There’s nothing more fun than a good, old-fashioned, longstanding sports rivalry to get everyone all worked up and angry. A look back at the UVA-Tech rivalry, which was going strong 110 years ago.
College Football Hall of Fame player Hunter Carpenter.
It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment the rivalry really began between the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech,but there exists a moment, 110 years ago, so perfect that it’s a good place to start.
On the afternoon of November 4, 1905, Virginia’s Lambeth Field filled up with a record crowd of 2,000 spectators. With the mild weather (sunny, with the temperature in the upper 50s) and two strong teams, the well-dressed crowd—spectators wore their allegiance with colored ribbons in those days—was in a festive mood.
As the two teams limbered up and hammered out the day’s rules, the students who ran UVA’s General Athletic Association stopped everything. The group held off the Wahoos from taking the field, marched right to the Tech players and presented an affidavit to Hokies star Hunter Carpenter and a few of his teammates.
“Sign this and deny being professionals.”
The Tech sideline erupted in anger. Both programs’ negative stereotypes were about to be encoded deep in the rivalry’s DNA.
At the turn of the 20th century, college football became a major sport in the upper South. Already a burgeoning pastime across the Northeast, it drew large crowds to fall afternoon games across the Old Dominion. Virginia’s Wahoos quickly developed into the region’s key power and a largebox office draw. To other state teams, beating Virginia made a season successful.
Leading into the 1905 meeting, defeating the Cavaliers had become an obsession for Virginia Tech—one that had always gone unfulfilled. Sometimes a game was close (in 1902 when the Wahoos won on a disputed touchdown), but usually UVA crushed what was then a military school by a whopping margin (in the teams’ first eight meetings, Virginia outscored Tech 170-5).
If the Hokies seemed keyed on finally stopping Virginia, it had become almost a mania for Carpenter. Why he became so fixated on the Charlottesville school is hard to find. Perhaps, as his career entered its later stages, defeating the Wahoos became his final unattained goal, or, as his program’s premier player, finally downing Commonwealth’s top squad fell upon him the most.
Even had he not played in 1905, Carpenter would have been considered the best player of the program’s first 50 years. Arriving on campus as a 15-year-old in 1898, with no football playing experience, the son of a Clifton Forge railroad executive earned a spot as a starting halfback in 1900. The next year, the blond, 5-11 200-pounder developed into the team’s best player and became a Paul Bunyan-type figure, strong enough to survive a railroad car toppling onto his chest and quick enough to spring 100 yards in 10.2 seconds. With all his skills, he spearheaded a Tech victory over Navy in 1903. Some announcements for Tech games read, “See Carpenter Play.”
“He had a perfect build for an athlete, thick chest, short neck, heavy round shoulders and tapering neatly from his waist to his feet,” wrote teammate George Cunningham a half-century later.
Another player, Dr. W.P. Jacobs, recalled, “Hunter was a fine specimen. He was not exceptionally fast, but he ran with deception and used the stiff arm—a lost art—most effectively and, if necessary, ran over the opposition.”
Carpenter graduated in 1903 with an engineering degree and winless against Virginia. Looking for one final shot at the Wahoos, Carpenter and a few other Tech players took advantage of the era’s lax eligibility rules and transferred or took graduate school classes at North Carolina. Carpenter, who entered law school, said, “I want to help Carolina beat the University of Virginia.” Perhaps he should have stayed in Blacksburg. Carpenter fell yet again, this time in excruciating fashion. The Wahoos prevailed 12-11 on an extra-point attempt that bounced off another Hokie-turned-Tar Heel and over the crossbar.
That same year, Tech put its own scare into Virginia, losing 5-0 (in the days when touchdowns counted five points). The Hokies surprised their foes by putting up a strong battle with a younger, smaller squad and with fans from the newer school outnumbering Wahoos supporters. In 1905, for the first time, Tech would be the favorites. Carpenter knew his opportunity had finally arrived; he turned down North Carolina’s offer of the team captaincy and headed back to Blacksburg.
Carpenter did present one problem for Virginia Tech. The Virginia Inter-Collegiate Athletic Association, of which the Hokies were a member, forbade the use of postgraduate players. According to Tech sources, Carpenter sat when VPI played a VIAA game. It seemed to matter very little; Tech clobbered Roanoke 86-0 in the season and league opener.
When Carpenter played, the Hokies looked simply electric, capturing national attention when they upset Army 16-6 as 10-to-1 underdogs. Tech rushed out to an early 16-0 lead, with Carpenter opening the scoring with a field goal and ripping off long runs by the end of the half. VPI might have further embarrassed West Point, but Carpenter missed several field goal opportunities. “We were surprised, confused and finally defeated by this one dynamic leader of a small team,” wrote Army right tackle Charles G. Mettler decades later. Before the team even returned to school, the Blacksburg campus celebrated the victory with a bonfire, fireworks and a 16-volley salute from the artillery battery.
