Twenty years ago this week, the Virginia Cavaliers became the nation's top-ranked team.
Virginia! Prior to Coach George Welsh's 1982 arrival, the Cavaliers had enjoyed two winning seasons in the previous 29. No bowl considered them worthy until 1984, and one rival coach derisively called them "white meat," as in soft and ripe for the picking.
Yes, Virginia had won its first ACC championship in 1989. And yes, Tabb High's Terry Kirby, acclaimed the country's top recruit, had chosen the Cavaliers over traditional powers such as Alabama, Tennessee and Clemson.
But No. 1?
"It was a surreal feeling," said cornerback Jason Wallace, a Bethel High graduate.
How did it happen? Could it happen again? And what, pray tell, caused No. 1 Virginia's late-season collapse?
The Cavaliers ascended Oct. 15, 1990, a Monday. Two days earlier, second-ranked Virginia had routed North Carolina State and No. 1 Michigan had lost to Michigan State.
"I was in the Cavalier Inn (hotel) with my parents watching Michigan State beat Michigan," said defensive end Chris Slade, a Tabb High graduate, "and I remember jumping up and down excited like we had just won a game ourselves.
"I was probably more excited about (Michigan) losing than I was about us beating N.C. State earlier that day, because I knew we were going to be the No. 1 team in the country."
But that's getting ahead of the story. Virginia's rise began with Welsh.
An All-American quarterback at Navy in 1955, he had revived the academy's program as coach in the 1970s and aimed to do the same at Virginia. Sure enough, from 1984-89 Welsh guided the Cavaliers to three bowls and four upsets of ranked opponents, most notably at Penn State in '89.
Virginia finished that season 18th in the Associated Press media poll, its highest year-end ranking since 1951.
Entering 1990, the Cavaliers cracked the preseason poll for the first time, at No. 15.
"Going into U.Va., I knew they were on the rise," Slade said. "But I didn't think we'd be that good that fast. After we beat Penn State at Penn State my true freshman year, even though we got thrashed by Notre Dame two weeks before that, I said, 'You know, we've got a pretty good team here.' "
The 1990 Cavaliers were good historically on offense, averaging a then-ACC record 40.2 points. Quarterback Shawn Moore ran the option, threw deep and was a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate; Kirby and Nikki Fisher were interchangeable at tailback, and receiver Herman Moore, no relation to Shawn, was a future NFL Pro Bowler.
All, by the way, hailed from in-state.
Virginia opened 1990 at Kansas, a random, first-time opponent. A 59-10 waxing set up a Charlottesville showdown against No. 9 Clemson.
The teams had met 29 times. Clemson had won all 29 — former Tigers coach Frank Howard had coined the "white meat" line.
With Wallace returning a punt 79 yards to set up the decisive touchdown, the Cavaliers prevailed 20-7. Subsequent poundings of Navy, Duke and William and Mary, by a combined 178-49, catapulted Virginia to No. 2 in the Associated Press media poll and United Press International coaches' rankings.
The Cavaliers' previous high was No. 9, in 1949 and '52.
"We just ran roughshod over everybody," Slade said.
Including N.C. State, a 31-0 victim. When Michigan lost, it was all over but the voting.
"I thought it was deserved," Wallace said of Virginia's No. 1 status. "It was something we were very proud of. That group of seniors — man, we put in some work to get the program to that point. … We didn't have any guys with big heads. We were just a bunch of good guys having a good time."
Slade couldn't wait to see the Monday newspapers.
"That was the first time I actually ran to the library," he said, laughing from his Atlanta home. "You went to the Corner and they were already printing t-shirts: 'Look Hoos No. 1!'
"From like that Monday to Thursday everyone was on an emotional high. The whole town was buzzing, and you had all the national media showing up to practice."
"I think I did interviews every day," Wallace said from his Dallas home, where a Virginia football flag flies in the front yard, "not just for one reporter, but for 10s of TV cameras."
Outside reporters were amazed that Jefferson's academic powerhouse had morphed into a football force. ABC's evening news aired a segment on the Cavaliers, 6-0 for the first time since 1949, even as Welsh sought to temper the hype.
Welsh could not be reached for this story, but said then: "Nobody knows who's No. 1. There's too many games left to play. Maybe it's like Andy Warhol said, 'This is our 15 minutes of fame.' ... There's nothing wrong with it, but it's no big deal."
Virginia retained its ranking with a 49-14 victory at Wake Forest. Then came an open date, followed by a Nov. 3 visit from No. 16 Georgia Tech, unbeaten but twice-tied.
The game was the first November meeting of undefeated ACC teams.
We witnessed a classic.
Moore and Moore were brilliant as Virginia led 28-14 at halftime. But quarterback Shawn Jones rallied Georgia Tech, and with seven seconds remaining, Scott Sisson's 37-yard field goal gave the Yellow Jackets, coached by Richmond native Bobby Ross, a 41-38 victory.
"Seeing that field goal go through was just devastating," Wallace said. "We lost everything. We lost the ACC championship and a chance at the national championship."
"Out of all the games I played in, college and pro, that ranks up there in the top two or three games I've ever been a part of," Slade said. "I've been in the Super Bowl, I've been in AFC championships, the Clemson game, even going back to playing the (Hampton) Crabbers in high school."
Georgia Tech won its remaining four games, including 6-3 over Virginia Tech on Sisson's last-minute, 38-yarder, to share the national title with Colorado.
Virginia rebounded with a victory at North Carolina but dropped its final three, to Maryland, Virginia Tech and Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl. The Cavaliers' hopes against the Terps ended as Shawn Moore dislocated ligaments in his right thumb when sacked on a last-minute fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line.
Moore missed the Virginia Tech game and was limited in the Sugar Bowl. The Cavaliers finished 8-4 and No. 23 in the AP poll, making them the first 7-0 top-ranked team to fall from the top 10.
"I'd like to think if we'd won that (Georgia Tech) game we'd have gone on to beat Maryland and Virginia Tech, that winning would have changed our mentality," said Slade, the sideline reporter for Virginia's radio network. "Everything just went downhill after that."
Virginia has cracked the top 10 in four subsequent seasons, most recently in 2004 under Welsh's successor, Al Groh. But three losing records in four years, including a 3-9 nosedive last season, prompted Groh's dismissal and Bethel graduate Mike London's hiring.
In college football's new universe, with expanded conferences, the Bowl Championship Series and a national power at Virginia Tech, can Virginia dream of a return to No. 1?
Wallace and Slade believe so.
"It's a matter of us getting back to the basics of recruiting," Wallace said. "We cornered that ( Hampton Roads) market for a long time. But when the Michael Vick experience took hold at Virginia Tech, and Al Groh didn't recruit very well, the tide just started changing."
"We've got to get some more Herman Moores and Shawn Moores back on the team," Slade said. We've got to get some players, that's the bottom line."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP. Sign up for text alerts by texting "BIGSPORTS" to 71593Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun