Beamer’s storied career much more than ‘just worked out’

This is the eighth and last in a series of stories on the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame website, profiling the eight members of the Hall’s stellar induction Class of 2018. Induction weekend is scheduled April 7, 2018, at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts at the Town Center of Virginia Beach.
By JACK BOGACZYK
Hall of Fame Class of 2017

It had to begin sometime, somewhere.

“It happened in the spring after my last year of playing football at Virginia Tech,” said one of the winningest coaches in the history of college football’ which reaches 150 seasons in 2018. “It kind of just hit me, ‘I don’t have football anymore.'”

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So, Frank Beamer started on what he sees as a serendipitous journey to great heights in his sport, a loftiness that will include his April 7 induction to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame at the Town Center in Virginia Beach … to be followed eight months later by induction to the College Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

In major college football history, only Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, Bear Bryant, Pop Warner and Amos Alonzo Stagg coached more than the 280 victories of Beamer – with 238 of those in a 29-year run at Tech. He took the Hokies to seven conference titles, and a BCS national championship game appearance in the 1999 Sugar Bowl.

Back in the spring of 1969, however, Beamer was looking for a job after three years as a starting cornerback for what was mostly known then as VPI. He played on two Liberty Bowl teams for Coach Jerry Claiborne’s Gobblers. The young man who used to hitchhike 7 miles from his family’s Fancy Gap farm to high school practices in Hillsville was typically earnest.

“I just decided I wanted to continue in football,” said Beamer, 71. “That’s when I decided I wanted to coach. After graduation, I even took a couple of extra math classes that summer so I could teach, and I got a job at Radford High School.”

After three years as an assistant, the head coaching job opened. Beamer wanted it. Instead, Norm Lineburg was chosen.
“That worked out pretty well,” quipped Beamer of the hire, with VHSL Hall of Famer Lineburg winning more than 300 games in 37 years at the school.

“I didn’t get it, but things have always just kind of worked out for me along the way,” Beamer said. “If I had gotten that job then’ I’d probably have been a high school coach the rest of my career – not that there’s anything wrong with that, by any means.”

By 1972, Claiborne was Maryland’s new head coach and one of Beamer’s VPI teammates, George Foussekis, was a Terrapins’ assistant who recruited in the Commonwealth. He talked Beamer into joining the staff as a graduate assistant. Another UM assistant was former VMI star Bobby Ross… who the following season became The Citadel’s head coach, and then hired Beamer as an assistant.

And when Ron Zook was an assistant to Mike Gottfried at Murray State, Zook came to The Citadel to learn more from Beamer about the wide tackle six defense that Claiborne ran at VPI. Zook told Beamer when an opening occurred on the Racers’ staff.

“Cheryl (Beamer’s wife) and I are going to Murray, Ky., and we flew to Nashville and the only way to Murray from there back then was this two-lane road. We drove a while and about 25 miles from Murray, Cheryl says, ‘Where are you taking me?'” Beamer recounted. “But Murray was great for us. I tell people I had to drag her in there, and then when we left I had to drag her out.”

Uh, not really, although Beamer had succeeded Gottfried and was a successful Racers’ head coach for six seasons (42-23-2). When the Beamer’s left Murray, it was a homecoming – another of those just-worked-out “deals” Beamer constantly references.

After interviewing Ross, former Tech quarterback Bruce Arians and Beamer, then-Tech Athletic Director Dutch Baughman chose the one who after that never became an NFL head coach. Beamer, then age 40, took over a troubled program facing serious NCAA sanctions and financial woes from the Bill Dooley era. On Dec. 22, 1986 — nine days before Dooley’s final Tech team got a last-second Peach Bowl victory — Beamer was named.His contract was for $80,000 annually.

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And the following morning, in the Roanoke Times, sports editor and columnist Bill Brill opined that Hokie fans would be less than thrilled about the sideline alumnus. Brill wrote that Beamer’s hiring “was comparable to what you used to feel on Christmas Day. Remember when you would go to grandmother’s, expecting the latest in toys, and you got a nice sweater instead? And then you said politely, ‘Gee, that’s great.’ But you wondered if somehow you had been handed the wrong package.”

To which Beamer often has quipped, “Maybe Virginia Tech needed that sweater.”

Beamer hung tough through NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions and a much-improved schedule he’d been left by Dooley, and Tech Athletic Director Dave Braine stuck with his embattled coach, who finished his first six seasons with a 24-40-2 record. Beamer changed about half of his staff and his defensive philosophy after a 2-8-1 season in 1992… and then flipped the program into national consciousness.

“You’re right. These days, no way a guy lasts with 24 wins in six years,” Beamer said. “Was I worried? You know, I probably should have been more worried than I was, but we had those scholarships reduced, about 24 over two years during our first year, and the reality of it was it wasn’t going to affect us right away.

“It was 3, 4, 5 years in, when those recruits we didn’t get would have been playing as juniors and seniors. The schedule increased. We needed to play better teams, and I agreed with that. They wanted a better academic approach, and I certainly agreed with that – and it was like all of it hit at once. We were recruiting at a higher level for athletes and academics. Fortunately, Dave (Braine) understood what was going on and he stuck with us. If Dave hadn’t been there, it might have been different.”

What also occurred during that period was the Hokies’ admission to the new Big East Football Conference in 1991. In 1993, the first season of round-robin scheduling in the league, Beamer’s program leaped from 2-8-1 to 9-3 and an Independence Bowl rout of Indiana.

