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Day 3: Defensive guru Bud Foster nixed Gator bait

Frozen pipes almost cost Virginia Tech its prized defensive coordinator.

Returning to Blacksburg after the Hokies' 1998 Music City Bowl conquest of Alabama, Bud Foster found portions of his home flooded. A cold snap had burst pipes, and the damage was more than $50,000.

Then-Florida coach Steve Spurrier pounced on Foster's misfortune.

Spurrier's defensive coordinator, Bob Stoops, had accepted the head-coaching position at Oklahoma, and Spurrier wanted Foster to take over the Gators' defense. After hearing about the pipes, Spurrier called Foster's wife, Jacquie.

In an amusing impression of Spurrier's clipped Southern drawl, Foster summarized the sales pitch:

"Jacquie, down here in Gainesville we don't get any frost or freeze. Pipes won't burst down here in Gainesville."

As all Tech faithful know, Foster turned down Spurrier and subsequently built the 1999 defense that helped carry the Hokies to a perfect regular season and the national-championship game. Tech led Division I-A in scoring defense, and end Corey Moore was named college football's top defender.

Foster remains in Blacksburg and is entering his 23rd season as a Hokie, his 15th as coordinator. But Spurrier's offer was tempting, and not just because of Gainesville's climate.

While Tech was then a fringe national contender, Florida was front-and center. The Gators boasted eight consecutive top-10 seasons under Spurrier from 1991-98, and in 1995 they won their first national championship.

Yet Foster suspected that head coach Frank Beamer's Hokies program was on the cusp. Fifteen starters were set to return, and redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Vick was poised to take command of the offense.

"I'm sitting there thinking, we've got a chance to be pretty good," Foster said. "I work for a great guy, we've worked hard to get to this point with this football program, why would I want to leave it now when we have the opportunity to do something pretty special?"

The Hokies validated Foster's decision. They shut out James Madison and Syracuse, recorded 58 sacks and scored six touchdowns.

Five of Foster's defenses have led the nation in at least one statistical category, but none was as dominant or skilled. Five starters — ends Moore and John Engelberger, linebacker Ben Taylor, safety Cory Bird and cornerback Ike Charlton — were selected in the NFL draft; another, safety Nick Sorensen, went undrafted but has fashioned a nine-year NFL career.

"How good is their defense?" Syracuse offensive tackle Mark Baniewicz said after his team's 62-0 loss that season at Lane Stadium. "You saw it, man."

A national-television audience saw it, too. The No. 16 Orange endured the most-lopsided shutout loss ever by a ranked team, committed five turnovers and did not convert a third down until late in the fourth quarter.

The statistic from that season that Foster is proudest of: The defense, aided by special teams, turned the ball over to the offense in the opponent's territory 43 times.

"That's how dominant we were," he said. "It was a complete season, it really was. … There was just a great chemistry. You could laugh together, you could cry together, you could crack on each other. You could do a lot of things and no one would take it personal."

The defense practiced at such a level that the offense couldn't help but improve.

"You got to the game on Saturday and it felt like a walk-through," said offensive tackle Anthony Lambo, an assistant high school coach in his native New Jersey. "You go four days a week against All-Americans going 100 miles an hour and you have no choice but to (practice hard and get better). If you didn't, you got your (tail) kicked."

The 1999 season further enhanced Foster's reputation, and many a job has since been dangled. Spurrier even tried again in late 2007, offering the coordinator's position on his South Carolina staff.

Former Miami offensive coordinator and head coach Larry Coker, now heading Texas-San Antonio's start-up program, considers Foster one of the game's best defensive minds and called his deployment of Tech's linebackers and secondary "unique."

With a base salary of about $350,000, Foster is among the ACC's highest-paid coordinators, and at age 50 he is holding out for a head-coaching gig in one of the six Bowl Championship Series conferences. He interviewed last year at Clemson, but regardless of where he's working, he'll be considered a logical heir apparent when Beamer departs Tech.

"Bud's built a lot like me, or maybe I'm built like him," said Charley Wiles, Tech's defensive-line coach since 1996.

"Everyday living is so important and once you find a situation where you're comfortable and you can succeed, it's hard to give that up. …

"There's not anybody better in the country than Bud. He could have done a lot of different things and gone different places, but I think he understands what we have at Tech is very special."

Even when his pipes freeze.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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