While Tech kept winning, Virginia’s athletic program seemed to be limping toward a possible meltdown. The Wahoos fielded a solid team, losing only to the powerful Carlisle Indians, but injuries crippled the quad so much that it began practicing by playing soccer, and by the end of the season it had issued a desperate call for any ablebodied student to fill out the disintegrating squad. Approaching the date with Tech, the student-run athletic department enlisted former Columbia captain Tom Thorpe, who had failed out of the New York school. Virginia’s administration gladly allowed him to attend classes, providing he stay off the football team for a year.
Then, either through confusion or desperation, the University’s athletics went haywire.
Earlier in the season, rumors had popped up that Carpenter and other Tech players were receiving money. At the UVA’s student-run General Athletic Administration’s request, the players in question signed affidavits denying the charge. The week before the game, UVA’s student newspaper, College Topics, re-ignited the issue, stating that the GAA held evidence of Carpenter’s professionalism and that the football team should boycott VPI until the players were cleared. If anyone possessed any evidence, they never revealed it in print, but the Virginia student body went into an uproar. The athletic administration filed a last-ditch protest against Carpenter and four other Hokies, but too late for any investigation by Virginia Tech. In a mass meeting, Virginia’s students voted to play Tech and then end athletic relations following the game. Then the Wahoos announced they would not guarantee Tech’s travel expenses. The Hokies raised their own funds and headed off to Charlottesville.
This pattern wasn’t new for Virginia—it was the second time that week the Charlottesville school had severed ties to a rival. Days before the mass meeting, the school had announced it would not play Georgetown, a dispute that had also begun in College Topics. In 1901, when the struggling Hoyas had stunned the Wahoos with a fourth-quarter rally, the paper made light of Catholic doctrine in an issue released after the game. The Jesuit school took offense, and the teams broke off athletic relations. After negotiations in February, 1905, the schools agreed to play each other. But a new controversy forced the game’s cancellation 11 days before kickoff. The Richmond newspapers wrote that the Washington school had failed to pay Virginia’s traveling expenses. The Washington Post claimed that UVA objected to Georgetown’s use of graduate students. Whatever the reason, the week ahead of the game with Tech, Wahoos football was in a state of chaos.
On game day, after Carpenter and company refused to sign another set of affidavits, the Wahoos’ group also reminded the Hokies that under VIAA rules, no postgraduate players could play. A flaw, however, existed in Virginia’s argument: UVA had withdrawn from the VIAA that February. Officials from the two schools debated for 45 minutes. The Hokies, one imagines, felt they stood in front of an angry kangaroo court but held their ground. Finally, Virginia agreed to play but read the charges against Carpenter to the crowd.
When the game finally began, Tech’s heavier line and more skilled players easily handled UVA. The Hokies possessed the ball for over three-quarters of the game. An early ’Hoos goal line stand and a pair of missed Carpenter field goals kept the score close and led sports writers to laud the Wahoos’ “pluckiness.” A Virginia player tackling Carpenter as he attempted to catch a punt forced a penalty that gave the Hokies the ball at the UVA 3-yard line, leading to Tech’s first score. Carpenter rumbled in for VPI’s other touchdown after the Hokies blocked a punt. The Tech star made the most of his moment, racking up 147 yards on 13 carries, averaging 11.3 yards each time he ran.
“[A]ll of Carpenter’s end-runs and cross-backs were directed at my side of the line,” wrote UVA captain and right tackle Merritt Cooke in 1956. “He was a very elusive runner, and had a twist to his style, and also the ability to keep his legs spread apart so that it was difficult to pin him down. In tackling him, I can remember occasions when I would end up, it seems to me, with one leg or one foot in my clutches—only to have him pull away with his free leg.” Cooke added, with wonderful understatement, “Possibly the fact that his eligibility was challenged may have aroused his ire.”
Violence and slugging, not scoring, highlighted the conflict more than anything else—and this during the violent year that forced President Theodore Roosevelt to convene a meeting to reform college football. Two minutes into the contest, Cooke, in the middle of a mass of men, fell to the ground, fractured his right collar bone and tore his shoulder ligaments. Cooke kept playing until halftime; then he told the team trainer he was unable to raise his arm. An unnamed Wahoos lineman lost 11 pounds during the contest. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Tech “had a player or two hurt after nearly every down, thus prolonging the contest to over twice its usual length.”
