Twenty years ago this week Virginia football team was ranked No. 1 in the country

  • Pin It
College football's most improbable No. 1 of the last half-century attracted "World News Tonight," validated Andy Warhol and prompted odes to Thomas Jefferson.

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.

  • Pin It