Bill Roth, the former sports commentator for the Hokies from 1988 to 2015 and a current professor in the School of Communication at Virginia Tech, has seen a lot go down between the two best football programs in Virginia in his 27 years of calling Commonwealth Cup games.
“Long before I arrived at Tech, this rivalry was if it was the sons of bankers against the sons of farmers,” Roth said. “It was class warfare as much as it was football.”
Even now, during the week leading up to the rivalry game, fans talk a big game about not only their respective football teams, but their universities as well. There is so much passion from both fanbases in the Commonwealth Clash, and the rivalry goes beyond just the playing field.
“If you were a Virginia Tech student, you heard a lot about safety school jokes and farmer jokes,” Roth said.
In recent years, Virginia Tech has clearly been more successful in the Commonwealth Clash, but the University of Virginia used to be a better football program than Hokie fans give them credit for. Roth said that when he first started at Virginia Tech, most Cavalier fans thought of North Carolina as their big rival.
“Virginia was a very good football team when I first arrived to Tech, and it had a legendary Hall of Fame coach in George Welsh,” Roth said. “In the beginning, the Hokies had a hard time getting high school players from Virginia, the elite prospects, to come to Tech.”
Roth notes that the results of the rivalry started to flip more toward the Hokies when former Hall of Fame football coach Frank Beamer was able to recruit more in-state recruits to Virginia Tech that, in previous years, were going to the University of Virginia.
In 1995, No. 10 Virginia Tech came back to beat No. 13 Virginia 36–29 at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville. The Hokies then went on to secure a victory against No. 9 Texas in the Sugar Bowl.
“If the Hokies don’t come back and win that game that day, they don’t get to the Sugar Bowl to play Texas and win that game,” Roth said. “I’m not sure that if the Hokies didn’t get to the Sugar Bowl to play Texas in ’95, they would go to the Orange Bowl in ’96.”
From a recruiting standpoint, Roth believes the 1995 Commonwealth Cup was one of the most important games in Tech’s history. Legendary quarterback Michael Vick was a junior in high school when the Hokies made the Orange Bowl to play No. 6 Nebraska in 1996.
Virginia Tech has won 22 out of 26 games since 1995. But before Virginia Tech joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2003, it was difficult for the team to get the Bowl games, television appearances and notoriety that the University of Virginia football program had.
“The Hokies had to struggle to get any attention, because Virginia was getting all the publicity,” Roth said. “When the Hokies finally started beating them, it was important for the constituency at Tech.”
The rivalry has pushed both football programs to be better.
“I think the better Tech does in football, the better it is for Virginia, and the better UVA does, the better it is for Tech,” Roth said. “I think the fact that Alabama is great forces Auburn to be great.”
No school wants to get beaten by its rival 15 games in a row, and the University of Virginia’s goal should always be to play on par with, or better than, the Hokies. In the last 25 years, Virginia Tech has set the bar very high, and the University of Virginia has struggled to keep up.
“Having a great, healthy respect for your biggest rival and wanting to beat them in everything you play, especially if they’re really good, forces you as an institution to work really hard to be better,” Roth said.
Roth predicts that the Commonwealth Cup game this year will be a great one.
“If we’ve learned anything this year in ACC football, there's not a big difference between some of the teams,” Roth said. “I think it’ll come down to the end, it’ll be a close, tight game.”