Frustrations and yelling kept mounting. Carpenter later claimed that UVA’s R.E. Barry punched him three times during the game. The Hokie warned Barry, whose brother served as the game’s umpire, not to hit him again after the second time. Late in the game, as Carpenter burst for another long run, Barry grabbed around his neck and threw one final punch. The banged-up veteran slugged the Wahoo back—knocking Barry to the ground, according to a Tech history—marched off the field before the officials ejected him and defiantly tossed the ball into the crowd. Without their star, Tech marshaled on and took the win.
“Every play was a fight in itself, and confusion was the inevitable result,” said former Tech student Fred A. Dabney in a 1917 retrospective on Carpenter’s career. “I was never so happy in my life, for Tech at last demonstrated her superiority.”
As Virginia Tech celebrated—the school even declared a half-day holiday that Monday and cancelled drill—Virginia fumed. In its next issue, College Topics declared it held enough evidence that Carpenter was “not only a paid athlete but a crook as well.” Those words not only served as an accusation but also stood as a personal insult. The newspaper took a small retreat the next week, begging in vain for the GAA to release its evidence against the Virginia Tech players, declaring, “They owe this to the citizens of the state who want to know now and at no other time … what proof we have to make our stand on,” while insisting, “We are not crying over spilled milk.”
Still, the first editorial finally reached Carpenter’s hands after his friends spent a month keeping him from seeing the item. When he finally read the charges, his blood boiled. After three attempts to find out who wrote the editorial, including a letter to Virginia President Edwin Alderman, who wrote back to declare his sympathy but urged him to take the matter up with the athletic administration, Carpenter, proclaiming his innocence, declared the still unnamed author “a coward” and then threatened a libel suit. College Topics eventually apologized, but Carpenter remained bitter about the incident, maintaining his innocence until his death in 1953. Whether the Virginia paper and the GAA caught on to a rumor, found an incident forgotten by time, trumped up something from Carpenter’s past or simply created the allegation, bitter feelings between the two schools remained until 1923.
If anyone sought to stir up trouble, they had found the perfect target. The professionalism allegation carried weight in Charlottesville, as the football-loving Alderman—who had once marched onto the football field with his team and attempted to calm tempers ahead of the Tech game—had led the charge to remove paid players from the college game and even opposed athletic scholarships.
Unlike the incident with Georgetown, the schools didn’t resume relations the next year. The two biggest football powers in the state refused to play each other for nearly a generation. The animosity grew in 1911, when Tech President Paul B. Barringer accused the Virginia Education Commission and UVA of stealing students from his school’s engineering program. The memories of the contest faded into mythology. Because the Hokies had enjoyed the greatest season of the team’s first 100 years, the school lionized the game, and, to modern eyes, some accounts appear a bit exaggerated. In later years, old Tech players complained that officials conspired to fix the game by allowing it to run twice its normal length, but newspaper stories consistently attribute the extra time to frequent VPI injuries. Little information exists in Charlottesville. The 1909 on-field death of Archer Christian, which led to a giant wave of football reform, overshadows any early game against Tech. Search the Alderman Library and the university’s special collections library, and researchers will find next to nothing on the GAA, which suggests that the charges against Carpenter most likely came from the confusion of a few scared college kids, though almost certainly no one will ever know what actually happened.
After 18 years, under the urging of Virginia coach Early “Greasy” Neale—a member of both the college and pro football halls of fame—the rivalry renewed, to considerable fanfare. But then the series cooled down to a simmer (North Carolina remained UVA’s primary foe for years, and Tech’s big game came against VMI) until the 1980s, when both programs improved dramatically and things heated back up. Now in the most distinguished point in the rivalry’s history, Wahoos may grouse about the time Tech fans tore down Scott Stadium’s goalposts in 1983, and Hokies might laugh about UVA trainer Joe Gieck sticking his foot out in an apparent attempt to trip Antonio Banks in the waning seconds of the 1995 contest, but both incidents seem small compared to the events that stamped the stereotypes of the Tech program as valuing winning above all else and the Virginia fan base for thinly disguised snobbery passed off as academic purity.
Yet, there’s one final chapter in that clash a century ago. When Tech’s 1905 coach C.P. “Sally” Miles began a drive to have Carpenter posthumously enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame, a number of Virginia players gladly supported the campaign.
“He fought for every inch,” E. Griffith Dodson, UVA’s left tackle, wrote in 1956. “It is difficult to tell in words how good he was, and only by seeing him in action could he be fully appreciated.”
Even the Wahoos’ manager, and one of the men at the heart of the controversy, Walter Scott, so enfeebled and having so much trouble with his memory that someone else penned his letter, added his vote. “He was the best half-back he ever knew and I’m sure he kept up with them all,” wrote his wife, Sally.
There’s hope for hard-core fans, yet.
The annual battle this year is Nov. 28 in Charlottesville.