A Conversation With Frank Beamer
The legendary Virginia Tech football coach
On a spring morning 27 years ago, Frank Beamer sat in his office trying to assess the wreckage he saw around him. The athletic director, who had hired him as Virginia Tech’s football coach shortly before, had just resigned because the school administration had, without his knowledge, initiated a police investigation of Tech’s basketball program.
That came on top of NCAA sanctions levied in the wake of recruiting violations committed during the tenure of Beamer’s predecessor, Bill Dooley. Tech was told it had to cut 20 football scholarships over a two-year period. College football is a numbers game, and Beamer knew that in years 3-4-5 of his reign he would be bringing a knife to a gunfight.
So that day, Beamer talked softly and uncertainly about his future. He didn’t sob, but at any mention of his former AD, Dale “Dutch” Baughman, he would tear up.
A DOMINANT CAREER, AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
On a spring morning in 2014, Beamer could look out his office windows at the Merryman Center and see the perfectly manicured grass of the football practice field, with a 5-story steel tower, looming over it Bear Bryant-like. Just beyond, there was the back of a mammoth scoreboard and 65,632-seat Lane Stadium, a concrete and steel monument to Beamer, the man who was once so unsure of his future at his alma mater.
Beamer is about to begin his 28th season as the Hokies’ head coach. He has outlasted four Tech presidents and three athletic directors. Beamer is the longest-tenured coach in the group of major colleges known as the Football Bowl Subdivision and is the winningest active FBS coach. He’s won 266 games (224 at Virginia Tech), three Big East championships and four Atlantic Coast Conference titles. In the 10 seasons Tech has been in the ACC, the school has a regular-season conference record of 62-18 (77.5 percent). Tech’s closest conference competitor over the past decade is defending national champion Florida State, with 53 league wins. The Hokies have appeared in bowl games for 21 consecutive years.
And yet …
Tech has gone 7-6 and 8-5 the last two seasons. Some Hokie fans aren’t happy. They say Beamer, who turns 68 Oct. 18, needs to contemplate stepping aside for a younger man. In particular, they want improvement in an offense that in 2013 was, at times, all but unwatchable. Last year, Tech averaged just 37.9 rushing attempts and 119.7 rushing yards per game. The first figure ranked 72nd among the 125 FBS schools in the country; the second figure was 110th. The 2013 Hokies averaged 22.5 points per game, ranking them 99th nationally.
Prospects for improvement aren’t bright. With the departure of three-year starter Logan Thomas, Beamer is left with a question mark at the most important position on the field – quarterback. Mark Leal had the job after spring practice, but he may lose it in the fall to Michael Brewer, a transfer coming in from Texas Tech.
Fortunately for the Hokies, their schedule isn’t as demanding as some in the recent past. They do have to play, in their second game, Ohio State in Columbus, and they later have road dates at North Carolina, Pitt, Duke and Wake Forest. If you think once-lowly Duke isn’t going to post a stiff challenge, remember that the Blue Devils dusted Tech last season in Blacksburg. Duke no longer gets serious only when the ball is round.
There is one ACC school that Tech owns in football – the University of Virginia. You could call Hokies vs. Cavaliers a rivalry except that in a rivalry one team doesn’t win all the time. Tech has now whipped UVA 10 straight years.
But the center of gravity in the ACC has moved from Blacksburg to somewhere between Clemson, South Carolina, and Tallahassee, Florida. Tech is fortunate it doesn’t have to play either the Tigers or the Seminoles in 2014.
‘WE’VE WON, WORKED HARD AND DONE IT THE RIGHT WAY’
“We might get to play one of them in the ACC championship game,” said Beamer in a recent interview. A cockeyed optimist all his life, Beamer was perfectly serious.
“I think we have some talented players,” Beamer said. “I think we’re going to have some growing pains, but I like this team. I am especially happy with our coaching staff, as coaches and recruiters.”
Beamer said he was “very aware of not staying too long” in his position. “I’ve seen what happened to a couple of good coaches,” he added, a reference to Bobby Bowden of Florida State and the late Joe Paterno of Penn State. “Whatever happens, I will do what I think is right for Virginia Tech.”
That may sound like just a platitude, but when Beamer says it, it probably isn’t. Beamer has twice taken personally painful actions to improve his team.
After his first six Tech teams posted a 24-40-2 record, Beamer fired three assistants who had been longtime buddies and teammates during their playing days at Tech. The patience of Beamer’s bosses, especially that of athletic director Dave Braine and presidents James McComas and Paul Torgerson, paid off. In the next 17 seasons, Tech won at least 10 games 13 times, including an eight-year stretch (2004-2011) that featured four ACC titles and five BCS bowl appearances. “I understand just how fortunate I have been,” said Beamer.
One season back, Beamer brought in three new assistants and moved aside two other longtime aides who have subsequently retired. Beamer’s 37-year-old son, Shane, approaching his fourth season as his father’s assistant, is now Tech’s associate head coach. The latest staff restructuring hasn’t yet paid major dividends in the Hokies’ record but Beamer is convinced that it will.
“We have won here, we have worked hard and we’ve done it the right way, treated people the right way,” said Beamer.
In one respect, over the past two years Tech’s football team is better than some others in the recent past. Based on evidence seen on many Tech game telecasts, the Hokies are committing fewer brain-dead and terminally stupid personal foul penalties.
Asked how he managed that, Beamer said, “Those who get 15-yard personal foul penalties get to run 15 100-yard wind sprints the following Wednesday morning.” And if that doesn’t work, Beamer said that for every other subsequent violation, he also deducts $100 from the player’s per diem meal money on any post-season bowl trip. “You start taking their money,” said Beamer, “and it makes an impression on them.”
NEARING THE END … PERHAPS
Eight years ago, a friend asked Beamer how long he intended to remain in coaching. Beamer answered, “We just signed a really good quarterback prospect out of Tidewater. I’ll coach through his last season and probably hang it up then.”
The prospect was named Tyrod Taylor. He won 34 games for Tech as a four-year starter and played his last down for the Hokies in the Orange Bowl following the 2010 season. Beamer is still on the job.
If there is anything on the horizon right now that will keep Beamer looking forward beyond 2014, it is the 2016 night game with Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway. Beamer, a race car fan who has driven the pace car at Bristol in the past, said that the meeting with the Vols “won’t be just a game, it will be an event.” A crowd of more than 160,000 is expected.
Tech fans might be careful about wishing for a new football coach. The wish might come as true as it has for University of Virginia fans. After the 2000 season, George Welsh, the best and most successful football coach in UVA history, resigned for what was said to be health reasons. In any case, the news was greeted with audible relief by some orange-and-blue partisans who spent 1999 and 2000 griping about Cavalier play-calling. If you want to get a moment of silence, ask one question of any UVA fan you know: “Since Welsh left, how has it worked out for you guys?”
Beamer knows he is nearing the end of his run, too, and knows he is playing with house money. “If I have good health, and a good quarterback, and a good kicker, too, I can be pretty happy,” he said. And he probably isn’t kidding. At the moment, he just has to find the last two.
Bill Millsaps, a former sports columnist and sports editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, is retired executive editor of the newspaper and a periodic contributor to BOOMER.