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  • Justin Fuente faced a task no coach seeks out: following a beloved coach at a college football powerhouse. But the transition from Frank Beamer's tenure to a new era in Blacksburg has been surprisingly smooth.
By Joan Niesen
September 28, 2017

Last November, with his Virginia Tech team coming off a win at Notre Dame, Justin Fuente sent word to his predecessor through an intermediary. The first-year Hokies coach wanted a favor.

This operation sounds much more covert than it was, considering the two men live a 10-minute walk from each other (five if you cut through a few backyards), the predecessor’s wife bakes cakes for Fuente’s staff every Tuesday and each man certainly has the other’s phone number. But Fuente is nothing if not respectful, and Frank Beamer had made himself scarce since his retirement 11 months earlier after 29 years at Virginia Tech.

With the Hokies’ final game looming and a trip to the ACC championship on the line, Fuente thought a visit from the former coach would energize his players. Enter John Ballein, an assistant athletics director at Virginia Tech who was Beamer’s right-hand man for years. The two still take daily hour-long walks around campus at lunchtime, and Ballein and Fuente work down the hall from each other, so it was easy enough to pass along an invitation. Fuente asked Beamer to speak to the team the day before the game, and he wanted to make sure the ex-coach felt welcome at the facility whenever he might like to visit. “We’d gone this long, and he hadn’t been around, and I really felt like he needed a specific reason to come,” Fuente explains.

Beamer accepted, and that Friday morning after Thanksgiving he spoke to his former players in their locker room about what they faced and how proud he was. “I told the team that day,” Beamer recalls, “not every transition goes the way this one’s gone.”

The Hokies went on to rout Virginia, 52–10, before falling to Clemson in the ACC title game a week later. But even that loss was a step forward; it marked Virginia Tech’s first trip to the conference championship in five years after it made the title game in six out of its first eight seasons in the ACC. The team would go on to defeat Arkansas in the Belk Bowl on Dec. 29, capping its first season with double-digit victories since it won 11 in 2011.

In one of his first team meetings after leaving Memphis for Virginia Tech, Fuente had pointed out the difference between the Hokies teams of 2012–15, which earned bowl berths just barely, and the teams of the decade that preceded them, which won 10 or more games every year but one. “It’s our job to get back to that,” he told his players in the spring of ’16. “Nobody’s in here pointing fingers at who’s responsible. We’re just saying, this is all of our job to get it back to where it was.”

By that standard, it took Fuente a year to bring the Hokies back, and as undefeated No. 12 Virginia Tech rolls into its game against No. 2 Clemson on Sept. 30, its blueprint for how to replace a legend looks close to foolproof.

Step One: Be a program rich in history, in a town where football rules and coaches are treated like kings.

For this, thank Beamer. Born about an hour south of campus, he played cornerback for the Hokies from 1966–68 and took over the head coaching job in ’87. The team was coming off a 10-1-1 season but had been slapped with multiple NCAA violations, which forced coach Bill Dooley to resign. Replacing the architect of the most successful stretch of football the school had ever seen wasn’t easy for Beamer, the former Murray State coach whom many fans believed an underwhelming hire. The 40-year-old was a relative unknown, and for an athletics department in debt, his redeeming quality was the undersized paycheck he’d command. Still, even facing reduced scholarships and a gutted program, Beamer was quietly confident. His aw-shucks attitude and soft drawl masked a keen competitiveness, although that fire rarely overtook his humble compassion. By the end of his career, the coach was an entire campus’s beloved grandpa—who also happened to have turned a middling program into a perennial contender.

Beamer’s tenure saw Virginia Tech through a move to the Big East in 1991 and the ACC in 2004. He logged a .662 winning percentage, and at his program’s generation-long peak from ’93 to ’11, the Hokies won more than 75% of their games. But in the coaching search, that history was both a blessing and a curse. “One of the first questions I asked [athletics director] Whit [Babcock] when we talked about it was why would I want to follow Coach Beamer?” Fuente says. “Nobody does that. Everybody follows the rule: Don’t be the guy that follows the guy.”

But to follow the guy is to inherit a program with all the pieces necessary for greatness: new facilities, a stellar reputation among recruits, a fervent fan base. On a plateau between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, Blacksburg, Va., is tucked away in the narrow southwest tail of Virginia, squeezed between North Carolina to the south and West Virginia to the north. The closest major airport is nearly three hours away, and according to longtime Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster, “You’ve got to want to get here to get here.”

It’s a sleepy, scenic town where the rolling mist sometimes doesn’t lift from the outskirts until close to midday. Downtown Blacksburg looks at a glance like a time capsule from 1950; only the cars give away that the clock has ticked into the 21st century. Nearly every bumper in town, it seems, bears a HokieBird sticker (picture a smug-looking turkey), and the road that takes fans to Lane Stadium on gamedays was built with the express purpose of helping funnel the crowds Beamer’s team drew. “Football coaches are kind of put on a pedestal here,” Foster explains. “In Memphis, Justin probably could have walked in somewhere and nobody would have known him.”

