Bobby Bowden was flipping through the sports pages of the Tallahassee Democrat last Sunday morning when he came across a score that gave him flashbacks. He saw that Frank Beamer’s Virginia Tech Hokies lost to Wake Forest 6-3 in double overtime and remarked to his wife, Ann: “His situation kind of reminds me of what mine looked like in my last years.”
Beamer, 68, has the longest tenure (28 years) and most wins (229) of any coach in major college football. No football coach means more to his university than Beamer, whose transcendent place on campus was epitomized by his public role in helping the university recover from the tragic shootings in 2007.
But it’s been a difficult season for Virginia Tech (5-6), which needs a win against Virginia (5-6) on Friday to become bowl eligible and has slid into mediocrity the past three years. The Hokies are in sole possession of last place in the ACC Coastal division, and the legendary coach and the program he built into a national power find themselves at a complicated crossroads: How do you handle the departure of a coach who doesn’t live up to the outsized expectations he created?
“It’s one of the most difficult situations when you have these hugely successful coaches who’ve been at one place a long time,” said Gerry DiNardo, the former Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana coach who works as a Big Ten Network analyst. “The reality of it is the longer you wait to address it, history tells us the worse it gets.”
While the comparisons aren’t perfect, one thing is true of Bowden and former Penn State coach Joe Paterno -- they should have stepped away sooner. No one is more aware of this than Beamer, who acknowledged after friends Jim Grobe (Wake Forest) and Mack Brown (Texas) were forced out last year: “I’m very sensitive to staying around too long.”
The enduring lesson from Paterno's and Bowden’s messy departures is how difficult it is for legendary coaches to write their own endings gracefully. There’s no glaring indication that Beamer’s job is in imminent danger. But it’s also becoming apparent that Virginia Tech first-year athletic director Whit Babcock needs to have a serious conversation with Beamer about his future and retirement timeline. Beamer has spent much of this injury-riddled season pointing to next year. But the reality is that the Hokies are in last place of the weaker division in the weakest Power Five conference.
Babcock is a pragmatist with a solid reputation, and he’s likely facing one of the most difficult decisions of his career. (He didn’t return multiple calls seeking comment). Babcock likely doesn’t want to be remembered as the AD who parachuted in and nudged out the Hall of Fame coach. But at the same time, Tech officials didn’t bring in Babcock to oversee the program’s slide into irrelevancy. (It’s worth noting that Babcock fired second-year basketball coach James Johnson soon after his arrival and replaced him with Buzz Williams, arguably the most celebrated hire of the past offseason.)
Looming over the Beamer decision will be the thorny issue of who will succeed him. The leading name would be Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, who Babcock worked with at West Virginia. Other possibilities from the outside could include Memphis’ Justin Fuente, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops and Clemson assistant Chad Morris.
But the tricky part would be dealing with the internal candidates. For the past decade, Tech all-world defensive coordinator Bud Foster was thought to be the favorite for the job. Foster, 55, is considered the top internal candidate and his presence sets a high bar for Virginia Tech, which couldn’t sell the fan base on another defensive coordinator as head coach. (Foster has a clause in his contract where if Beamer leaves and he doesn’t get the job he’s given an $800,000 payment. He receives that payment regardless on Dec. 31 this year.) Frank’s son, Shane, is the associate coach on the Hokies staff, but his candidacy is hurt by his lack of coordinator experience.
Babcock has said little publicly about Beamer’s future, but he did sign him to an extension through 2018 before the season. When examined closely, however, the extension proved to be low risk as it showed the university supported Beamer without costing the university anything more in buyout money. (Beamer’s buyout is $2 million spread over eight seasons, which is very reasonable).
The most challenging part of Virginia Tech’s decision will be how to manage the move politically. Few coaches have done more for one school than Beamer has at Virginia Tech. “Frank has done as good a job there as Joe Paterno and myself and Bear Bryant did at our schools,” Bowden said. “When you think of Virginia Tech and the last generation there, all they remember is Coach Beamer.”
