Traditions of UVA Football

Breaking the Rock

A new tradition is on the rise for University of Virginia football, unheard of. In the summer of 2018 after a long day’s practice Virginia’s star H-back, Olamide Zacchaeus pounded a sledge hammer against a rock slab that painted the phrase “beat tech” over it.  Months away from their faceoff on the field, the event of shattering those words to pieces sparked a trend commonly known now as “breaking the rock.” The notable long lasting dislike the University of Virginia has for Virginia Tech football was a key factor in spreading the tradition. Ask any crazed wahoo-sports-fan and they will reply in a hatred remark.

Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall began three years ago after Mike London was let go. Mendenhall came at a time when Virginia needed him the most – to change direction. He became a large reason of why breaking the rock has continued for over a year. After any Cavalier win in football, Mendenhall selects a player to take the first swing at the defeated opponents name on the rock. A player taking aim releases the anger of the past by physically breaking their pattern of failure. It’s active recurrence within the past year conveys success. Mendenhall uses this practice not simply as an act of physical hostility toward the opponent, but as a victorious mentality. Starting as “beat tech” this evolving tradition began in the roots of past aggression now paving a new path away from failure.

We Come from Old Virginia

Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819 centered around building an academic village with a unique set of values and traditions. Any student or alumni can instantly list some of Jefferson’s ideals still in practice today like values of the honor code or traditions like societies. The wahoos even speak in a specific jargon ‘on grounds’ that encourages Jefferson’s academic village. Jefferson had an intention behind each tradition – for example: UVA students refer to themselves as fourth years because there is no end to learning, which he believed the term senior implied.

Two centuries since the era of Thomas Jefferson, and yet his ideological structure still guides the University of Virginia. Every college has their own rituals and pride, but many cannot compare to the time span and history behind the traditions at UVA.  Students actively practice these traditions in academics, organizations, daily life, but they are most well known for their nationally recognized traditions on the UVA football field.

Photo Credit: Sam Trevey, pictured in 1983 alongside classmates of Hancock Dorm

Long-lasting football traditions remain vibrant in the athletics program. Since its creation, Scott Stadium has rocked the same as it does today. Does the University of Virginia ever stray away from tradition? Alumni class of 1987, Sam Trevey proved they do not in an interview. Trevey has attended football games in Charlottesville since before he can remember. He talked of his time at Scott Stadium while at UVA and now concluding that the rituals fans practice have remained constant.

In 1963, football games adopted a tradition for the Cavalier mascot to lead the football team onto the field. The Cav Man is a symbol for UVA as a whole, carrying the team on his back. Painted in orange and blue, fans count down the seconds for “the real-life Cavalier to emerge out onto the field,” Trevey exclaimed, “every time in full charge exploding out on his horse with a sword held high above his head leading the UVA.” He depicted the ritual as a strong figure representing the whole school toward a victory.

The horse was abandoned during Trevey’s time at the school, only to be quickly returned the year after he graduated (according to the Virginia Athletics Department). His face lit up when discussing the return of the classic tradition with the most natural reaction.

Traditions like the entrance of the Cav Man invoke past experiences for fans of being in the stands roaring as their team struts onto the field. Trevey has engaged in the same UVA sports rituals and traditions for most of his life. He loves it. It gives him a sense of nostalgia when he repeatedly participates with students and other spectators.

Outside spectators at Scott Stadium are easy to spot: they do not know when or how to react on cue. In an article from the Virginia Magazine, Karen Van Neste Owen wrote of her experience at before she attended the University in 1970, “I was struck by the song being sung by the students after each score.” Not yet a UVA student, Van Neste Owen felt the instant rush of confusion in a swarm of hypnotized people. How did everyone know to chant this song?

Sports fans act like they are in church, responding to a Priest with an exact phrase they know by heart. After any Cavalier touchdown, fans burst into song, immediately putting their arms around each other and sway singing the Good Old Song. This song is Virginia’s fight song. Not like modern fight songs it was written in 1893 to the tune of the song “Auld Lang Syne.” Writer Daniel Grimes commented that this fight song is “meant to bring unity to the UVA community” in an article on NBC. The Good Old Song highlights the connection Jefferson wanted students to feel toward the school: to praise dear old UVA even at sporting events. From 1893 to today the Good Old Song of UVA lives on, how can a new tradition live up to that?

Photo Credit: Carole Trevey, 2018 Scott Stadium

Unlike past years, Scott Stadium fills with hope. A hope that a rock will be crushed. Video footage of players breaking the rock is instantly posted on various social media forms that any UVA fan can access. Students and fans may not be able to participate in this action, but can mutually understand the wahoo pride taking place. UVA alumni of 1988, Harry Lawson in an interview stated he follows the ritual online after games. When asked of breaking the rock he said he personally feels the exhilaration through watching, “it is very exciting. I expect it to happen now.”

The past 15 consecutive years UVA has lost Virginia Tech in their annual football game. This streak of loss to the same team, especially the historic rival team was the main goal of the rock in the first place. To break that streak.

“I hope the rock remains,” Harry Lawson proclaimed, “it is a symbol to everyone that victory can be accomplished.” As a longtime fan, Lawson feels the same desire to beat Tech as the team does. He constantly refers to the UVA team as “we” like he is also one of the players. Slashing through the phrase “beat tech” after 15 years of loss could be the fuel to keep this ritual alive from the need to relive the satisfaction again. Not only would the win itself be amazing, but shattering the past represented by the rock as well.

Can the Old meet The New

Sports traditions in any form must be engaged consistently to spark a familiar reaction. Fan’s tend to keep sports traditions alive by believing they have to do with the outcome of the game. They must be invested in the tradition for them to believe practicing it helps a favorable outcome. To break the rock Virginia must win, to sing the good old song Virginia must score.

The Good Old Song after a touchdown displays this notion because it recurs every time Virginia scores – success. Since 1893, the song plays after a touchdown every time without question. It represents Cavalier victory. The Cav Man riding out on a horse could also resemble a sports superstition. The excitement around this tradition lives on due to the initial hope the Cav Man is strongly leading the team to victory. These old rituals are grounded by the unity of success.

Breaking the Rock ritual also displays the success mentality. Social media forms let rituals like this one live today because fans can watch online. Excited fans like Harry Lawson wait to see which player the coach picks to smash it. Even if this does not evolve into the standards of old UVA traditions, it certainly is exciting to keep up with the reasoning behind the formation of the ritual. UVA is physically and mentally smashing their past football aggression into the ground. On November 29th, 2019 a slab of rock painted the way it began with Zacchaeus could be crushed; except this time, it wouldn’t be a dream.

**November 29th, 2019 the University of Virginia football team beat Virginia Tech for the first time in 15 years. Olamide Zaccheaus was present. The team decided to take matters into their own hands and elected Bronco Mendenhall to break the rock himself**

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