Yesterday was a tough day for a lot of people in the Merryman Center.
Virginia Tech has undergone a tremendous amount of change in the last couple of years, inside and outside athletics: a new school president, a new athletic director, a new basketball coach, a new director of development, a new head of the Hokie Club, and other administrative and staff positions too numerous to list here.
Frank Beamer was the last man standing, the last of an old guard that had led the university for literally decades in various capacities. And soon, he’ll be gone, too, from the position he has held for 29 years.
So when they tell you it’s “the end of an era,” it’s larger than just Frank Beamer and the way he has run the program. Winds of change have been blowing with hurricane force, and every corner of the university has been affected.
It’s necessary, of course, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
Of all the people present in their official capacities yesterday, only a few of them were around during Frank’s long career, to accompany him and Virginia Tech on its arc of the last two to three decades, which have brought tremendous change and accomplishment, not just in the football program, but university-wide.
But in the audience were a lot of people who were a part of it all, some of whom are still a part of it, and for them, this day brought a range of emotions.
Those emotions began with Shane Beamer’s struggles to hide his tears as photos of his father’s career went across the big screen right in front of him, just a few feet away from his front row seat. Many of the photos included Shane: posing for an early family photo shortly after Frank had been hired; carrying the headset cord for his father on the sidelines; hugging his father in the postgame victory celebration.
Photographers snapped away as Shane struggled to keep his composure. Of all the pictures taken, this one by Nathan Warters of The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star framed the moment best:
Pretty powerful picture of Shane Beamer's (lower right) reaction when picture of him and his dad, Frank, is shown. pic.twitter.com/rW7ja0sDTb
— Nathan Warters (@NathanWarters) November 2, 2015
Then came Frank, to the podium with his wife Cheryl, both of them their eyes wet. As Frank spoke, his voice broke a few times, and when it did, it threatened to take everyone in the room with it.
But he was there to pull us back, just as we were getting ready to go over the precipice with him, with a well-timed joke.
“Coach Beamer will now take questions,” Pete Moris said after Frank’s opening statement.
“Do I have to?” Beamer cracked, releasing the tension in the room.
Frank made his way through it with grace and composure, and if it was possible, we all respected him even more afterwards for his candor, his good humor, and his impeccable sense of timing. As the losses mounted in the last few years, Frank had been getting further away from many of us, but yesterday, he yanked us back, and everything was okay again. We could appreciate him for who he is, perhaps for the first time, without filtering everything through the lens of wins and losses.
Afterwards, as reporters filtered around the room to interview anyone and everyone, emotions ran high. You might think all of those emotions were sad, and many of them were, but when I interviewed Dave Braine, Tech’s athletic director from 1987-1997, I found a man in high spirits, excited for the decision Frank had made and what his future holds.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t bittersweet for Braine.
“Personally it’s a very sad day for me,” he said, “just to come in here and watch the history of 29 years of where the program was and where it is today, and for anyone who understands it, this is the end of an era. In your wildest dreams, I don’t think you can ever imagine a coach lasting 29 years at a university today.”
But Dave has a different perspective than most of us. As he chronicled to us in our lengthy interview with him three years ago, he struggled with stress and his health after he left Virginia Tech to go to Georgia Tech over 18 years ago. So for him, retirement was a release, and a new beginning.
“I was fortunate. I knew it was time for me to go. I had some health issues, and it was more of a relief than anything, for me. My wife will tell you, I never look back. I’m very fortunate to be here, and I hope Frank can tell you the same thing.
“I hate it in one sense, because I hurt for Frank and his family, that this day came. But at the same time, I’m happy for him, because I found out about ten years ago, retirement’s not bad,” he said, breaking into a smile.” So I’m hopeful that his health stays good, and he’s going to enjoy the fruits of what he’s worked really hard for.
“Every time I see him, I tell him, you’ve got to learn how to use that fly rod and start fishing with me now. The good thing is that Frank does have outside interests. He’s got his place in Georgia, he loves to play golf, he’s got his grandkids and everything. I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
Outside in the hallway, Bryan Stinespring was surprisingly by himself. Here’s a guy who owes his entire professional career to the man who just announced he’s retiring. I wondered if he might be avoiding reporters, hoping that he could just be a fly on the wall.
