CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- There is a place like "The Corner" in virtually every college town, where students, alumni and town folk alike converge.
In Columbus, there is High Street. College Park has "The Route." Chapel Hill's hot spot is Franklin Street, while in Tuscaloosa, the place of choice is "The Strip."
But these days, all those places pale in comparison to the area where West Main Street and University Avenue, both adorned with painted orange V's, come together, bisected by 14th Street, N.W.
This is the home of the nation's No. 1 football team, and don't think for a moment that folks on "The Corner" don't know it.
"We're in a great mood. It's the biggest thing that's happened around here in many years," said Charlie Bell, owner of the Cavalier Diner, on the southern end of "The Corner."
Come this Saturday afternoon, the Virginia Cavaliers, yes, those lovable losers, take the field across town at Scott Stadium to meet Georgia Tech in a nationally televised showdown for supremacy in the Atlantic Coast Conference and a major step toward the school's first national championship.
Bell expects that many of the unlucky souls who couldn't get tickets will find their way to his diner Saturday. There they'll fight for prime viewing space in front of the big screen TV while wolfing down the special of the week: a half-pound burger, cole slaw and a pile o' fries for $3.95.
"There's always been pride in the school, but now there's pride in the athletic program," Bell said. "If you were here 20 years ago, or even 15, we weren't a power in anything, but we could compete in the ACC as far as winning it all. Now, we're not only winning the ACC, but the nation."
A pent-up air of accomplishment has filled this picturesque town of 41,000, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
After all, this school -- Thomas Jefferson's school, no less -- hasn't quite approached behemoth status on the football field.
Oh sure, Ralph Sampson did roam the courts here a while back, and the basketball team did go to the Final Four a few times. In fact, the women's basketball team did that just last season. And the men's and women's soccer teams were ranked No. 1 this year too.
But football? In Charlottesville?
To this point, it's been the comic relief until they rolled out the round balls at University Hall on Oct. 15.
But this year and this game against Georgia Tech are different. Hotels in town have been sold out for weeks. The stadium press box will be filled to the rafters, with more than 350 reporters expected from places as far away as Los Angeles, San Diego and Denver.
Doyle Smith, associate sports information director, said this is easily the biggest single-game event in school history. The only thing that approaches it, in media interest, was a basketball game in 1970-71, when the Cavaliers hosted then-No. 1 South Carolina with about 150 reporters in attendance.
"Everybody is really excited about this, but most of the people around have been pretty loyal fans," said Pete Johnson, who has owned the Corner Market for 21 years. "A bunch of them would go when we would lose every game, and they would still go and they're still going now. But they sure are hopped up a lot more about it now."
"We fight for the sports page every morning," said Rawls Butler, a fourth-year English major from Franklin, Va. "Whoever wakes up first gets to read the sports page and there's always an article in the Daily Progress [the local newspaper]. The USA Today has something in it once in a while. It's never been like this before."
Along with the sense of accomplishment, however, is an air of defiance.
Since Virginia has only recently demonstrated the ability to play football on a level with the nation's big boys, many scribes and broadcasters across the country have exhibited a not-so-quiet skepticism about the Cavaliers' perch at the top of college football.
Take heed. Wahoos are not pleased.
"The other night, we heard on ESPN, [commentator] Lee Corso put us down and said Virginia Tech was going to beat us," said Bo Burris, a fourth-year English student from Charlottesville.
"So, we called up Lee Corso and we got things straightened out with him. We're working on [CBS announcer] Mike Francesa. We haven't been able to get in touch with him."
Did we mention that Virginia football historically has been a bad product?
Consider that before head coach George Welsh arrived here in 1982 from Navy, the Cavaliers had only two winning seasons in the previous 29, and had never been to a bowl.
Need further proof? Consider that in 1977, Virginia scored 56 points.
Not in a game.
The entire season.
Bob Mincer graduated from The University, as everyone here refers to it, in 1958, and he still wears his class ring with the giant blue stone in the middle.
In the second game of the 1958 season, the Cavaliers beat Duke 15-12. They didn't win again until they beat William & Mary to start the 1961 season, 28 games later.
But Mincer never gave up hope. He joined his father's business, Mincer's Pipe Shop, in 1960 and watched the store double in size over the years.
And in the process, Virginia's athletic reputation grew too, though it took time. The first big shock wave came when Wally Walker led the Cavaliers to an upset win over heavily favored North Carolina 67-62 in the finals of the 1976 ACC tournament at the Capital Centre.
That game also marked a turning point for the store, as Mincer discovered that an area's passion for its teams can pay dividends.
"That was what opened our eyes, and that was the first real taste that people really do wear T-shirts and that they do know how to win and they are excited when we win," said Mincer.
An assistant basketball coach put Mincer in touch with a man in Cincinnati who sold T-shirts, and he sold the first batch of 144 for $3.50 each, 50 cents above cost. But he couldn't keep enough in the store, and the order grew exponentially until he had sold nearly 600 shirts.
And now, Mincer, whose walls and ceilings are covered with Virginia artifacts, figures there are about 10 or 12 shops in town that sell T-shirts, with such catchy phrases as "Look Hoos Number One" and "Virginia's Got Moore," referring either to Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Shawn Moore, or to receiver Herman Moore, a near-certain NFL first-round draft pick.
Even the local K-Mart has gotten into the act, selling 1,000 Virginia T-shirts in a week for $9.88 each, Mincer says.
"I was out there last night to get a razor and some things and they didn't have any T-shirts," Mincer said. "I guess they have enough traffic to [sell out]."
Anything is possible in a town as hungry for a winner as Charlottesville is. The other day in Mincer's store, Scott Tilley -- who graduated from the law school last year and practices in Dallas -- handed the cashier his credit card to purchase $250 worth of school memorabilia for a party this weekend.
"My firm sent me back here to recruit and I had to come in here," said Tilley. "We [a group of Virginia alums] are having a big party in Dallas this weekend to watch the game.
"Sure, this is all a surprise, but it's been awesome."