Step Two: Buy yourself some time.

By the end of October 2015, Beamer had made up his mind that the year would be his last. He saw no reason to keep that decision to himself, and on Oct. 30, he told athletics director Whit Babcock he’d retire at season’s end. The news went public two days later, giving Virginia Tech a month’s head start on other programs in its search. That was especially crucial in a year when 27 other FBS teams sought new coaches, and it allowed Babcock to devise a more nuanced plan than he otherwise might have been able to pull off.

Step Three: Keep a tie to the prior staff.

One of the first conversations Babcock had during his search was with Foster, who had worked for Beamer since he was a graduate assistant on his first staff in 1981 at Murray State. He’d served as the Hokies’ defensive coordinator since ’95 and led some of the most feared defenses of the late ’90s and early ’00s, so naturally, he was interested in the job. Foster was (and is) almost as popular around Blacksburg as Beamer, and to promote him would have thrilled fans. But Babcock said no, proposing instead an unlikely compromise: If the coach he picked was offensive-minded and the personalities gelled, would Foster continue sticking around?

The coordinator was receptive, and he bided his time while Virginia Tech zeroed in on Fuente. The young coach—he was 39 at the time, 17 years Foster’s junior—fit Babcock’s first qualification: He was certainly offensive-minded, known as a quarterback whisperer who’d groomed Andy Dalton at TCU and Paxton Lynch at Memphis. It remained to be seen, though, if the two could work together; while Beamer is folksy, Fuente is quietly intense and intellectual.

When Babcock floated the idea of the pairing to Fuente, the coach had one request: He wanted to speak to Foster in person. (Babcock also recalls giving Fuente this advice regarding the coordinator spot: “If you get a new one, they’ve got to be good, and they’ve got to have pretty thick skin, because they first time they give up a first down, the fans are going to be, Oh, Bud Foster wouldn’t have.”)

Which is how, in the week leading up to Virginia Tech’s game against Virginia, Foster found himself sitting at Fuente’s Memphis home one night at 1 a.m. The two spoke for four hours, hit it off and by daybreak reached a quiet agreement. Foster flew home to resume game prep, unable to tell a soul where he’d been or why he was so darn tired. The day after the Hokies beat Virginia to become bowl eligible, the school announced the hire—and that Foster would return.

At 58, Foster is still the fiery leader of the Hokies defense. But as he rubs his bum knee, the coordinator laughs about the split-second role-reversal he experienced two years ago. Forever, he’d been Beamer’s younger counterpart, the kid, even as the two men became grandfathers. But as soon as Fuente was hired, the jig was up, and Foster became the Hokies’ elder statesman. He’s helped his new coach navigate recruiting in Virginia—“I tell you what’s been nice,” Fuente says, “When you walk into a high school in the state of Virginia with Bud Foster, it’s instant credibility”—explained who to trust and who to take with a grain of salt, who exactly was on the other end of that last phone call. But he’s been, he says, respectfully standoffish with his new boss. This is Fuente’s team, and he’s not going to dog him with stories of Tech’s glory days—unless he’s asked.

Step Four: Be confident enough to address your weaknesses rather than doubling down on what you’ve done well.

For years under Beamer, Virginia Tech made its name on defense and special teams, giving rise to the phrase “Beamer Ball”, which signified doing well all the little things to win football games that often go deemphasized. But points in recent years had been hard to come by; look no further than a 6–3 overtime loss to Wake Forest in 2014. From ’11 to ’15, Beamer’s offenses never ranked higher than sixth in the ACC in scoring, but still, Foster’s defenses flourished. And instead of doubling down on those stingy units and assuming Foster could hire a bright offensive mind at coordinator, Babcock pivoted, choosing a coach with the strengths Virginia Tech lacked.

Even with Fuente’s offensive bent, the new coach was adamant from day one that he wanted to run a balanced football team. That appealed to Foster in their late-night meeting, and it’s been the best way to meld Virginia Tech’s defensive tradition with Fuente’s offensive flair. “I wasn’t one of those offensive guys that cared about leading the league in points and plays per game,” Fuente says. “That wasn’t me. I wanted a good, hard-nosed team. I wanted to coach offense the same way [Foster] coached defense.”

In 2016, Virginia Tech ranked fifth in the ACC and No. 39 among FBS teams in yards per game, and its 35.0 points per game average was good for 33rd in the country. This year, the Hokies’ offensive production is up even more, to an average of 482.3 yards per game, and even the decision of quarterback Jerod Evans, a junior college transfer, to leave early for the NFL after only one season with the Hokies hasn’t rattled the team. Redshirt freshman Josh Jackson threw for 829 yards over the season’s first three games, more than any Hokies quarterback in that time span since 2000. After playing perfectly well in wins over then No. 22 West Virginia and Delaware, Jackson stole the show against East Carolina in Week 3, throwing for 372 yards and completing 77.4% of his passes. Against Old Dominion on Sept. 23, he threw the first interception of his career along with three touchdowns, and the Hokies looked like an almost perfect version of their balanced selves, scoring 38 points while blanking the Monarchs.

