September 26, 2006
BLACKSBURG -- Retired tennis star Andre Agassi talked about it in his commercials earlier in his career.
Image, the message went, is everything. It doesn't matter what is true. It is what appears to be true that matters.
It may not want to admit it, but the Virginia Tech football team has a problem that has nothing to do with its talent level. Image is everything, and right now the image of the Hokies isn't very good.
"They are nothing but a bunch of thugs," an opposing SID said in the press box at one of the Hokies' games.
It isn't true, not by a longshot. But it also is easy to see where someone could get that impression, and how that image was created.
Let's go back a couple of years.
In 2004, Tech was the toast of the ACC. It joined the league and won the championship in football. It was a tremendous feel-good story. A 2-2 start was followed by eight straight victories, including key ones on the road at Georgia Tech and Miami. The Hokies earned a trip to the Sugar Bowl, where they lost to Auburn. Still, 10-3 was more than anyone had a right to expect out of that team.
The leader of the offense was quarterback Bryan Randall, the league's player of the year. The leader of the defense was lineman Jim Davis.
Two better kids could not be found anywhere -- hard workers, hard players, diligent, respectful. Name a positive accolade, and it applied.
They were the faces of the team. Everyone thought the Hokies were good folks. Tech even won the ACC's sportsmanship award for football that season.
Fast forward a year, and look at the faces of the team: quarterback Marcus Vick on offense and cornerback Jimmy Williams on defense. In the Gator Bowl, Vick was caught on camera (but not by the refs) stomping on the leg of Louisville star Elvis Dumervil. It was one of several on-field incidents by Vick that season. Williams was long gone by the time the stomp happened, having been tossed early for a run-in and contact with an official.
Even though the team's "punk" quotient wasn't really higher than it was the previous year, the image of the Hokies suddenly became a negative one.
Early in the 2006 season, that image is being reinforced primarily because of the actions of one player. Senior rover Aaron Rouse is keeping it alive and, if Tech is at all serious about correcting that image, it needs to take some swift and maybe serious action.
Rouse is one heck of a football player, a guy with size and speed who may end up as a first-round NFL draft choice. He also isn't a bad kid, or at least he doesn't seem to be. He grew up in a difficult environment, with a father who is incarcerated. He became a father himself but seems intent on being there for his son and doing his best to be a factor in his life.
He talked throughout the summer and preseason of being a leader, of doing things the right way. He showed up on time, in shirt and tie, for scheduled interview sessions. Why? Image is everything. It all gets back to that.
While Rouse's words are right, his actions are not, and that is the problem.
Twice against Duke, Rouse was whistled for late hits on the quarterback. The first was close and wasn't really anything to get alarmed about, even if it was the correct call. The second? Rouse took at least two steps before nailing Thaddeus Lewis in the chin and knocking him out of the game with a concussion.
Tech coach Frank Beamer said after the game that if a player has to take two steps first, he has to be able to stop. Rouse was apologetic afterward, though not without saying it was a play that couldn't be avoided.
MINOR PUNISHMENTS NOT ENOUGH?
Even giving him a pass on that one, Rouse didn't do anything to help himself or Tech's image a week later against Cincinnati. He was flagged early for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, for going after a Cincinnati player after the whistle.
Tech removed him for the rest of that series and didn't play Rouse the next series, either. He'll do the early morning mid-week punishment run. Beamer also is docking his players part of their bowl per diem for such violations.
That's all well and good, but maybe something stiffer is in order.
Rouse is one of the faces of this team, the most prominent face perhaps, because of his ability and his outspoken stance on the leadership issue. So many eyes are going to be on him anyway. When he acts as he does on the field, he hurts his own image and, most important, the image of the team.
Tech is not a collection of punks and thugs. Not even close. Rouse is not a punk or a thug. Not even close.
But when the unsportsmanlike violations pile up, that is the image that is created. It sticks in people's minds, and once there it is almost impossible to remove.
Running at 6 in the morning is punishment, but it really isn't enough. The players are in good enough shape, or should be, to handle the running part. All it costs them is a couple hours of sleep.
Docking bowl money is punishment, too, though one has to wonder where the money will go and whether it is really legal to do that. Sitting a player out for a series or two doesn't really send that strong a message, either.
How about sitting him out for the rest of the game? Or maybe the next one? That might get the message across to a player, reminding him emphatically that his actions hurt everyone associated with the program and not just himself.
With a player of Rouse's ability, having him miss an entire game might cost the team that game. He's that good.
It also might be a necessary step. Tech worked so hard to win the ACC title in 2004 and create a good feeling among members of its new league. It doesn't seem right somehow that the actions of very few can totally erase those good feelings. But that's what happens.
Remember, it isn't only what is true that matters. Sometimes, it is what appears to be true that matters.
When one player is allowed to get away with penalties that shouldn't happen, it doesn't create a good appearance.