And that’s what makes the past three seasons so vexing, as the program clearly isn’t trending in the right direction. Since reaching the Sugar Bowl after the 2011 season -- the eighth consecutive year of double-digit victories -- Virginia Tech has gone 20-17, including 11-12 in ACC play. The Virginia game could end two of Beamer’s most impressive streaks -- 21 straight bowl games and 10 consecutive wins over the Cavaliers.
There are arguments for both progress and regression in the Tech program. Beamer’s defenders will point out the 13 season-ending injuries, including three tailbacks and five offensive linemen. Those have forced Virginia Tech to play 20 true and redshirt freshmen, a number that explains a season erratic enough to feature a blowout victory at Ohio State and the head-scratching Wake Forest loss.
Most important, the losing hasn’t slowed down recruiting, as the Hokies’ class is ranked No. 22 by Rivals.com. The country’s top-ranked recruit -- Chesapeake (Va.) defensive end Josh Sweat -- will make an official visit this weekend. And there’s a feeling in the program that the last two recruiting classes will help Virginia Tech again compete at the highest levels.
But there are also signs that the program has been stagnant. Even with the injuries, the talent of the junior and seniors classes isn’t nearly the caliber of what they were five years ago. Excuses of youth and a need to build to next season don’t fly at an established program like Tech.
While the injuries have handcuffed the offense, the Hokies have clearly struggled to find an identity on that side of the ball. Beamer demoted offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring from playcalling duties after the 2010 season. He then fired quarterbacks coach and playcaller Mike O’Cain after the 2012 season. Things have gotten worse the past two seasons under offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, as the Hokies are No. 100 nationally in total offense and No. 98 in scoring offense this year. There’s no obvious answer at quarterback in the program right now, either.
Beamer would seemingly have to overhaul his offensive coaching staff for the third time in five seasons. But could the Hokies lure a top-flight coordinator with Beamer seemingly close to the end of his tenure? Everyone would like Beamer to author a better ending, but can he do it with an offense that couldn’t score in regulation against Wake Forest?
As Beamer tries to recapture Virginia Tech’s fading glory, Bowden declined to offer him any specific advice for his career twilight. But he did ask him to remember one thing: “There’s no loyalty at the end,” Bowden said. “It’s strictly winning.”
1. Teammate: Alabama’s Amari Cooper better than Julio Jones
Nick Perry thought he would never face a better wide receiver than Julio Jones. Competing against the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones in high school and later at Alabama, the Crimson Tide senior safety was taken aback by the highlight reel plays Jones made with his freakish combination of size and speed.
“He was a once-in-a-lifetime type of athlete,” Perry told The Inside Read.
But the redshirt senior’s opinion changed once 6-1, 210-pound Amari Cooper arrived on campus three years ago. “I was just shocked,” Perry said. “From the first time he stepped on the field, he was making plays.”
Perry couldn’t believe that the smaller Cooper was doing the same things as Jones. He’s gotten used to it by now as the junior wide receiver’s dynamic playmaking ability is a big reason Alabama is in the driver’s seat for the inaugural College Football Playoff entering Saturday’s Iron Bowl against Auburn.
Cooper is also squarely in the race for the Heisman Trophy with 90 receptions for 1,349 yards with 11 touchdowns, which all lead the SEC and are single-season school records. It’s enough for Perry to bestow heady praise on his teammate, who is expected to leave for the NFL Draft after this season and be a first-round pick like Jones.
“He’s definitely the best receiver that I’ve seen play here,” Perry said of Cooper.
That’s saying something considering that Jones made the Pro Bowl in 2012 and is currently among the NFL’s leaders in receptions and receiving yards. Perry maintains Cooper is a combination of Jones and former Crimson Tide wide receivers Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks, who were both on NFL rosters.
Cooper also holds or shares school records with his 194 catches for 3,085 yards and 26 touchdowns. “He’s doing it all himself,” Perry said of Cooper. “He’s a one-man wrecking crew.”
