It took George Welsh just three seasons to lift Virginia from the lowest depths of major college football to their first bowl game - a win - between his hiring after the 1981 season and the classic 1984 campaign.
But for the first several years of his tenure, there was one team that just would not go away. Cavalier greats like quarterback Don Majkowski and offensive lineman Jim Dombrowski were part of some of the great 1980s teams under Welsh that never quite got the job done against longtime ACC power Clemson. Between their first meeting in 1955 and the last Clemson win in "The Streak" in 1989, the Tigers won 29 straight games over UVa. It was a run that lasted through all or part of eight U.S. Presidential administrations, saw five UVa presidents come and go (four if you choose not to count John Casteen, who took office right before The Streak ended), and made victims out of nine UVa coaches, Welsh included.
Enter the 1990 team that was coming off a first-ever ACC title and ranked No. 15 in the preseason polls, their first such honor and one which remains a UVa record to this day.
Enter Terry Kirby, a Hampton native and former top national high school recruit-turned-second-year running back who would go down as the best Virginia running back since Bill Dudley. That is, at least until a couple guys named Tiki and Thomas showed up later in the decade.
Enter Shawn Moore, a redshirt fourth-year and co-captain at quarterback in his third season at starter whose accuracy and play-extending mobility dazzled UVa fans that were enjoying this newfound success.
Enter wide receiver Herman Moore (no relation), a tall third-year with the ability to jump out of the stadium if needed.
Enter Chris Slade, the second-year linebacker who terrorized opposing quarterbacks for four years on Grounds and was a consensus first-team All-in 1991 and '92.
That summer, talk was already swirling about the potential for a monumental upset.
"The atmosphere built that whole summer," lifelong Charlottesville resident and 1990 UVa graduate Myron Ripley told STL via email. "Everyone knew we were good with Shawn, Kirby, Herman, Slade, etc. We beat the living hell out of Kansas, 59-10. So the next week the place was jacked. And at that time Scott only held something like 45,000; maybe. So a ticket was a big deal."
The offense put on a clinic in the opener at Kansas in Week 1 with that 49-point win, scoring on nine out of 12 possessions. But that was mere window dressing for the Week 2 clash with the Tigers in Charlottesville on Sept. 8.
Even though the Hoos probably had their best chance in the history of the series to win, skepticism still lingered the week of the game. "People were scared in one way to talk about it. Heck, at 29 games it seemed like it would never end," Ripley said. "Other than a game here or there, the Hoos really hadn’t challenged Clemson. Former Clemson coach Frank Howard had called us the "white meat" on the schedule and that really aggravated UVa for years, but it wasn’t like Clemson was ever scared. That year folks sort of knew we had a damn good chance. But still there was tension."
Scott Stadium was filled 4,800 people past its 42,000-seat capacity and ready to erupt as the Cavs took the field. The weather was all but perfect at kickoff: 72 degrees, partly cloudy, and only a little windy.
Ripley was at the game, and had a pretty decent view. "That was my last year of working regularly in the press box for UVa media relations. Rich Murray and Doyle Smith were the guys I worked for and they were great. I worked for 5 years in the press box so I had a bird’s eye view. The crowd and atmosphere was electric. No one really ever sat down and the stands were packed," he said.
In the 2010 DVD movie Wahoowa: The History of Virginia Cavalier Football, Welsh said, "I could tell on the Thursday practice, by then, the players were really, really ready to play that game." For the first quarter at least, the Cavalier defense sure was, holding the Tigers scoreless. Clemson quarterback DeChane Cameron would open the scoring early in the second with a 25-yard scamper.
A 38-yard Jake McInerney field goal with 3:26 to go in the half brought the Hoos within four. Two minutes and change later, Slade broke past Clemson right tackle Stacy Long and got to Cameron in time, not only sacking the Clemson quarterback but forcing a fumble that proved to be a significant momentum shift in the Cavaliers' favor, if only psychologically.
Yeah, I think that was a pretty cool play.
McInerney's 26-yarder with eight seconds left in the half made it 7-6 Clemson at the intermission. It was all Virginia after that.