“I think [Fuente] was the kick start that we needed,” Foster says. “I always thought of this program toward the end of Coach Beamer’s time as if we had this beautiful hot water heater, but the light was now flickering. Now all the sudden, now that thing is aflame. And we’re not even anywhere close to where we can be.”

Step Five: Honor the past while acknowledging it was time for a change.

Before last season, Fuente and Ballein brainstormed ways to honor Beamer. The coach wore No. 25 in his time at Virginia Tech, and Fuente says he knew he wanted to do something more creative than just paint that number on the field. After days of kicking around ideas, a plan took shape. Every game, the coaching staff would pick one player who excelled on special teams to wear an honorary No. 25 jersey. The practice was renewed this year, and each player gets a t-shirt version of the jersey after his game, and a plaque to honor him is posted in the tunnel at Lane Stadium. “Everybody wanted it,” says cornerback Greg Stroman, a senior who has worn 25 twice. “Everybody wanted to show Coach Beamer what we’ve been working on and how Beamer Ball is still going.”

Beamer himself is less concerned about the honor than he is with the results. In 2016, fullback Sam Rogers had his best game in the jersey, and Stroman scored on a 61-yard punt return while wearing it. Maybe it’s lucky, he suggests. Stroman is unequivocal. “Beams is magical,” he says.

Still, though, players have no problem discussing the fact that it was time for a change. “I think we had a lot of hungry guys before Coach Fuente got here,” senior linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka says. “We used to listen to everything Coach Beamer would tell us, but for some reason it wouldn't translate over to the field. When we had the coaching change, everybody was all in, just hungry to see where we could go.”

Now, practices are more demanding, conditioning more stringent. By the end, Beamer was more of a CEO-type presence, whereas Fuente completes perimeter runs with his players, pushing them from the middle of the pack. And though the Hokies’ offense has certainly evolved into Fuente’s fast-paced spread scheme, the team still looks to its roots often, when its new coach pulls out tapes of Beamer Ball at its peak in meetings to illustrate a concept. “I definitely felt a younger guy should come in and do things,” receiver Cam Phillips says. “I felt we had enough talent. We had the same guys [as the] last two years, and then we won 10 games with them.”

In many ways, though, things don’t feel so different. Instead of grandchildren flocking after practice, coaches’ young children now flood the field, and Foster says the whole operation feels a lot like it did 30 years ago. In Fuente’s competitive nature and focus on family, Foster sees glimpses of his old boss at the peak of their success together.

Step Six: Ideally, Frank Beamer should be the coach you’re replacing.

In the early days of his retirement, Beamer and his wife, Cheryl, adjusted to their new life, splitting time between Blacksburg and a house near Lake Oconee in Georgia. Still, Beamer attended home games in a box the university reserved for him, musing that the people of Blacksburg sure liked him more as a retired guy than they did as a coach. And from his box, he says, he’s able to cheer like any other fan, an ability that eludes many former coaches. “I stayed in one place, the place I love, for 29 years,” he explains. “Seeing all these facilities, seeing how this thing has grown, I think how fortunate I was to do that rather than being upset about something I’m not doing.”

Since his November speech, Beamer has been a more frequent visitor to the Hokies’ practice facility. (Its address? 25 Beamer Way, of course.) Without the stress of the job weighing on him—or the stress of the transition, a period when the fates of all his beloved coaches weighed on him more than anyone around the facility realized—the 70-year-old looks five years younger than he did two falls ago. He’s been found doing a phone interview from the receptionist’s desk, feet up, and his drawl often echoes down the building’s hallways calling out to whichever “palsie”—that’s Beamer-speak for, well, anyone he’s ever met—might be in earshot.

And so if everyone is Palsie to Beamer, then, what is he to them, now that he’s no longer at the head of the football team? Well, there’s Coach Fu, or Justin, and then there is Coach Beamer, and you catch someone talking about simply “Coach,” you can almost certainly bet they mean Beamer, even now.

This summer, Beamer decided he wanted to get a dog. Cheryl told him she wanted no part of the purchase, but still he and Ballein researched breeds and settled on a Beagle-Cavalier King Charles Spaniel mix. Hank the Beaglier was born in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Beamer made the six-hour drive to get him mid-summer. Now, it’s the Hank and Frank Show around campus, and as Beamer realized how often he’d need to travel as a retiree, he became grateful for the acquaintances the puppy has attracted. He pats his phone in his pocket, explaining how in addition to the family members who’ve volunteered to Hank-sit, he has the numbers of a few nice young women he met on campus who are more than willing to pitch in.

Now, Hank is a mainstay on the ex-coach’s lunchtime strolls, which begin on Beamer Way at the home of Justin Fuente’s football program. The man with the puppy built this world, and the man in his old office runs it, and that’s wonderful news for everyone. Especially Hank.

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