of Alabama who at that time was a strong team (and we finished 11-17 that year). Coles and Lancaster lit them up. Lancaster was hitting 3s and Coles just kept driving to the basket and drawing fouls and the fans were so frustrated. In the end Michael Ainsley hit a last second jumper and they beat us. But, we gave them a ride they didn’t expect.

  3. I was at VT from 72 thru 77 & VT Basketball was exciting. Cassell was packed! I was even the Hokie Mascot for one game (Tall turkey one) & it was the one where VT came back from 25+ down to win at the wire! Students came back in late in the game to cheer the incredible comeback onward! Note, I had to retrieve my own shots at halftime! LOL!

    1. BTW, it was a Wednesday Night February 9th 1977 against a ranked Memphis team! VT played inspired ball the last 11 to 15 mins of the game to shock Memphis! Incredible game!

      1. Looked great on TV and saw Buzz ushering the players into the stands so the picture was great. So based on Will’s headline it must have be a truly great affair.

        Like most of you, I was at the Memphis game. Then the crowds were so loud that the Hoos would not play there.

      2. Ron Bell driving and fishing and Marshall Ashdord hitting long jumpers. Cassell was insane that night!

  4. I hope Buzz stays here. When he made a decision to become a basketball coach, he knew that he would most likely have to move all over the place, some places might be far from home. I’m sure that his wife knew that too. They’ve lived in New Orleans and Milwaukee before coming to Blacksburg.

    Thousands of college coaches have landed jobs far from their childhood homes. Many of them have settled in places far way and culturally unlike where they grew up. John Wooden left rural Indiana to coach at UCLA. He raised his family in southern California and never left. Mike Krzyzewski left Chicago and has been in Durham since the late 1970’s. He too settled down there and raised a family. Dean Smith (UNC) and Adolph Rupp (Kentucky) left Kansas and had Hall of Fame careers at their schools. They too raised their families there and never left. I’m not saying Buzz will be in the same class as those legends, but it’s not uncommon for a man and his family to adopt a new place and call it home. It happens every day. I just hope Buzz and his family like Blacksburg enough to spend many memorable and enjoyable years here.

  5. I helped rock the Cassell from 78-83. The days of Wayne Robinson, Dale Solomon, Reggie Steppe, Les Hensen, and the beginning of the Dell Curry days. The first several years those Hokies were a hard running team and it cost McDonalds a lot of burger meals. Man those were fun times 🙂

    1. I can echo that. I was a drummer in the pep band and was on the floor for every game from 76-80. It didn’t matter if I had homework or a test the next day, I wasn’t missing a basketball game. I cannot remember the opponent but it was a highly ranked one and we were beating them soundly. I was jumping around and was so excited I started to hyperventilate. After one big play Reggie Steppe walked by and gave me a high 5 which was a huge thrill for a college kid. I think I enjoyed the basketball experience more than marching in football games.

  6. The post-game pix and the enthusiasm in Buzz’s comments lead me to believe he’s beginning to connect on a visceral level w/Hokie Nation. No matter what another program offers, he can’t take last night’s atmosphere w/him. He has to know he can turn Tech into a destination program. All it will take is a little more time, not a lot, just a little, 2 or 3 more seasons. Even 2 years in, we’re seeing the making of a, “Brand.” As for comparing an NIT game experience to an ACC or NCAA tournament game, the reason it’s better is because the early round games are must-win home games for the higher-seeded team: win and you live to play again; lose and your season is over. Extending the season is esp. valuable for a young team like ours, the same way bowl games give your football team and extra month of practice. Who cares if it’s not the NCAA?

    1. And in the case of an NCAA Tournament game, it is do-or-die, and that’s exciting, but they’re always at huge neutral site arenas, the place isn’t full, and you have to share it with other teams’ fans. So as a “game experience” it doesn’t rock as much.

  7. Articles like this are why I happily renew my subscription to TSL year after year, and why I visit this site each day before all others.

    Outstanding work guys. Top tier!

      1. Along those lines your article nailed my feelings I remember watching mark price and Georgia tech at the cassell in 80s those late dale Solomon years and later Dell curry Perry and al young years at cassell were unbelievable and I lived frosh year at lee hall. So great to see place rocking. Funny Molly hatchet played cassell in 1980 too. Burress hall had Elvis Costello w/ squeeze opening.but hokies basketball was where it was out. Great article!!!

  8. The Cassell was new in the 60s, and it was packed with exuberant students for every game. VT had some excellent teams and players (e.g., Howard Pardue and Glen Combs). VT was very good every year but made the Elite 8 in ’67, by beating Indiana; Glen Combs was an outstanding out-side shooter and lit up against Indiana. After leading for much of the game, VT lost a close game to national runner-up, Dayton.

    After VT, Howard Pardue, Ph.D., SPHR, went on to serve as the Vice President, Human Resources, for five different major organizations.

    After VT, Glen Combs went on to play for the Dallas/Texas Chaparrals, the Utah Stars, the Memphis Tams, and the Virginia Squires, and he appeared in three league All-star games (1970, 1971, 1972). He also won an ABA Championship in 1971 as a member of the Stars, and he led the league in three-point baskets made (103) in 1971–72. When he retired in 1975, he had scored 7,666 career points.