Kirby ran it in from four yards out with around 11 minutes left in the third to give the Hoos the lead for good. McInerney's point after made it 13-7.
Clemson's ensuing drive stalled, and the Tigers punted. Jason Wallace took Chris Gardocki's punt from the 15-yard line and, well, just watch.
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The Moore-to-Moore connection came through on second-and-goal for one of the biggest touchdowns in UVa history to this day. From 12 yards out, Shawn, as the pocket was collapsing, lofted the ball up for grabs between Herman and Clemson corner Jerome Henderson. The 5-foot-11 Henderson was no match for the 6-foot-5 Virginia receiver, and Moore held on to the ball all the way down to the old AstroTurf surface to put the Cavaliers up by two touchdowns. McInerney's extra point was good, and it was 20-7 with eight and a half minutes to go in the third quarter.
From there, the Virginia defensive corps held as Clemson went punt, punt, failed fourth down conversion, punt, failed fourth down conversion, and game-ending incompletion to finish the game. Current UVa radio analyst Tony Covington and Eugene Rodgers broke up the Cameron pass intended for Doug Thomas on the final Clemson fourth-down try, and the celebration began in earnest on the field and in the stands.
"You could tell folks were looking at [each other] this wondering, 'Is this the year?' No one dared say it. There was a tension that just sort of built to a crescendo," Ripley said.
Between Ed Garno's punt to end the final Virginia drive and Clemson's next play, that crescendo built to something resembling anarchy taking over Scott Stadium. Students, some of whom likely aided by liquid-based courage, outnumbered the handful of police officers and security personnel stationed at the west end (with the hill, band, and student section) of the stadium. The end zone was filled with fans, and even that ruckus spilled over inside the five-yard line before the goalpost collapsed under the stress of being shaken back and forth as a good dozen students climbed on it.
One final Clemson incompletion as the gun sounded gave way to an avalanche of humanity, as thousands of students and fans stormed the field while Welsh was quickly escorted to safety. Virginia finally had beaten a top-10 team for the first time under Welsh.
"There were a few games that maybe some folks went on the field, like UNC in 1983 when we all realized George had something going on. But nothing like what happened that evening. I want to say and I could be wrong but the game was an early evening start, something like 6 p.m. (it was at 4:00). So when the game ended there was plenty of time to go crazy around Grounds and around Charlottesville ... It was bedlam," Ripley said.
As is wont to happen in Charlottesville, the celebration lasted well into the night.
"Folks were hugging each other and anyone who wanted a beer probably got one for free that night. The party never ended and each week UVa kept going up in polls until being ranked No. 1," Ripley said.
The headlines in the Monday edition of the Cavalier Daily told the tale simply but efficiently.
"National championship within Virginia's reach" (that one would prove prophetic)
Even the name of the paper itself was moved down in favor of the one word that summed up the feeling better than any other: "Finally!"
The good times from that picture-perfect early fall day would roll into October and early November, as the unthinkable happened on Oct. 15. 30 years earlier, they weren't even halfway through a stretch that would go down as one of the worst in major college football history. They would lose a then-record 28 games in the Dick Voris era from 1958-60. Now, at 6-0, they were selected by the coaches and the media as the nation's top-ranked college football team. Oklahoma, Miami, Notre Dame, Nebraska, and yes, even Clemson, were ranked behind the Cavaliers.
The famous and much-hyped game against Georgia Tech on Nov. 3 ended in a heartbreaking 41-38 loss, perhaps the most painful in UVa football history. Saying the name "Scott Sisson" in Charlottesville may be tantamount to "Bucky Dent" in New England, in that those words are usually accompanied by language not appropriate for this space. UVa would lose four of their final five games, three of those losses coming by a combined nine points.
But before all that happened, there were a few weeks in the fall of 1990 where the Wahoos and their fans could say that they were the best team in the country.
And it all began on a crisp September afternoon in Central Virginia that saw history made.
If you want to watch the game in its entirety, it's available on YouTube here.