It’s July of 2001 in Abingdon, Virginia. The scene is a Captain’s practice for the Abingdon High School Falcons football team. It’s well over 90 degrees and the air is wet enough to see the humidity and the scorching heat emanating from the asphalt track surrounding the school’s practice field. The high school’s first P.E. teacher and his students built the original track in the school’s first year of existence in 1959 out of cinders discarded from a local business. Now it’s lined by a seemingly never-ending row of pine trees that surrounds the practice field.
Coach Scott Allen is entering his 3rd year as the head coach of the Falcons. Allen was once a three-sport star at nearby Lebanon High School, leading the Pioneers to the state championship game in three different sports (quarterbacking the football team, serving as the point guard for the state champion basketball team and the shortstop on the baseball team) in the span of nine months. At the end of Captain’s practice, which was held on the game field at Falcon Stadium, he commands the team trudge up the steep hill, past the locker room and gather on the practice field. Take a knee he says. Coach Allen isn’t one for speeches. He’s more of a say it once and it’s been said type of coach. So the fact that he’s gathered the team, forced them to change practice fields and now take a knee…in July…is not normal. It just doesn’t jive. Something is up.
As Coach Allen speaks my attention wanes, in and out. I twiddle with grass in between my fingers, a positively football experience that if anyone who has ever played says they didn’t do, they’re lying to you. I realize after a period of a few minutes that I need to be paying attention. None of what Coach Allen says bears any weight, at least not to me, as I’m only in eighth grade and when it came to needing to know what the varsity was doing or concerning myself with their endeavors, I took the incredibly short-sighted approach that I would learn that when I got there. Such is youth. But then Coach Allen said something that made my ears perk up. He was introducing someone, someone that I knew very well.
The 2015 Hokies are 4-5. They lost a season-opening date with unanimous #1 Ohio State, a team who they knocked off just a year prior, in what some would characterize humiliating fashion. Hokie fans are used to it. They were outgunned. There’s no need to act like they should have upset the Buckeyes in consecutive seasons. Then, they dropped their second-straight game to regional quasi-rival East Carolina, managed a measly 100 yards of offense in a loss to Pittsburgh and lost in four overtimes to Duke…in football…at home…on Homecoming. They are not particularly noteworthy in any area, save one: their coach.
Their coach is Frank Beamer. A native of Southwest Virginia, he played as a defensive back for the Hokies back in the ‘60s, then effectively rebuilt the program from the ground up (while on probation no less) starting in the late ‘80s. That’s not to say he wasn’t given ample time to do so (especially when considering the pittance of time coaches receive now to prove their salt), but hey, it was the early ‘90s, Frank is an alum, and after all, it was Virginia Tech. So while there was eventually some pressure to win, nobody was parking U-Hauls in Frank’s front yard a la Johnny Majors.
Then 1993 comes, and surprising to everyone, Frank Beamer’s Hokies are good. How good? They win 9 games (the previous high under Beamer was 6, accomplished in back-to-back seasons in 1989-1990, before falling to 5 wins in 1991 and 2 wins in 1992). They block kicks. They block punts. They play gritty and later suffocating defense. Virginia Tech is a program on the rise. Yeah, okay, but how far can they rise? How about national relevance for the next 20+ years? What about a National Championship appearance? Do multiple conference titles (a joke itself as Tech was an independent from 1965 to 1991) and a pipeline from The Commonwealth to the NFL sound doable? Nobody would have taken those bets; nobody except the people in Tech’s athletic department, particularly David Braine, who was patient enough to trust the hire made by Dale Baughman and see it through.
Not only did Frank Beamer accomplish all of those things and more, but his teams were unique while ripping off one of the greatest runs of success in the history of the sport. They devoted more time to special teams than could have previously been imagined and relied on defense that was often times transcendent and offenses that fluctuated between degrees of scary (sometimes scary for the opponent, but more often than not scary to the Hokie fans for their ineptitude).
