“People I know are pretty demoralized,” Bond said.
The call to cheer for the Jackets has never been for the faint of heart. With a variety of challenges — the rise of the SEC in football, the ACC strengthening in basketball, the school’s academic rigor and limited choice of majors — and Tech teams that seem to be bumping their heads against ceilings, fans are not flush with confidence.
A survey of a little more than 100 Tech fans identifying themselves as season-ticket holders for either football or men’s basketball or both — a group that would stand to be the most optimistic and informed, as they’re the ones buying the product — indicated as much. On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the highest, they rated their confidence in the direction of the football program on average at 6.4. Asked whether their confidence was higher, lower or the same now compared with a year ago, almost half said it was lower. The higher/same responders were nearly split.
The basketball team, under the direction of third-year coach Brian Gregory, received a confidence score of 5.7. Comparing that confidence with a year ago, the higher/lower/same percentages were 22/43/35.
In comments, the word “frustrating” appeared often.
“The last four or so years of being a Tech fan have been increasingly tough,” wrote Adam Zurawski, a Tech alumnus. “If I would have shown the lack of improvement that our teams have shown over the last four years during my four years at the Institute, I would not have a diploma hanging on my wall.”
Hit with a slew of injuries to key players, Gregory finished his third season at Tech with an overall record of 16-17 and an ACC record of 6-12. Tech’s .308 winning percentage in ACC games in Gregory’s first three seasons is a little shy of former coach Bobby Cremins’ lowest three-season period (.310 in his first three) and a little better than former coach Paul Hewitt’s least successful three seasons (.292 in his final three).
Tech’s four-season dry spell without an NCAA appearance is tied with Maryland and Wake Forest for third longest in the ACC, after Virginia Tech (2007) and Boston College (2009). Of those four schools, though, the Hokies, Terrapins and Eagles at least have made NIT appearances in the past four seasons, which Tech has not done. Gregory has made the comment that he is pleased with the progress of every aspect except the win-loss record.
While some fans were encouraged by what they saw as progress, others expected that a team with four returning starters and three seniors among the top six would be more competitive.
“Gregory has brought discipline and system to the program,” wrote Bill Potter, a Tech alumnus, a football season-ticket holder and avid follower of the basketball team. “But, we cannot score. We don’t shoot well, and we don’t hit free throws.”
Tech’s football team has been more competitive. Coach Paul Johnson’s .600 winning percentage (48-32) ranks second only to former coach George O’Leary (.612) among the nine coaches who have followed Bobby Dodd. However, starting with the 2010 season, the Jackets are 2-9 against ranked opponents, including the past eight such games, after they won six of nine such games in Johnson’s first two seasons. Since the ACC championship season in 2009, despite a number of close games, the Jackets are 1-11 against Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech.
The losing streak to Georgia has extended to five games and 12 of the past 13 years.
“You just always feel like against the better teams, there’s this cloud of doom hanging over you, something’s going to happen,” said Steve Peck, who has held season tickets for 15 years and supports Johnson.
Athletic director Mike Bobinski, who repeatedly has backed both coaches, undoubtedly hears the same comments daily. The goal, he said, is for the football team to be in the Top 25 and the basketball team to participate in the NCAA tournament on a regular basis. He understands the frustration, but also made it clear that change can’t come quickly.
“They want it to be right now,” he said of fans. “I get that. But you can only recruit one class at a time. You can only bring in ‘X’ number of people at a point in time. You can’t turn the thing on a dime. If you do, I would tell you, you ought to be wondering how … that happened.”
As many fans did, he noted the increase in the football team’s recruiting staff and called the 2014 signing class “clearly a step in the right direction.” Many fans also were encouraged by the improved play of the defense after the return of defensive coordinator Ted Roof.
Largely, fans were not advocating a coaching change involving either Johnson or Gregory. They liked that both have improved their teams’ academic performance. And perhaps emotion played a little bit into their answers. Regarding the football team, 63 percent said they would be more confident if the Jackets had beaten Georgia in a game that went to double overtime, a virtual dead heat. If the basketball team had reached the NIT — which would have been highly likely had the team not suffered injuries to forward Robert Carter and guards Trae Golden and Travis Jorgenson — 42 percent said they would have answered differently.
There always is space for hope, if guarded. Quarterback Justin Thomas’ speed and playmaking ability figure to be better-suited to Johnson’s option offense than the departed Vad Lee. Jorgenson, a point guard who missed most of the season with a torn ACL, may be a critical missing piece. And, while times have been far better, more experienced Tech fans have been through worse.
“I think the ‘fans’ complaining on the message boards about how awful things are now have no idea how truly bad we were in the ’70s and early ’80s!” wrote Christie Jarrio, a holder of three Tech degrees. “Things are OK now, not great, but not terrible, either. We can be better. I hope we will be, but wouldn’t bet the house on it right now.”