Perry raves about Cooper’s tireless work ethic. While his teammates are relaxing at home or hanging out with friends, Cooper can often be found watching film or running pass routes in Alabama’s indoor facility. “He does little things in the dark that come up in the lights,” Perry said.
Cooper is insistent on being first in every sprint and tries to score every time he touches the ball, according to Perry. “He wants to be the best player he can possibly be. He definitely works hard at it. The scary thing is he’s getting better and better each and every day. He’s not complacent. He feels like there’s always something he can do better.”
2. Confident Texas believing in Strong
When Texas players made their way to the team buses after last month’s closer-than-expected 31-26 loss to Oklahoma, they were greeted by cheering Longhorns fans. Until the Sooners converted their lone third down of the game in the final five minutes, first-year Texas coach Charlie Strong and his team were poised for a comeback victory.
“That showed our players that the fans were behind them,” Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford told The Inside Read. “I think that was really the thing that kind of got the guys going and to believe in it.”
Since then Texas (6-5) has won four of five games to become bowl eligible. On Thursday night the Longhorns will try to keep that momentum going by spoiling the College Football Playoff hopes of TCU (9-1). Regardless, Strong’s inaugural season will go down as a success as he’s used his toughness approach to start to rebuild an underachieving program defined in the final years of the Mack Brown era by entitlement and mediocre talent.
Strong has pulled it off despite losing starting quarterback David Ash to career-ending concussions after his team’s season-opening win, dismissing nine players and having a patchwork offensive line. And Tyrone Swoopes, his new starting quarterback, had thrown all of 13 passes entering this season.
The Longhorns also lost starting center Dominic Espinosa in the opener to a season-ending broken ankle and starting nose tackle Desmond Jackson the next week to a season-ending foot injury. “We’re still trying to piece it together,” Strong told The Inside Read. “It’s a lot of work. It’s a process. We’re going through it.”
Perhaps the biggest part of Strong’s reclamation effort has been his team’s confidence. It slowly improved with the increasingly better play of Swoopes, who had his best performance of the season (24 of 33 for 305 yards and two touchdowns) in the Longhorns’ last game, a 28-7 win at Oklahoma State nearly two weeks ago.
Strong credits assistant Shawn Watson for his patience with Swoopes, a redshirt sophomore who is still a work-in-progress as a passer. But the biggest difference has been the offensive line, which has been hamstrung by dismissals and injuries. Earlier this season, Swoopes didn’t stay in the pocket to throw the ball and the running backs failed to run hard because none of them trusted the offensive line, according to Strong.
“The more we’ve played the more we’ve been able to develop that trust,” Strong said. “Each and every week, we’re squeezing every ounce that we have out of the offensive line.”
The offense’s improvement has given the defense confidence and has helped both sides of the ball in the fourth quarter. The defense hasn’t allowed more than 16 points in the last three games and is 24th nationally in points allowed (21 per game).
“It’s the confidence the players have,” Bedford said. “They’ve started believing in each other on both sides of the ball.”
It all sounds simple enough, but the belief wasn’t there early in the season when the Longhorns were still adjusting to Strong and his new system. It’s also helped that Strong’s seniors have taken ownership and are intent on their legacy being the start of the program’s turnaround.
“When you buy in and then they start trusting the system and themselves, you start turning the corner,” Strong said. “Things start going the way you want them to go.”
All it took for Texas was a little confidence.
3. Wisconsin-Whitewater’s Leipold a step above
The telephone calls sometimes come as early as September, but Wisconsin-Whitewater coach Lance Leipold doesn’t get the messages anymore. The student workers who answer the phone in the football office know better than to ask him which hotel his team will be staying at in December in Salem, Va., the site of the annual NCAA Division III national championship game.
Leipold compares the anticipation to how Nebraska and Oklahoma fans used to book trips well in advance to the Orange Bowl, where both teams won national titles. “At a lot of schools, the expectations are there,” Leipold told The Inside Read.