After the win over Purdue, Beamer passed Bear Bryant and into a tie for 6th place with Chris Ault for the most wins at one school in FBS history. He then leapt Ault three weeks later in the win over NC State. He’s passed Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Lou Holtz, and Tom Osborne, and now in his 29th year at Virginia Tech, he’s compiled 235 wins (and 277 wins including his time at Murray State). Only five coaches have ever won more games at the FBS level. But the wins aren’t coming like they used to. The Hokies won 10+ games every year from 2004-2011, a high water mark for the program in a lot of ways, but every year since, they’ve failed to reach double digit wins. In fact, they’ve never even reached 9 wins during that time.
Backtrack to January 4, 2000. Entering the 4th quarter, the upstart and underdog Hokies lead the Florida State Seminoles 29-28 in the BCS National Championship game, and freshman Michael Vick is on his way to putting up one of the most impressive performances in sports history…in a loss. The Hokies commit three turnovers, but rack up 503 yards on offense, mostly due to vintage Vick, running circles around the ‘Noles defense in ways that haunt Bobby Bowden’s dreams (an event that later recurs in 2007, when Bowden suffers his first and only loss to Beamer in what he refers to as "another Vick being unleashed on him" in Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor).
Driving down the interstate on a Saturday in October, I cycle through the scores on my phone. I know, I’ve just admitted to a crime and more importantly it’s not safe, but we do it, or at least I do. I’m anxiously looking for the Mets-Nationals score because the Mets are currently in a watertight race with the Dodgers for home field advantage in the NLDS. They lose twice that day and the Dodgers win, sealing home field for the franchise’s original National League face in New York. Slightly curious, I go through the laborious task of checking the non-top-25 college football scores on the ESPN-imposed "mobile" version of their site, as if smart phones weren’t equipped to handle the rigors of a desktop-based site in the nearly two full decades since mobile sites were forced on unsuspecting cell phone users. I scroll down to the ACC and wait for the pane to load.
The Virginia Tech Hokies were losing to the Pittsburgh Panthers the last time I looked. I am not watching the game. I have not watched the game. I didn’t make plans to watch the game. I didn’t know what time the game was on. I don’t even know where the game is being played. I see that the Hokies have lost and totaled 9 yards on 33 carries. I don’t even bother to let that stat sink in. My process goes on past that. I don’t get angry. I don’t react. I don’t throw and break a computer chair like I did when the Hokies basketball team blew an 8-point lead with 1:20 to go against Wake Forest and Jeff Teague hit a ridiculous end-to-end shot at the buzzer for the win. I am numb. To me, it isn’t the most futile rushing performance in the program’s modern history. It isn’t the worst tragedy since 9/11, as Nick Saban once opined after an Alabama loss. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I know exactly WHAT the stats mean, but they don’t mean anything to me. I didn’t watch the game because I didn’t need to. I had seen it many times before.
Those statements contrast sharply with everything the man making them was about in his first 26 years of life; a man who once quit his $25 an hour job in college because it interfered with watching the ACC Championship Game. Compare that to a man who refused to accept on-air assignments in his pursuit of his dream to become the play-by-play announcer (ironically for Virginia Tech) with the only consideration being whether Virginia Tech was playing. A man who, as a teenager, correctly identified and then stalked Virginia Tech basketball player, forward Deron Washington (whose Hokies were fresh off of a 14-win season and opening-round loss in the ACC Tournament), at the Valley View Mall in Roanoke with his girlfriend until he felt bad for me and signed my hat...all the while catching a verbal beating from the dressing room, "Deron, what are you doing!?" A man whose Virginia Tech-themed room was once featured on House Hunters. A man who once chugged two 24 ounce bottles of Everclear consecutively and then asked a suite mate to punch him in the face when a muffed onside kick by Virginia Tech’s Josh Morgan and subsequent Matt Ryan touchdown pass sealed the Hokies’ fate in a come-from-behind win by Boston College one dreary, rain-soaked night in Blacksburg. A man, who at age 12, after a Virginia Tech loss to Miami, climbed inside of a cardboard box and cried for three hours. For most of my teenage and adult life, I lived vicariously through Virginia Tech sports, and most importantly Virginia Tech football. Now this is a man who didn’t need to watch the game.
