The Ten-Win Tightrope

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This week was a testy one, thanks to Jason from Arlington. Jason’s Monday night Hokie Hotline call sparked a circle-the-wagons response from Frank Beamer, and before you knew it, Virginia Tech’s legendary coach had fallen into a verbal skirmish with the fan base. It’s too early and too melodramatic to say that battle lines have been drawn — and too tasteless, on this anniversary of 9/11 — but you have to admit that what happened this week was almost unprecedented.

The debate has already grown tired. The detractors of Virginia Tech’s offense point to rankings of 99th (2006) and 100th (2007) in total yards, a slow start of 100th this season, and scoring offenses from the last two years that rank 13th and 15th in Frank Beamer’s 21-year Virginia Tech tenure. Tech’s per-game scoring has reached its lowest two-year point since 1991-92, a comparison to a two-year span that is well outside the glory years of Virginia Tech football, maybe not chronologically, but definitely in terms of results.

Not to mention that woeful offensive performance has been a common thread in many of Virginia Tech’s 11 losses in the last four seasons.

The response from Beamer has been to point to Virginia Tech’s two ACC championships in the last four years and the Hokies’ record as the only team other than USC West to win ten regular season games the last four years. Beamer also points to Virginia Tech’s 15-season bowl streak.

Both sides have their arguments, darn good ones, but one side is standing on shaky ground. What happens when the ten-win seasons stop, and what happens — God forbid — if the bowl streak ends, after all this time?

This is the ledge Frank Beamer has stepped onto, the tightrope he is now walking. He rightfully defends his offensive coaches and philosophy in terms of the overall accomplishments of his program, but if those results take a turn for the worse, he leaves himself open to his critics.

Why should he even have critics? Because fans, in much the same way that alcoholics and drug addicts build up tolerances to their addiction of choice, build up tolerances to winning. Winning is great, but to continue that high, to really feel that rush, you need to win more and more, at higher and higher levels.

I sensed this in the moments after the 1995 Sugar Bowl win, and during the 1999 season, as Virginia Tech charged relentlessly to the national championship game. Both accomplishments sent Hokie fans on a victory high, but both accomplishments can only be achieved for the first time just once. And both accomplishments leave the fan base hungering for more and better. The problem? There isn’t much more and better. There’s only so much winning you can do.

On the one hand, Virginia Tech’s fans are seeking that bigger, better high. Ten-win seasons feel good, but 11-win and 12-win seasons feel better. Rage against this mindset all you want; it exists as a significant part of sports group psychology, and it’s not going to go away.

There is also one key difference in the way Frank Beamer views the last four years and the way the Jasons from Arlington of the world view them. Frank talks about what the program has done, but the Jasons wonder what might have been. The most potent example of what might have been is this: What if the Virginia Tech offense had produced more points or done a better job killing the clock against Boston College last season? The Hokies finished #3 in the BCS rankings. Would a victory over BC have propelled the Hokies to their second national championship appearance?

Last year’s 11-3 record, with its ACC championship, is in the books, never to be disputed. But the thought lingers of what might have been if Tech had pieced together more than just ten points against the Eagles.

As the steward of an extremely busy message board system, as a guy who gets scores of emails that never appear on the boards, and as a guy who engages in Virginia Tech football talk all day long every day, I’m sensitive to the mood of the fans. Not a fan, but the fans, taken in aggregate. And something is different this time around. Virginia Tech’s offense has had its critics for years, but there is a swelling momentum around it this time. It’s not just a few shrill¬† drum-beaters on message boards, or a few overzealous Sean Glennon critics this time. There’s a growing discontent among the fan base with the offense, or even worse, quiet resignation that it’s bad and can’t be easily fixed.

It’s not at critical mass yet, because nothing particularly dramatic has happened. Another ten-win season is possible, and another ACC championship is within sight, mostly because this is a really, really bad league right now. The tipping point can be averted with another strong season, however you define strong. At Virginia Tech, the definition is ten wins and an ACC championship, right or wrong.

But if the team fails to produce the results Frank Beamer is relying on in his response to Jason from Arlington (and in essence, all detractors of the offense and Bryan Stinespring), the tipping point will get closer, and might even be reached. Only time will tell.

As the debate now exists, it’s a Mexican standoff. Neither side can claim supremacy, and it’s all a matter of personal perspective. One thing is clear, though: while another ten-win season might keep the wolves at bay, a slide to 8-4 or 7-5 will have them knocking hard at the door and will leave Frank Beamer with one less statistic to defend himself.

This issue cannot and will not be settled any time soon. Whether or not Frank Beamer is truly satisfied with the offense is immaterial. Publicly, he’s going to back his offensive coordinator, because to say something like, “We have concerns, and we’re going to evaluate Bryan at the end of the season” is a sure fire way to punch your ticket for a dismal season. How does 6-6, with offensive players mailing it in, sound?

If Beamer is unsatisfied with the offense, he’s not going to make a change in the middle of a season. That’s foolish, premature, and simply not done.

Those of you who read my writings know by now that I am always saying that a season can’t be measured on its merits until it’s over. 2004 looked dismal after the NC State debacle (a 10-sack performance that left Tech 2-2), and 2007 looked gloomy after the hammer job LSU put on the Hokies. Ten-win seasons and ACC championships resulted in both cases, of course.

In much the same way, 2008 is off to a rough start after a loss to ECU and offensive struggles against (gulp) Furman. But there’s plenty of time to regroup and see where things are going. There’s plenty of time to notch another ten-win season and another ACC championship … or not.

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