But tradition-rich Nebraska or Oklahoma never dominated like Leipold and Wisconsin-Whitewater have at the non-scholarship NCAA Division III level. In eight seasons at his alma mater, he has won five national titles, including last year and three straight from 2009-11.
Earlier this season, the 50-year-old Leipold became the fastest coach in NCAA history to reach 100 wins (his career record is 105-6) and he has a 30-1 record in the postseason (his lone loss was in the 2008 national title game). His undefeated and top-ranked Warhawks (11-0) host Wabash (10-1) Saturday in the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.
“You’ve got to earn your way through the process,” Leipold said. “That’s maybe blah, it’s probably bland and vanilla, but it’s kind of how we’ve gone about it.”
As Leipold has filled his hand with national championship rings behind his pro-style offense and stingy defense, he’s increasingly become a candidate for head coaching jobs at higher levels. He’s taken a vagabond path that started with him playing quarterback at Wisconsin-Whitewater (1983-86) and getting his start in coaching with the Warhawks the following year.
Leipold bounced around as an assistant at Doane College, an NAIA school in Nebraska, went back to Wisconsin-Whitewater and did two separate stints at Nebraska-Omaha, which closed its football program in 2011. He was also a graduate assistant at Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez (1991-93) and an administrative assistant at Nebraska (2001-03) before getting his current job in 2007.
“I’ve tried to run it like a much higher level program,” Leipold said.
Leipold is quick to credit his players and staff for Wisconsin-Whitewater’s dynasty. He also points out the school is an affordable option, there’s plenty of in-state talent with no FCS or NCAA Division II football in Wisconsin and that his school benefits from its proximity to Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago.
But Leipold’s job has its share of challenges such as aging facilities and his non-scholarship players having to buy items such as their own shoes. Of his assistants, only four have coaching duties in their contracts and they must also teach or advise half of their time.
Leipold usually raises as much as two-thirds of his team’s paltry five-figure annual budget. He embraces the challenges, just like he’s come to do with his program’s expectations. The kind in which a family that is a fervent supporter of Wisconsin-Whitewater once told Leipold they had already taken vacation in anticipation of his team playing in the national title game.
“I hope I’m there with you,” Leipold replied. “And if I am, I hope I’m not sitting next to you.”
Leipold’s defense finally failed him last week. Not in his team’s 55-2 trouncing of Macalester College in the first round of the playoffs, but via email. He got a message from a group in Virginia inquiring where his team will be staying for the championship game.
• As Oklahoma freshman running back Samaje Perine got closer to breaking the FBS record for rushing yards last Saturday in a 44-3 rout of Kansas, his coaches had to tell him to go back into the game. “He’s the most selfless guy in our program,” Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel told The Inside Read. “He didn’t care if he broke the record or not.”
Perine (427 yards) topped Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon’s mark of 408 yards set the week before with a 42-yard run early in the fourth quarter on his 34th carry, his last of the game. Heupel was unaware that history was in the making until it was announced that his star tailback had broken Greg Pruitt’s 43-year-old school record of 294 yards.
“It was really pretty and a lot of fun to call and watch from up top,” Heupel said.
In addition to Perine’s new school records for rushing yards in a half and a game, the 5-11, 243-pound cannonball also ran for five touchdowns to tie Adrian Peterson’s freshman record with 15 TDs.
But Peterson and Perine are different types of running backs. While Peterson is more of a sprinter, Heupel likes to say that Perine is “built like a brick wall.”
“As far as a freshman being just physically so much further along in your development, he’s in that type of category,” Heupel said. “He’s also just so mature off the field and mentally how he carries himself when he walks in the facility.”
The Monday before Perine’s record-setting performance, Heupel pointed out Perine’s unselfishness to his offense. It didn’t have to do with Perine’s 213 rushing yards and three touchdowns that carried the Sooners to a 42-30 win at Texas Tech. After Perine’s first score, he played on special teams and busted the Red Raiders’ wedge on the ensuing kickoff and made the tackle. Later in the game he was 15 yards downfield blocking a strong safety on a speed sweep to a wide receiver that helped gain another 10 yards. “That’s part of his maturity well beyond his years,” Heupel said. “I think that’s why the guys love and truly appreciate him.”