  9. When I went to Tech in the 80’s (until ’91, but let’s not bring that up right now), Men’s Hoops stood shoulder to shoulder to was even bigger than Football. With the turnaround in ’92 and the emphasis nationally as college (and pro) football becoming America’s game, our hoops program crumbled after the ’95 NIT win. Seth stirred the ashes some and had some good years but he could never get it over the hump.

    Buzz could be very special at Virginia Tech…Frank Beamer special. He could elevate the program to a consistent Top 20 level and take the team deep into the NCAA’s. He won’t stay for 29 years, but if he chooses, Blacksburg is his oyster.

  10. I remember the 4×4 hanging from the ceiling with the light bulbs on each side that represented the noise level in the building. Top light was red indicating jet engine level loud. Man that place would get crazy loud with Dell, Brow, Young bros, Coles and the rest. Every one would yell like crazy to get that wood post in the red. Great memories!

    1. A guy that lived a couple doors down the hall in my dorm was in charge of running that “decibel-meter”. He let his girlfriend, who was a Radford student, run it most of the time. She would manually flip switches to light up the different levels on the meter as she saw fit. There apparently was no device to actually measure the decibel level. I think we stole that idea from NC State or some other school.

  11. Great article and the tweet was spot on. I was at VT 82-86 and yes, that type of atmosphere was routine at Cassell back in the day. Two that will always stick in my mind were the game against #1 Memphis when a freshman-dominated VT squad led by some dude named Curry pulled the upset, and another game against Memphis a few years later, the infamous “Bob Uecker mask” day.

    1. I was at that Memphis game. They had just been named #1. Didn’t last long. 🙂

      Packed house. My seat was all the way up in the corner last row. I still loved it.

  12. One of the best memories I have of my time at VT was Travis Jackson taking a step back to get behind the 3 point line and nailing a 3 from the corner to beat New Mexico State at Cassell in ’95 to send the Hokies to NYC. My friend’s and I had seats immediately behind him as he took the shot and yes the roof did come off the place. I don’t get to watch hoops like I used to, but it’s good to see the Hokies getting some traction again.

    1. My friend had season tickets first row on baseline that he shared with me. For that game I told him I would get in line, when doors opened I would snag those seats. The seats happen to be on that baseline almost directly in front of where Travis let it go. Roof did come off after he made it. Not sure I’ll ever forget that one.

    2. Still have a VHS tape from SportsCenter that night showing the storming of the court that followed. I congratulated Shawn Smith with a rub on his sweaty head!

      1. i was there with first row seats and we rushed the court. actually turned into a little bit of a scary experience. everyone mobbed the players to the point that there was a crush. players were falling down and started yelling “back up! back up!,” which was impossible with dozens more people pushing in. i felt my wallet fall out of my pocket and dove down to get it, which led to me being stepped on repeatedly. finally got it. Good times.

  13. I may be naive but I don’t view the OkSt job as that much of a draw for Buzz. Obviously none of us know how important it would be for him to get closer to home; however, with what Buzz is doing at VT he has the ability to name his job 2-3 years down the road. How much longer do Coach K and Roy have on Tobacco Road? Will Calipari be at Kentucky forever? I guess Bill Self could have decades left in Kansas and who knows about Izzo at MSU. In the end my point is there are blue bloods that are likely to have openings over the next several years. Jumping to Stillwater wouldn’t necessarily hold him back from pursuing those options in the future but he already has the ball rolling at VT. If I was him I’d be thinking get VT to back to back NCAA tourneys and then take over Duke or UNC. OKState seems like small potatoes compared to where he could land.

    1. I’m with you jsumm88.

      When Buzz came to VT, he talked specifically about wanting to build a program from the ground up. His time at Marquette was one of continuing the program. OkSt job is basically the same situation – a place that has had success.

      Buzz hasn’t finished making his mark on the program yet so I don’t see him leaving yet.

    2. Who’s to say that Buzz couldn’t become a blue blood at VT? The aging coaches at dynasty programs certainly open it up for rising programs like ours.

  14. Talk about the effect of an NIT game as you have pointed out, last nights game could turn out to be the difference maker in Buzz’s decision. We couldn’t have asked for a better time to play a home NIT game.

  15. Agreed! Watching on TV last night brought back memories of my student days at The Cassell from 82-86…Totally agree with Will Stewart’s Tweet about last night’s game atmosphere as compared to the mid-80’s! I am praying that Buzz will stay at VT for a while longer and help build the men’s hoops program back to what it should be…GO HOKIES!!!

  16. The eighties were very special. I see no reason we can’t revisit that era with what Buzz is putting together.

  17. Cassell was packed with students in the ’76 to ’80 era as well. Great to see the atmosphere from last night! Go Hokies! Hope for one more game in Blacksburg!

    1. Yep. And my stint from ’70 to ’75 (including the ’73 Championship – but all played at MSG). I went to just about every game – why not? – it was winning basketball, it was free, and most importantly IT WAS THE HOKIES!

    2. Agree. Attended all the home games from 76-80 as a student. Waited in line in the dark to get a ticket and stood the whole game. And there were some great games with Memphis State and Louisville. Glad to see that the students are getting enthused.

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