Frank Beamer's next act: A legendary coach and the state of Virginia Tech football
On Monday, Frank Beamer will begin his 29th season as Virginia Tech's coach when the Hokies play defending national champion Ohio State in Blacksburg, Va., in a rematch of one of the most memorable games of 2014.
To use a phrase from one of Beamer's favorite sports, auto racing, he has lapped the coaching field when it comes to longevity at one school. He became the coach at Virginia Tech in the previous century, one of only three FBS coaches to have been in one spot for so long. The other two, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, barely made it. They started in 1999, when Beamer, in his 13th season, took the Hokies to the BCS championship game. (Kansas State's Bill Snyder started at his post in '89, but retired after the 2005 season before returning to the Wildcats' sideline in '09.)
Beamer, 68, has coached through the presidencies of Reagan, Bush, Clinton, the other Bush and Obama. He has adapted to an ever-changing world and led Virginia Tech to 22 straight bowl games. He has beaten archrival Virginia 11 times in a row, won 231 games in Blacksburg and won 273 in his career when adding in the victories from his six seasons spent as the coach at Murray State.
He's had a Hall of Fame career, whether it ends after this season or five seasons from now. Beamer's final chapter still hasn't been written, but the 2015 campaign will go a long way toward determining how soon it is finished.
To say a coach with Beamer's credentials is on the hot seat seems harsh, given that he has turned the Hokies' once-moribund football program into a genuine name and moneymaker in college football. Former athletic director Dave Braine, who arrived in Blacksburg in 1988, after Beamer's first season, says he used to go to elementary schools in his early years on the job and give tickets to students. The hope, Braine says, was that the kids could convince their parents to take them to the games and that the parents would then have to buy tickets for themselves.
Now, Lane Stadium is regularly filled to capacity.
But a recent stretch of down seasons has put a damper on things. Virginia Tech won 10 games or more every year from 2004 to '11 and played in five major bowls. But the last three seasons have seen the Hokies go 7–6, 8–5 and 7–6. In '12 and '14, Tech had to win low-level bowl games just to finish with a winning record. In the ACC, the Hokies have lost 12 games in the last three years. They only lost 11 in the previous eight.
The highlight of last season was the 35–21 upset of eventual champion Ohio State on Sept. 6 in Columbus. Tech intercepted Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett three times, including—in a classic bit of Beamerball—a 63-yard pick-six by junior safety Donovan Riley with 46 seconds left that put the game away. But by the end of the year, the victory only served to emphasize the Hokies' underachievement. They were better than their record. A team that scores 35 points at Ohio Stadium should not get shut out in regulation (and go on to lose in overtime) at Wake Forest.
Beamer, under contract through 2019, remains beloved. The street behind Lane Stadium was recently renamed Beamer Way. A rebound season in '15 will surely extend his career. But another year of mediocrity might mean that Beamer would not coach a 30th season.
"I understand where we are and what we need to do, where we've been and where we need to get back to," Beamer said at ACC media days in July. "We have the capabilities of a good team. Putting that together is kind of what challenges me."
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Beamer has been in much more precarious spots. The 1992 season is a pivotal one in Hokies history. Virginia Tech went 2-8-1, losing four games in which they held the lead in the fourth quarter and tying another. The low point came on the road against Rutgers on Halloween. Trailing by five, the Scarlet Knights went 78 yards in the final 1:32 and scored on the last play of the game to win 50–49.
That was a different era, before the explosion of the Internet. A Fire Frank Beamer account was set up on Twitter in 2012 and has eight followers; a Fire Frank Beamer page exists on Facebook and has 120 members. If either of those outlets had existed in 1992, the number of people backing them would have been much greater.
Many people in Blacksburg wanted Beamer out in 1992. One of them, a very pesky man at Braine's church, may have unintentionally had a hand in saving the coach's job.
Braine hadn't hired Beamer. The 40-year-old coach had taken over the program in December 1986, at the behest of then-athletic director Dutch Baughman. Baughman lasted less than a year on the job as the Hokies sorted out a mess left by previous coach and AD Bill Dooley that eventually landed them on probation.
The season was Beamer's sixth at Virginia Tech, and he had yet to take the team to a bowl game. Most fans figured he was going to be fired. Beamer's son, Shane, now the Hokies' associate head coach, recalls walking off the field with his dad after the season's final game, a 41–38 home loss to the Cavaliers, and seeing a man lean over the stadium railing and yell, "Bye-bye, Beamer!"
But Braine had already made up his mind. He wasn't going to fire Frank Beamer, a decision the pesky man in church had helped him to reach.