Perine appreciates his teammates, especially his offensive linemen. He bought them pizza earlier this season after a couple of big performances, but upped the ante with Chicken Express this week.
“He’s the first guy to give everybody else the credit,” Heupel said. “It’s not changing who he is, what he’s doing and how he’s going to be. He’s just a special player and person.”
• Which college football coach is reminiscent of Alabama’s Nick Saban? It’s first-year Alabama-Birmingham coach Bill Clark. That endorsement comes from Crimson Tide senior safety Nick Perry, who made the unsolicited comparison toward the end of an interview with The Inside Read earlier this week.
“It was scary when I met coach Saban because they are so similar,” Perry said. “Bill Clark has that persona like when he walks into the room that everybody is taking notice. Even when he was a high school coach he always had that Saban type effect about him.”
Perry played for Clark for two years at Prattville (Ala.) High and for the last five years with Saban at Alabama. Both coaches are defensive-minded and Perry has won championships with each. Perry was on the second of Clark’s back-to-back state title teams at Prattville in 2006 and ‘07. He was also on the Crimson Tide’s back-to-back BCS championship teams in 2011 and ‘12.
“It almost looks like he’s always serious and kind of on edge when you meet him,” Perry said of Clark. “He’s a great coach. He’s a great guy.”
Perry still stays in touch with Clark, who has a 5-6 record in his first year at UAB, a downtrodden program that could be shut down after this season.
“He’s done such a great job for them,” Perry said. “I’m just happy that the world is starting to notice him.”
Like Saban, Clark is also a program-builder. Perry credits Clark for starting Prattville’s dynasty, playing a significant role as defensive coordinator in South Alabama’s transition to the FBS and his major turnaround in taking Jacksonville State to the FCS playoffs last season, his lone year at the school.
“Everybody in Alabama really respects him,” Perry said.
That sounds just like another football coach in the state.
• Locker room renovations and weight room overhauls have become so commonplace in college sports that a visit to campus inherently comes with a hard-hat tour of new construction. But the building boom has also given schools a chance to be creative. In Stanford’s revamped football building, it has included a nice touch that connects its past success with future generations. The Cardinal have a separate section of lockers in their new locker room for their NFL players. That means when Andrew Luck, David DeCastro or Richard Sherman return to work out in the offseason, they have their own personalized locker. The lockers are set apart from the current players, an unspoken sign that they have to keep working to earn a spot there.
“We do their laundry, we take care of them,” Stanford coach David Shaw told The Inside Read. “We’ve got their workout plan, so they come for two weeks or three weeks and they’re treated like royalty.”
Shaw gets a kick out of overhearing a freshman calling his parents and saying, “Andrew came today, and I ran routes with him.”
Shaw chuckled as he mimicked a freshman’s voice. But the personal touches are not lost on Stanford’s former stars.
“I’m glad that they left some space for us to come in and work,” Sherman told The Inside Read recently. “A lot of us want to go back and continue to support and work out there. They’ve been very accommodating.”
It’s beneficial for Stanford to have its NFL players return to mentor young players, and they all feel welcome. “I don’t know what exactly bonded us so closely, but all of us were really close,” Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin said. “Now when we go back it’s like we never left, it’s all family again.”
• It’s been a disappointing first season for USC coach Steve Sarkisian, one rife with off-the-field controversy and stinging losses. Before the season even started, cornerback Josh Shaw lied about saving his nephew from drowning and former running back Anthony Brown called Sarkisian “racist” after Brown quit the team. Then came the Trojans’ meltdown in a 37-31 loss at Boston College in September.
Throughout it all, Trojans fans have tried to take solace in the future, specifically a recruiting class ranked as high as ninth nationally. But while recruiting services are fawning over USC’s 17 commitments, coaches are puzzled by Sarkisian's and his staff’s recruiting strategy.
