By Harry Minium
Who would have expected that in just two short years, Old Dominion’s football rivalry with Virginia Tech would develop into, well, a real rivalry?
Virginia Tech is a Power 5 school with one of the ACC’s best programs, one that played for a national championship a decade before ODU began playing football. The Hokies have been to 26 consecutive bowl games, the longest active streak in college football.
ODU is an up-and-coming Group of 5 program that opened a $67.5 million renovated stadium last weekend and won a bowl game three years ago. But the Monarchs are playing just their sixth season in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
It’s rare for a big-time program to truly want to crush a Group of 5 school.
Nonetheless, that’s just what the Hokies will clearly be aiming for when ODU travels to Blacksburg Saturday for a noon game.
The teams met for the first time ever two years ago when Tech eased past ODU, 38-0, in Blacksburg. ODU coach Bobby Wilder said you can’t truly call a team a rival until both teams have beaten each other.
If so, a rivalry was born a year later when ODU handed the No. 13 Hokies one of their most embarrassing defeats ever, a 49-35 loss at Foreman Field in which they gave up 632 yards, the most ever surrendered by a Bud Foster-coached defense.
Once the game ended, the Monarchs held a joyous celebration on the field as fans, especially students, streamed onto the turf.
For a week the Monarchs basked in the national spotlight. ESPN crowned it one of the top 10 biggest upsets ever in college football.
The Hokies were also watching ESPN last September and have had a year to contemplate the loss at ODU. Coach Justin Fuente runs a classy program, so I don’t expect you’ll hear the revenge word out of the Hokies this week.
But if you were in the same position, wouldn’t you want a little payback?
You also have to play frequently to really have a rivalry, and beginning in 2023, ODU and Tech will play for ten consecutive seasons, beginning with a game at S.B. Ballard Stadium.
As for this week's game, there are other complicating factors that likely will leave emotions on both sides mixed.
Two Tech players, wide receiver Eric Kumah and tight end Chris Cunningham, transferred to ODU. After entering the transfer portal, they were recruited to ODU by run-game coordinator and tight ends coach Bryan Stinespring, who is one of the most revered assistant coaches in Tech history.
Coach Bobby Wilder announced Monday that Kumah and Cunningham will be ODU's game captains in Blacksburg.
"The reason I'm doing that, number one, is that those two guys have just been tremendous leaders since they arrived," Wilder said. "They've only been with us four months, but they're already made a huge impact on our program. They could have gone to a lot of places, but they made it clear they wanted to go somewhere that was the best fit for them, as players and people.
"Since they've been here, they've shown tremendous leadership. They're two of the hardest working players on the team.
"These two guys, it's a special game for them."
And for Stinespring, who spent three decades coaching at Tech, or as he terms it, more than half of his life. He’s a former Tech offensive coordinator and was for decades the most effective recruiter in Virginia.
“I’ve got friends who will be coaching on the other sideline, including some of my best friends,” Stinespring said. “There are players there I helped recruit.”
He’s headed back to Lane Stadium for the first time as a coach for an opposing team. When I asked him what that will feel like, his face welled up with emotion.
ODU assistant coach Bryan Stinespring coached three decades at Virginia Tech
“I’ve been asked this I can’t tell you how many times since I got here,” Stinespring said. “But when people ask me what it’s going to be like, I can’t answer because I really don’t know what it’s going to be like.”
Stinespring is close with Foster, considered by many to be the best defensive coordinator in football and who is retiring after this season.
“Bud and I talk frequently,” Stinespring said. “But we’re very guarded about this. We don’t really know what to say. We both somehow try to steer away from the subject. It’s something we don’t want to talk about.”
Kumah and Cunningham were more forthcoming.
“It will be fun,” said Kumah, a starter last season for the Hokies who snared four pass receptions in ODU’s season-opening victory over Norfolk State.
