It was some time after the 1988 season, I think, or maybe the winter of 1989. There had been some kind of Virginia Tech sports event at the Red Lion Inn, just off Prices Fork Road in Blacksburg. The place is gone now; a Hilton Garden Inn replaced it. After the event was over a handful of us stopped by the hotel bar. After all these years I still remember the low lights and the old wood of the place. It was myself, and some members of the student media; Jeff Motley, now Vice President of Public Relations for Las Vegas Motor Speedway, was one of them, I remember that. Mark Owens, now sports information director at Middle Tennessee State University, was another. Otherwise, the place was pretty much empty. We were enjoying a cocktail when Frank Beamer walked in.
This was before Frank Beamer was Frank Beamer. At that point his record at Virginia Tech was 5-17. To quote his contemporary, Steve Spurrier, when he was head coach of the Washington Redskins: “Not very good.”
Still, he was the head coach of the Hokies. And when he looked around and saw the place was empty, save for a few young media types, he didn’t turn on his heel and say, “Seeya.” Frank Beamer joined us.
Naturally, the topic of conversation at once turned to football. As then-editor of Virginia Tech’s official athletics newspaper, The Hokie Huddler, I experienced the program from the inside out. I lived and breathed the program on a daily basis, working one floor above the coaches in the Jamerson Athletics Center, and I was young enough that players invited me to apartment parties and confided in me. (Quarterback Will Furrer once told me, as a freshman, the senior linemen in the huddle would tell him to “shut the bleep up.”) I had a pretty good handle on what was going on, and after two rough seasons, Coach Beamer was catching some heat.
“The problem isn’t you,” we told Frank that night. “You’re not the problem, Coach. But … you need some help.”
I’m not sure if I was the one who actually conveyed that thought to him, or if it was someone else, but we all concurred. Honestly, I don’t know if I had the courage to tell Coach Beamer that alone. Not at that time. I suppose the cocktails emboldened us.
Like he didn’t already know that. On Saturday, December 10, 1988, he spoke at a recruiting dinner in the Bowman Club and sounded off about the academic restrictions the University had imposed on him – specifically, how the University’s refusal to even consider accepting possible partial qualifiers cost Virginia Tech wide receiver Herman Moore – who signed with Virginia, and ended up fully qualifying anyway. Moore was from Danville and really wanted to play for the Hokies, but Frank couldn’t promise his parents Tech would accept him if he didn’t get his SAT scores.
That was one thing that stuck in his craw. Moore devastated the Hokies in the games he played against them, finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1990, was the 10th overall pick in the 1991 NFL Draft, and was a four-time Pro Bowler. But I saw other issues, too. From what I observed, and what I heard from some of the players, was that some members of Coach Beamer’s coaching staff were not up to the task at hand. That, along with recruiting restrictions imposed from the Bill Dooley transgressions, and a lack of cooperation from the admissions office regarding partial qualifiers, made winning difficult.
But it seemed like Virginia Tech had the right guy in the top spot. To quote one of Frank Beamer’s favorite phrases, we “liked what he was all about.” We saw that this guy was committed to the job. It was no springboard for him. This was it. His dream job. He was a Hokie, just like us, and had crazy dreams for Virginia Tech, just like us. By his words and his actions and the passion in his eyes, we saw he was pouring his heart and soul into this thing to be successful. And man, when you have somebody motivated and committed like that?
I’m sure Frank Beamer probably wasn’t overjoyed to hear a bunch of young know-it-alls suggest to him he “needed some help,” but he genuinely seemed to appreciate our feelings. He didn’t get defensive, and he didn’t get mad. He had too much character for that. He was too nice a guy for that. And, over time, he got the help he needed, and his drive and passion and character prevailed.
And the payoff was huge.
So many nights in those Huddler years, in those hours in bed with the lights out and I was trying to fall asleep, my mind would take off and imagine Virginia Tech glory – impossible stuff, like a Lane Stadium lined with superboxes (in the 1980s, I would actually sit up in the Lane Stadium pressbox and look out over the stands and sketch how it might look). I imagined fans all decked out in school colors like they did at schools such as Clemson, filling the stadium, roaring in unison. Sometimes, I got really crazy and dreamed of Virginia Tech getting into the ACC. I even dared to imagine the most impossible thing of all: Virginia Tech playing for the national championship in football.
But never, ever, ever, in my wildest dreams, did I ever expect that ALL OF THOSE THINGS WOULD ACTUALLY HAPPEN.
It still sends shivers down my back when I recall that night of January 4, 2000, when Virginia Tech, with the best player in college football, Michael Vick, entered the fourth quarter of the Nokia Sugar Bowl National Championship Game leading Florida State 29-28. No, the Hokies didn’t win. But, still, my God: little old Virginia Tech played for the national championship!
Even after all that glory and attention, including a call from the President of the United States, it didn’t change Frank Beamer all that much. Sure, his available time got a little tighter. He was getting pulled in far more directions now. But he was still just that tough, passionate Hokie with a wry sense of humor and a great appreciation for people.
In the years I covered his program for the Huddler (1987-95), I never once saw him try to embarrass another reporter, even when posed plenty of inane questions. He had a way of shrugging off those kinds of questions with a little bit of deprecating humor. I think I took his skill for granted during my time in Blacksburg, but after covering professional sports for a decade with USA Today and USA Today Sports Weekly, and seeing how those coaches operated, I gained a greater sense of appreciation for him. If anything, he was too nice. It almost got him fired in 1992. He had a staff that wasn’t up to the task, but he couldn’t bring himself to let them go.
In the last couple of years, we’ve seen Hokie Nation break up into different factions. There are those who are never happy with anything; there were those who realized the time had come for a new chapter; and there were those who never wanted to see Coach Beamer retire, ever.
But I think to truly appreciate Frank Beamer, you can’t be a blind loyalist, because he doesn’t need that. You don’t need to be blind to appreciate him. You can have your eyes wide open. What he did in Blacksburg stands on its own, against hard, objective scrutiny. He accomplished everything a man could accomplish, except for nailing down the national title that night in 2000.
Frank’s wife, Cheryl, said it better than anybody (well, of course she did. She knows him better than anybody). Andy Bitter of The Roanoke Times got the quote. Cheryl knew her husband really, really wanted to win a national championship, but she told him, “You’ve already won one. Your national championship is the type of man you were and that legacy of how you treated people and the way these kids loved you. That’s your national championship.”
So here’s to you, Frank Beamer. God bless you for everything you’ve done. You really did accomplish the impossible. You made dreams come true. Thank you so much.