“Where they’re screwing up is they’re doing what Texas did and taking guys because of their star ratings,” an assistant coach told The Inside Read. “They’re just not evaluating well.”
There’s a belief in coaching circles that Sarkisian and his staff are caving to the pressure of trying to re-establish USC as a power in the recruiting rankings, taking more highly touted recruits instead of lower-rated prospects who could be better players long term. The Trojans gradually dipped in the recruiting rankings under Sarkisian’s predecessor, Lane Kiffin, mainly because of the loss of 30 scholarships over three years as part of the Reggie Bush penalties.
The assistant cited Granite Bay, Calif., inside linebacker Cameron Smith and Los Angeles offensive lineman Roy Hemsley, both USC commitments, as examples of players who have more hype than talent.
“You become such a prominent program and so statured you have to take the big-name guys,” the assistant said. “After a while, it catches up with you because you’re stuck with guys who are tapped out and have no upside.”
Not that coaches feel sorry for Sarkisian and his recruiting predicament.
“How hard is it to recruit there?” the assistant said with a laugh. “If I got a job at USC, I wouldn’t have to do anything. I’d just sit there and answer phone calls all day.”
• NFL scouts expect Saturday to be Indiana running back Tevin Coleman’s final collegiate game. The 6-1, 210-pound junior has quietly had a phenomenal season (1,906 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns on 241 carries) for a 3-8 team that is in the midst of a six-game losing streak. His latest gem was his 228 rushing yards and three touchdowns, one of which was a 90-yarder, in last Saturday’s 42-27 loss at Ohio State.
Coleman has been held under 100 yards once this season despite being the focal point of opposing defenses. “You don’t reel off that many long runs behind a suspect offensive line like that and have the production he has,” a scout told The Inside Read. “He should be in the Heisman conversation. He doesn’t have a lot around him.”
The scout believes Coleman has a shot to work his way into the late first round, but is likely an early second-round selection if he leaves for the NFL Draft after this season as expected. “The one thing with him though is is he going to be consistently able to give you the three-, four-, five-yard runs that sustain drives?” the scout said. “If he’s hitting this many long runs, there’s just not many guys like that in the league like the Chris Johnson when he first got in the league or the Reggie Bush or the LeSeanMcCoys. Those guys are all more elusive than him per se as far as make-miss ability, but this guy is good.”
• Just as Wake Forest appeared on its way to a winless ACC season, the Demon Deacons pulled off one of the memorable victories of the college football season last Saturday when they beat Virginia Tech 6-3 in double overtime. It was the first time in an FBS game since 2005 that both teams didn’t score in regulation.
Before Saturday, Wake (3-8, 1-6) had shown flickers of promise in Dave Clawson’s first season. The Demon Deacons played with Florida State for a half, led Louisville in the fourth quarter and were tied with Clemson in the fourth quarter. They finally broke through on Saturday.
“That locker room felt like we won a championship,” Clawson told The Inside Read. “That locker room was loud and sky high.”
Next year, Wake Forest will be among the youngest teams in the nation. Clawson redshirted 15 players this season, and the Demon Deacons will have between 40 and 45 true and redshirt freshmen next year.
While Wake Forest will be finding itself in 2015, there’s hope that it could begin turning the corner in 2016 with that core of young but experienced players. The biggest area of need for the Deacons is up front, as they redshirted five offensive linemen and three defensive linemen this year to stabilize for the future.
The most promising number may be Wake Forest’s recruiting ranking, which is No. 33 according to Rivals.com (its average ranking was No. 65 the past five years). Even better, Wake hosted on Saturday top prospect Lawrence Cager, a 6-5 receiver from Calvert Hall (Md.), whose other visits include Ohio State, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame.
“There is certainly a niche of players that appreciate and have a great understanding of what we have to offer,” Clawson said, speaking generally about the recruiting uptick. “The players we’re recruiting, we’ll eventually win with.”