That game in Shreveport, La., was the first of 23 consecutive bowl trips for Beamer and Co., a run he took into his retirement from the sidelines in 2015. He coached 13 Tech teams to 10 or more victories, including a run of eight straight years of 10 or more wins after the Hokies then moved to the ACC in 2004.

“Getting in the Big East back then was huge,” Beamer said. “It gave us an avenue to bowl games. It got us on TV, and that helps recruiting. We got to the national championship game (in ’99) through the Big East. Getting in there was huge for us, really helped us get things going in the right direction.”

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The Big East presence also gave Tech a platform to get where it really wanted to go – the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Hokies finally got there via expansion in 2004 … although Beamer almost beat his alma mater to the league in 2000.
About 11 months after the Hokies lost that national title game to Florida State, Beamer verbally accepted the head coaching job at North Carolina in November 2000, really liked what he saw… then flew back to Blacksburg and decided there was no place like home.

“It would be one of the biggest mistakes of my life,” Beamer has said of his decision to tell then-UNC Athletic Director Dick Baddourhe was heading to Chapel Hill.

“I’m still convinced North Carolina is a great job,” Beamer said. “Hey, it’s closer to 757 (the area code for talent-rich Hampton Roads) than Blacksburg. The basketball (history) at North Carolina didn’t bother me. That’s part of the tradition. You know, I grew up in Fancy Gap and we’d watch ACC basketball on TV. I was very familiar with North Carolina.

“I knew we could win there. But I just couldn’t leave Virginia Tech. I called Mack Brown (the Tar Heels coach from 1988-97) before we got on the plane and talked to him about Carolina. And Mack talked about what North Carolina had, and all that, and then he made a statement that kind of hit home for me. He said, ‘You know, Frank, if you go, you can never go back (to Tech). They’ll never take you back.’

“Tech is home. And the university stepped up and we got more (pay) for our assistants and we started to do a lot more with our facilities. I just couldn’t leave.

“A few years later, we had Mike Bobo (former Georgia quarterback) coming in here at Tech as offensive coordinator. Or we thought we did. Mike – he’s now the coach at Colorado State – he said if he got on the plane to come, he was going to accept the job.

“Well, after a while the plane wasn’t here, and Mike called and said he didn’t feel it was quite right, so he didn’t feel like coming. He stayed at Georgia. I told him I understood. I told him, ‘I know. You’re talking to exactly the right guy here.’ I was there once and I learned.”

The man who was in charge of “BeamerBall” doesn’t look at that moniker like most others do. For a coach who devoted so many hours to special teams play – and with impactful results — BeamerBall means much more than that phase of the game to its namesake, whose teams were always about a nose-to-grindstone work ethic.

“A lot of it goes back to the kicking game, at least at first it was like that,” said the retired Tech coach, who now serves on the College Football Playoff Selection Committee.”Blocking a punt to score, or blocking a field goal or extra point, or returning a punt or a kickoff.

“I really thought, in my mind, it was about every time we were on the field, we had a chance to score. Taking advantage of opportunities. On offense, you obviously can score. But on defense, too, with an interception return, forcing a fumble and running it back. To me, it’s about much more of the game than blocking kicks.”

So, when Beamer considers his storied career, what does he see?

“It,s just… really, it’s hard to imagine everything that’s happened,” said Beamer, who at age 7 also endured and survived a serious fire and then numerous skin graft surgeries that left him scarred but obviously unbowed. “Coming from a little place like Fancy Gap, hitch-hiking 7 miles into Hillsville, and then getting a scholarship from Hillsville High to Virginia Tech.

“It was my only offer. When they called, I accepted right on the phone. I wasn’t waiting, because I was afraid if they hung up, they might have second thoughts and then call back and rescind the offer. At Tech, I think we brought in seven quarterbacks that year I was recruited, and so they moved me to corner.

“And in Coach Claiborne’s defense, you’re playing mostly zone in the secondary. I could play that. If he’s playing man-to-man, who knows if I’d ever played, because if some receiver ran by me or double-moved on me, I’d never have had the speed to keep him out of the end zone. Like I said, it just worked out.

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“I go to Maryland and then go with Coach Ross to The Citadel and then to Murray State and Mike Gottfried leaves for Cincinnati and I become the head coach. And then I get an interview at Virginia Tech, and I’m meeting with Dutch and I call Cheryl and said, ‘You know, I think I’m going to get this job.’
“At Tech, things were tough, but we kept after it and Dave Braine was there and we got it going the way we thought it could be after those first six years. Things just always worked out.”

Beamer can’t tell you his numbers. He doesn’t reference the impressive run of eight straight 10-win seasons upon entering the ACC, or the 9.3 victories per season over those final 23 autumns when Lane Stadium grew in stature in more ways than one.

His reference point is in rosters and resumes.

“Without question, I’m a people person,” Beamer said. “I talk about that when I give a speech. If you treat people right and show them respect, that’s what it is about. The numbers, I’d have to look those up. I appreciate them and what we accomplished, and I didn’t do it alone. I had plenty of help, assistant coaches, staff members, athletic directors, and our players.

“I think I worked for three ADs and four university presidents and you know what? I liked them all. I respected every one of them. If there’s one thing I keep going back to over all those years, it is the fact that people are what make the difference. It just always worked out.”

OK, so let’s be frank about this. Probably the reason it “just always worked out” was the person it always worked out for.

Retired award-winning sportswriter and columnist Jack Bogaczyk is a 2017 inductee to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. He spent more than 45 years in the sportswriting business, including 27 years at The Roanoke Times.

The 2018 Spotlight Series is presented by Dominion Energy. The Virginia Sports Hall of Fame welcomes Dominion Energy as a proud partner for 2018 Induction Weekend.