The Commonwealth Cup
Nov. 19, 2001
The Scottish clans Campbell and MacDonald, the Hatfields and McCoys of Appalachia, the Montagues and Capulets in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Across the state of Virginia, their feuds pale in comparison to the annual battle for the Commonwealth Cup. Nothing electrifies the state quite like a crisp autumn Saturday spent watching no-holds-barred pigskin, Old Dominion-style, with thousands of your closest friends, and most bitter of “enemies.”
Like so many college football rivalries, this one began as a clash of two state universities, each with its own unique history and traditions: the Charlottesville Cavaliers versus the Virginia Tech Hokies. History reveals that there is no electric charge quite so powerful as that between rival colleges, especially when they are staring down each other over a little leather ball.
These teams first locked in combat in 1895, when the Cavaliers kicked off a string of eight victories over the Hokies. Tech’s dismal start fueled the determination and wrath of Tech’s star player Hunter Carpenter. With a diploma in his possession, but no win over his archrival, Carpenter enrolled in graduate school at North Carolina with hopes of taking the Tar Heel squad to victory over the ‘Hoos. This time, he came up short, 12-11, at the wire. A nail-biter like that on his conscience only spurred Carpenter, and so he decided to return to Tech for one more year of graduate study and a final chance at revenge on the football field.
Controversy began brewing before the game, however, as Virginia players accused Carpenter and other Tech players of receiving compensation, therefore making them ineligible to compete as amateurs. Although the Tech players signed affidavits affirming they were, in fact, amateurs, Wahoo tempers continued to flare and even after the Hokies had rolled into Charlottesville, whether the game was still to take place remained in question. The two teams did finally arrive at the field and began play, but not before Virginia players rehashed their allegations against Carpenter. Carpenter and the Hokies came up with a win that day, but relations between the two athletic programs had become so strained in the process that the teams would not meet again for 18 years. When they finally did, in 1923, advance tickets sold like hotcakes, and they’ve been selling like that ever since.
However, today’s fans aren’t thinking about the Hunter Carpenter controversy. They’re thinking about how far Mike Abrams can launch a punt into the air, and how far Andre Davis can return it up the field. Perhaps they are remembering Tiki Barber streak through the defensive line or Michael Vick pull off an offensive coup d’etat. Whatever their thoughts, one thing’s for sure, an energy is pulsating through the stadium this afternoon that’s bigger than just the 83rd gridiron matchup between the Virgina Cavaliers and the Virginia Tech Hokies, it is the culmination of more than a 100 years of genuine Virginia rivalry, as rich as our state’s history and as salty as its ham.
Every generation no doubt has its favorite ‘Hoos and Hokies memory. Wahoo GIs had more than victory overseas to cheer about after 1945, because that is when legendary coach and taskmaster Art Guepe took the reins of the football program in Charlottesville and drove a postwar powerhouse. Then Tech rocked and rolled to victories in the 1950s under Frank Moseley, who learned some of the coaching ropes from his pal Bear Bryant. From 1967-1969, the series was not even played, but amid America’s bicentennial fireworks, a spark re-ignited the Old Dominion’s greatest rivalry and big-time football was born.
In 1981, the rivalry was sealed on the schedule as the regular season finale, and it has not disappointed. The last two decades have given fans as much drama as HBO, including Tech’s 1983 48-0 blowout in Charlottesville followed up by the Cavaliers’ 1984 payback win, their first in Blacksburg since 1970. In 1998, Virginia ended the regular season with a 36-32 victory at Virginia Tech in the greatest comeback in school history. Down 29-7 at the half, the Cavaliers outscored the Hokies 29-3 in the final two quarters. UVa capped the rally with a game-winning 47 yard pass from Aaron Brooks to wide receiver Ahmad Hawkins with 2:01 left to play. Tech has since won the last two games in the series, however, including a 42-21 victory last year in Blacksburg.
As for the rivalry in the 21st century, one just has to look around the stadium to realize it is still going strong. Alex Seals, who hails from Martinsville and whose brother, George played for UVa in the late 1990s, acknowledges some of the old stereotypes are still in place, too.
“[Tech] teases our fans because they wear ties to football games,” he says with a laugh. Seals’ teammate, receiver Billy McMullen of Richmond, gives his buddy Ernest Wilford, a Tech receiver, a hard time before the matchup, but “it is all fun and games,” he insists of their bantering. Dr. Maxwell Feinman of Lynchburg, a 1954 graduate of Virginia’s School of Medicine, will be ribbing some Hokie fans up in his stadium suite today, including his own brother. Some of Dr. Feinman’s medical school friends joining him for the game earned their undergraduate degrees at Tech, as did his brother, Gilbert, a 1942 grad who is known around Lynchburg as “Mr. Hokie.”
“We’ve had a great rivalry in the family,” Feinman says. “My brother has always been very gracious,” though pausing to admit, “I don’t know what he says when I’m not around.”
“There have been some thrillers and some blowouts,” Dr. Feinman recalls from his many years of following the rivalry, and he cautions that predicting the contest’s outcome is not as simple as one would think. “You can throw out the record books and see who wins on the day of the game,” he says. “It’s a clich?, but it is true.”
The time has come once again for these two teams to meet and add a digit to the 41-36-5 record led by Virginia Tech. But this is of course much more than a game of numbers. It is a game of bragging rights. It is a feud for the Commonwealth Cup. So clear your throat and get ready for plenty of turkey gobbles and Good Old Songs.