Braine, now retired and living back in Blacksburg after a stint as the AD at Georgia Tech, won't name the church or identify the pesky man. But he remembers him well. "He'd come up to me every Sunday and tap me on the shoulder and say, 'When are you going to get rid of Beamer?'" Braine says.
To make it stop, Braine stopped going to church and started going out for coffee and doughnuts to take to Sunday morning football staff meetings. Instead of a sermon, he would listen to Beamer and his assistants as they dissected the previous day's game. Afterward, he and Beamer would talk more about football.
Braine became convinced that the right guy was leading the Virginia Tech program. "What you see on the field isn't sometimes what goes on behind the scenes," Braine says. "The preparation was there. The knowledge was there. It just wasn't getting done on the field."
Says Jim Pyne, who started at center on the 1992 team before going on to play eight seasons in the NFL: "[Beamer is the] best coach, by far, that I've ever been around. He's an even better person. He's a genuine, sincere guy. He is Virginia Tech."
After the 1992 season, Braine had a brief meeting with then-school president James McComas, who asked Braine, "Do we need to change football coaches?"
Braine said no. "That short meeting led to what's lasted 29 years now. There was no trepidation in my mind that Frank Beamer could be a good head coach. I knew that he could be. It was a matter of tweaking a few things and he did. He took the bull by the horns and ran with it. I caught some heat, sure [for keeping Beamer]. I was prepared for that.
"I think it worked out all right."
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If Beamer had gone 2-8-1 in 2012 instead of in 1992, things might not have worked out so well. The pressure to win quickly has skyrocketed as college football's popularity has soared and coaching salaries have increased. With his $2.4 million salary, Beamer makes about 25 times as much as he did in '87.
According to some of his friends, Beamer wants badly to coach a 30th year and to be on the sideline for next season's game against Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway. He also wants his successor to come from his current staff, be it his son or longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster.
None of that is guaranteed. There are already rumors that the school will target Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez as Beamer's replacement—whenever a replacement is eventually needed.
Beamer turns 69 on Oct. 18. Last December he underwent throat surgery, which kept him away from most of his team's preparation for its 33–17 Military Bowl victory over Cincinnati. Shane says his father's post-surgery absence seems to have "rejuvenated" him.
"He's as motivated as ever," the younger Beamer says. "I think not being around much in December and before the bowl made him realize how much he loves coaching. Since he's come back, he's been as competitive and energized as ever. I think he's excited about the talent in the program, the future schedules, the new [practice] facility. I think he's excited about a lot of things going forward. I don't see any signs of him slowing down."
"I wouldn't touch that question with a 10-foot pole," Braine says.
Will we ever see another coach last almost 30 years in one job at the highest level of college football? It seems unlikely. Stoops would be the betting favorite, though he is barely past halfway mark (he is entering his 17th year) on the Beamer scale of coaching longevity. "I'm only 54, so hopefully that can be the case," Stoops says. "It's not the norm for coaches to stay at one school that long. It gets harder and harder with there being so much exposure out there and with the expectations. There's a lot of information out there, a lot of misinformation, too. That's just part of today's world."
Beamer's history is buying him the time he needs to return the Hokies to national prominence.
"After the Wake Forest game last year, sentiment was running very high that Frank needed to step down," says Will Stewart, the founder and general manager of TechSideline.com, a popular independent website that covers Virginia Tech football. "Things have settled down since then, and Hokie fans still love and respect Frank. They really like the program he has built, and the coaching staff he has assembled.
"Where knowledgeable fans are starting to get concerned is with recruiting. Frank isn't competing very well head-to-head with guys like [Clemson's] Dabo Swinney and [coaches from the SEC] for highly rated prospects, and the top in-state prospects are starting to leave in droves for the SEC and elsewhere. There's a prevailing opinion that recruiting is starting to really slip and that's going to take its toll in a couple of years. Most fans are O.K. with two more years of Frank, but not much beyond that, if any, and a poor 2015 could move that schedule up. There's a sense that it needs to come to an end soon and everyone wants it to be a good, graceful end, not ugly."
Beamer has maintained for years that he'll know when he's done. He reiterated that at ACC media days.
"I'm very aware of the situation, me, Virginia Tech, how long I've been there," he said. "How long I will be there. And I'm very aware of it and I'm not going to be there any longer than I feel like I'm a real plus for Virginia Tech. When I stop being a plus for Virginia Tech, you guys are going to have to come to Blacksburg to find me—in my house in Blacksburg, not in the football office."
SI.com senior editor Mike Harris covered Virginia Tech athletics for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 1992 until he became the paper's sports editor in 2006. His book, Game of My Life: Virginia Tech, was updated and re-released in July.