Hansen: Sad Virginia Fan finds happiness beyond the viral meme but not anonymity

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

A little more than two years ago, Mike Bunting walked into a new job at National Instruments in south Texas, and a new beginning — or so he thought.

As he was being ushered to his cubicle, a picture hanging above the desk of a new coworker caught his eye.

It was Bunting.

Dejected. Inconsolable. Slumped over a ledge in the front row of Section 105 at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va., where the University of Virginia Cavaliers play their home football games. A freeze frame of an internet meme that reached viral status four Septembers ago and still exhumes itself with startling regularity.

“Sad Virginia Fan” became so universally proverbial, it briefly had its own parody Twitter account, and it has at times transcended football.

Case in point, turns out the new coworker is a grad and fan of rival Virginia Tech, and he had attached the photo of Bunting, then a Virginia engineering student, to a piece of notoriously unreliable testing hardware.

“When I introduced myself,” Bunting told the Tribune this week, “he didn’t believe it was me at first.”

For all of college football, save the Notre Dame fan base, the reaction seems to be more memorable than the play that coaxed it — a 39-yard TD strike from DeShone Kizer to Will Fuller with 12 seconds left that rallied the ninth-ranked Irish from a 27-26 deficit.

It also probably saved Bunting from a second medical emergency that fall.

Until the Irish secured the 34-27 survival with the Fuller catch and an ensuing two-point conversion pass from Kizer to current minor-league outfielder Torii Hunter Jr., Bunting had planned to navigate the seven-foot drop from the ledge to the field and storm his way toward the 50-yard line.

Or, more realistically, limp.

Bunting’s left foot was in a protective boot, fractured a few weeks prior playing pickup basketball.

“Probably wouldn’t have ended well,” he said. “I guess I owe Will Fuller in some way.”

But not enough to draft the current Houston Texan on his fantasy football team this season.

“Part of me couldn’t do it, so I opted for a different player,” Bunting said.

Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, the two teams meet again, this time both sporting national rankings. The 10th-ranked Irish (2-1) host No. 18 Virginia, off to a 4-0 start for the first time since 2004. Start time is 3:30 p.m. EDT, and NBC has the telecast.

Late night talk shot host Jimmy Fallon imitating "Sad Virginia Fan" Mike Bunting.

It’s the third-ever football clash between the two schools and the first staged in South Bend.

A deluge of changes have ensued since the second-ever meeting between the two schools, for both Bunting, an Aldie, Va., native, and the Cavaliers.

Bunting graduated. Interned for the campus ministry in Charlottesville for a year. Moved 1,400 miles away to Austin, Texas for a job as a “tech support engineering team lead.” Started dating, got engaged to and married Breanna, a woman he was friends with at the time he became a meme, but not the one seen patting him on the back in it.

However, the man to the right in the frame, Dagoberto Valladares Jr., was in the wedding — as one of co-best men.

Bunting actually stormed the court at a watch party at Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena — with a healthy left foot, incidentally — when the Cavaliers men’s basketball team took out Texas Tech in the national title game this past April in Minneapolis. And managed to get interviewed by a reporter about that experience.

And, a couple of Christmases ago, Bunting’s parents gifted him with a Christmas ornament that features the “Sad Virginia Fan” image on one side, countering that with a happier version of himself on the other.

“It still comes up a decent amount to the point where it never has actually dwindled away into obscurity,” Bunting said of Sad Virginia Fan. “Just when I think it’s completely gone, it sort of comes back in a different form.

“When I moved down here to Texas, obviously telling people you were once a viral internet meme is a great icebreaker.”

That is, for everyone but Breanna, who Mike says rolls her eyes whenever someone else brings it up.

Another reenactment of "Sad Virginia Fan" by Mike Bunting himself, this one at the Cookout restaurant in Charlottesville, Va. about a month after the original.

Virginia, meanwhile, purged head coach Mike London and his staff at the end of the 4-8 season, though it was framed as a resignation. That included defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, who befuddled the Irish offense most of the day four years ago that started with Malik Zaire as ND’s starting quarterback before a broken ankle nudged Kizer into the game.

Tenuta, ND’s defensive coordinator late in the Charlie Weis regime (2009), is currently the safeties coach at the University of Cincinnati.

Bronco Mendenhall, 0-3 vs. Notre Dame during his successful 11-year run as BYU’s head coach, is in his fourth season as Virginia’s head coach.

After a 2-9 season in 2016 under Mendenhall, the Hoos have gone 6-7 and 8-5. How bright is his future at Virginia? So bright Las Vegas thinks he has a bright future at Michigan.

The betting website has Mendenhall as the favorite to be Michigan’s head coach to start the 2020 season, just ahead of Stanford’s David Shaw.

Bunting isn’t looking that far ahead, instead just enjoying the moment.

“I think their motto — The New Standard — is 100 percent accurate,” Bunting said of Virginia under Mendenhall. “I think having to earn your way to even practice and get a number are things that instill discipline. I like his methodology toward coaching. And it’s worked.”

Given Virginia’s relatively soft remaining schedule (at Miami, Duke, at Louisville, at North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Liberty, Virginia Tech), it’s not inconceivable with an upset of 11 1/2-point favorite Irish, that Virginia would take an unbeaten record into a potential ACC Championship Game clash in December with No. 1 Clemson.

First the Cavaliers would have to overcome some dubious history.

No ACC squad has ever come into Notre Dame Stadium and beaten a ranked Irish team. Virginia will be the 21st team to try.

And Virginia itself hasn’t beaten a ranked team on the road since 2011 (a 14-13 win at Florida State), and is 0-24 all-time against top 10 teams on the road.

Bunting strongly considered attending Saturday’s game in South Bend to see if the Cavaliers could overcome the odds and make him a Happy Virginia Fan.

But Breanna’s weekend shift as a nurse at an Austin hospital and unfriendly airline fares and hotel costs made watching the game on TV from Texas more appealing.

“I even contemplated driving 18 hours from here,” he said. “If I still lived in Charlottesville — it’s only a 10-hour drive — I probably would have done it.”

Win or lose, Bunting is embracing the next chapter in the fledgling series between his alma mater and Notre Dame that next continues in 2021 in Charlottesville.

“Actually in my new neighborhood there’s a guy with a Notre Dame flag flying outside his house, and I haven’t had the courage to introduce myself to him yet. Depending on the outcome of this weekend’s game, I might try to see who he is and if we can bond over it or something.”

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At top is the original meme of Sad Virginia Fan. The following spring Mike Bunting reenacted the meme with friend and Virginia Tech student Matt Herceg while on spring break. 

WHO: No. 10 Notre Dame (2-1) vs. No. 18 Virginia (4-0)

WHEN: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium


RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: Notre Dame by 11 1/2