That’s not Stiney, though. When asked if he could answer a few questions, he readily agreed.
When and how did he find out?
“I was in early in the morning yesterday, for special teams,” he answered, “and I was in the special teams room, and he asked me to step into his office, and he wanted to speak to me for a second. We went into his office, and he told me what is intentions were, and what he was planning to do.
“I told him … I thanked him, because I’ve been honored and privileged to have a front row seat to a great story. For an old boy from Clifton Forge, Virginia … ”
And here his voice broke.
” … To be able to come and be a part of this. It’s a dream. Dreams happen.”
As more reporters gathered around, and a couple TV cameras arrived, Stinespring told us that he didn’t know Frank’s retirement was coming. “I watched him on the practice field, his approach to the game, his approach to getting this football team ready to go … it’s not really something you sit there and think about day in and day out. It’s on to the next opponent, and on to the next opponent … so, no, I didn’t see it coming.”
His thoughts on the timing? “He makes great decisions,” Stiney said of his boss and mentor. “I think this was a good decision on his part, to do it now, and I’m thankful that he actually did, because I’m going to sit back and appreciate every time we come out of that locker room, and make that walk to the practice field, and the moments in that staff room, the opportunity to talk the game of football. I’ll appreciate that walk down the tunnel with him, and to stand on the field during warm-ups with him, to be in that locker room, and get a chance to try to appreciate … (voice breaks) … these last few games, these last few weeks.”
When asked to describe what Frank Beamer has meant to him, his career, and his family, Stinespring had to collect himself for a moment. His voice quavering, he said:
“He took me, a chubby, blond-haired kid from Clifton Forge, and helped him be a good football coach, and a good husband, and a good father. I told him yesterday, I thank you for this opportunity, and I thank you for making me a better person, a better coach, and just better overall.
“You know what? There’s a countless number of young men who have walked these hallways who can say the same thing. Because it’s what he does.”
Further down the hall, Dave Smith, Virginia Tech’s long-time Sports Information Director who retired last year after a career with the Hokies that spanned exactly 40 years, was taking it all in.
Dave Smith was promoted to Sports Information Director and became the primary point of contact for the football program in 1998. From that point on, he was around Frank Beamer a lot. In all those on-field post-game pictures of Frank Beamer, Dave is often visible in the background.
“A lot of memories. A lot of memories,” he said, when asked what the press conference brought out in him. “From day one, I wasn’t involved with Coach as much at the beginning, as I have been over the last 15-20 years, but I was with football, and I was with him, a lot. I don’t think there’s been anybody who retired recently that I’ve been as involved with as Coach.”
Smith was at Virginia Tech for twelve years before Frank Beamer arrived in 1987, and he embodies everything that Frank was and stands for: treating people with grace, class, and respect.
Like Dave Braine, Dave Smith is completely happy with his decision to retire last year. I asked him, if he had known that Frank only had one more season left in him, would he (Dave) have waited another year to retire? “I made my decision then, and I couldn’t be happier. I picked the exact right time. It worked out well for me, it worked out well for the new administration. I had no way of knowing when Coach’s day was going to be. I did the right thing, at the right time for me.”
Like Braine, Smith has retirement advice for Frank Beamer. “Just to take it in, enjoy it. Take a little time, decide what you want to do. Everybody’s different, and it should be different for everybody. Somebody told me, don’t commit to a bunch of stuff right away. Take your time, look around. He’s obviously going to have a lot of people coming to him, for speaking engagements, endorsements, what you have you.
“But you know, I don’t know whether to say I’m happy for him,” Smith said, and then laughed. “He handled that really well, as I knew he would, and I just hope that that team is able to get him some wins here, down the stretch.
“I want him to be happy, he’s an incredible person.”
Here, suddenly, Dave Smith loses his composure. He pauses, looks at me, and his lip quivering ever so slightly, he places a hand on my shoulder and waits.
We stand there for a moment.
“We all know that he’s a Hall of Fame coach,” he says finally. “That gets talked about a lot. People in the media know that, the fans know that. But the thing is, he’s a Hall of Fame person.”
His voice breaks. “I did pretty well till now,” he says apologetically.
That’s okay, I think to myself. There’s a lot of that going around. I thank him for the interview, and turn off the recorder.
And I walk away. Because if I don’t keep moving, it’ll get to me, too.