“I’m excited to go back to Blacksburg. I played there for three years and know what the atmosphere is going to be like. I think it’s going to be a really fun and interesting game.”
Asked about why he transferred to ODU, his response was clever.
“I lot of people ask me that and I simply say, ‘why not? Why not ODU?’ ”
While ODU’s facilities aren’t on the same level with Virginia Tech, he said he was surprised at how well athletes are treated at the University.
“The only thing I miss is getting lobster and filet mignon every day from the dining hall,” he said, laughing. “Everything else is pretty much the same. The weight room is nice. We’ve got a great stadium.
Eric Kumah had four receptions in his debut for ODU last weekend.
“We have enough resources here to achieve our goals and to be good.”
Cunningham politely declined comment when I asked him why he transferred, but also said he’s looking forward to returning.
“It’s definitely going to be emotional,” he said. “I have relationships with guys on the staff and on the team.”
Wilder said he understands how emotional the game will be for Stinespring.
Chris Cunningham said his return to Blacksburg this week will be emotional
“Bryan has some tremendous memories there,” Wilder said. “He still loves Virginia Tech. He was there so long with (former head coach) Frank Beamer and Bud Foster.
“When you think about the best football Virginia Tech ever played, for the national championship and all of those conference championships, that was Beamer ball.”
Stinespring was Beamer’s offensive coordinator for years and was criticized by some fans for running a run-oriented game.
“Bryan was tasked with running the football,” Wilder said. “He took a lot of heat for it, unfairly in my opinion, for what he ran offensively.
"That was their game plan. They said we’re going to play great special teams, we’re going to put our defense in great position and we’re going to run the ball. He did a phenomenal job there.
“He recruited well, he coached well. He did a hell of a job recruiting.
“Blacksburg is still a very special place for him.”
Tech’s program began a meltdown of sorts right after the loss to ODU when Virginia Beach native Trevion Hill was kicked off the team.
Players began to enter the transfer portal shortly thereafter. At one point, 14 were in the transfer portal, and over 16 months, 22 players left.
ODU coach Bobby Wilder says assistant coach Bryan Stinespring loves Virginia Tech and always will.
Sports Illustrated later revealed that players were so divided near the end of the season that some urged their teammates to throw a hastily-scheduled game with Marshall so that the Hokies would not go to a bowl game.
“Do not catch a touchdown. If you catch a touchdown, I’m going to have to fight you,” SI quoted one player as saying.
Tech beat Marshall convincingly and lost to Cincinnati in the Military Bowl to finish with a 6-7 record, the Hokies’ first losing season since before any of Tech’s players were born. Player dissension continued into spring practice.
But Fuente then met with his players last March and opened up the floor for a frank discussion. The meeting cleared the air.
Fuente said the meeting resulted in a tremendous “reconnection” with his players, many of whom told SI that the divisions of last season are a distant memory.
The many transfers left Tech with just five seniors, but the Hokies played well in a 35-28 loss at Boston College in their opener last week.
The Hokies do indeed appear to have repaired any fissures.
Wilder addressed this issue at his Monday press conference and stressed that Kumah and Cunningham played well and hard for the Hokies right through the end of the season.
Wilder noted the SI story was based on anonymous sources and bristled at any implication that either Kumah or Cunningham didn't play hard. He said the story was "bothersome and hurtful" to both of them.
Wilder said when the story broke, he went back and watched Tech's final three games against U.Va., Marshall and Cincinnati.
"Those two guys played hard throughout every game I watched," he said. "Kumah played with a broken hand against Marshall and Cincinnati and caught touchdown passes in both games. Cunningham caught a touchdown pass against Cincinnati.
"You look at these two guys and I think you can say they both were playing their tails off for Virginia Tech. They graduated, they have degrees, they have close friends on the on the Virginia Tech football team.
"I'm really proud of what these guys have done. From my philosophy as a head coach, when you take transfer players, you better get guys that have character, good team guys.
"I''m really excitsed to announce them both as captains."
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