What changed (Outside of the burnout associated with a five-year stint covering Virginia Tech athletics for Gobbler Country (a real chicken or the egg situation given the state of Virginia Tech football))? Things got stale. Bad habits set in. The successes validated those habits. The fan base begrudgingly accepted them as a necessary evil as long as the team kept winning. But the Virginia Tech football that we all knew got lost in it. What I see now is some unrecognizable and tepid off-brand product of the Virginia Tech football I know. I don’t know how to react, so ostensibly, I don’t react. I just accept. Without question or comment (not counting the half-hearted attempt early in the season to keep up the Virginia Tech component of my Twitter brand).
I get a call at 10:30 at night. It’s my dad, a University of Richmond grad who is an adopted Hokie of sorts. Not particularly a sports fan, he likely knows more about the Hokies than 90% of the fans who go to every game. It’s been regurgitated to him with every spoken word, every single breath and every waking moment of his son’s adolescent and adult life. He wants to know what I think about Beamer re: should he be fired? He wants to know what I think about the Hokies? I pitch him this article. We reminisce about Marcus Vick stomping on Elvis Dumervil’s leg and pulling a gun on two men in a McDonald’s parking lot after his dismissal from Virginia Tech. About Dwayne Lawson and how the Hokies pulled his redshirt and are putting him through the same failed paces that and false steps that ill-prepared former Virginia Tech quarterbacks to be the successor at the position. About Sean Glennon, and how dad admires him because of how he handled the media assault on him and the embarrassment he suffered post-LSU after being taken out on national TV. I’ll talk about all of this, but I don’t want to talk about whether or not Beamer should be fired. That time has passed.
Years ago, back when the Hokies lost to ECU in the 2008 opener, I called for Frank Beamer’s job. He defended offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring’s job, saying that anyone who wanted to fire him would have to come through him and then making the inflammatory comment that those within the Virginia Tech fan base who wanted Stinespring fired represented the vocal minority (in all likelihood, fans who were FOR Bryan Stinespring remaining the OC was percentage-wise, akin to the percentage of current day Holocaust deniers). Again in 2012, I called for Beamer’s job IF he didn’t make the necessary staff adjustments in the off-season (Beamer fired nearly half his staff, a beacon of continuity, that off-season. Whether he made the RIGHT hires is entirely up for debate). I called for his job in 2013 when the Hokies lackadaisically dropped a game to Duke (a development I saw coming for years due to how the Hokies seemed to cake walk against the Blue Devils despite several acid reflux moments over the years). Those calls fell on deaf ears…or more precisely, the ears of people who disagreed with me to the point that they would pay to watch someone skin my hide and hang me by meat hooks, like Idi Amin did to Nicholas Garrigan in The Last King of Scotland, just for suggesting such a thing. That part of me was no more. I just accept. People shouting for his job now missed the mark and the conversation when it was timely several years ago. Now? It doesn’t matter. It totally matters in every way, but it also doesn’t matter.
Once, not too long ago, the Virginia Tech football staff placed an empty trophy case in the Merryman Center adjacent to Lane Stadium. It housed the National Championship trophy…the National Championship trophy that they never won and never will win under Beamer. They kept that empty trophy case in the Merryman Center for its motivational value as much as it was a reflection of how close they thought they were. And why couldn’t they win it all? They were a perennial top-25 team. They were the odds-on favorites in the ACC nearly every year. They had won 10+ games a year for 8 years running. They even once played in that very National Championship game. They played the 2013 #1 Alabama Crimson Tide to a draw on defense. They were close.
But this was also a team that had lost at home to FCS James Madison. It was a team that ranked around 100th annually in total offense. It was a team that started a quarterback who, after five underwhelming starts to begin his career, ripped off the best nine-game stretch in school history, only to follow it with two frustratingly inconsistent years which saw him alternate between projected top-5 NFL Draft pick and village bum (often leaning towards the latter). A quarterback who in that Alabama game only completed 5 passes to his own team (a Grant Noelian line influenced by his receivers dropping 9 passes and stopping their route on 2 other balls). They weren’t close.
Former Gobbler Country writer and editor Casey Richey and I discussed how frustrating that dichotomy was. Frank Beamer was successful in creating a national championship-worthy team for all of the same reasons that he now was responsible for creating a slow, downward spiraling football program: loyal, trusting, unchanging and predictable to a fault. This team was not the team who lost to a Bobby Bowden classic all those years ago in the Granddaddy of them all. That empty trophy case was a joke; a symbol of how far the program had come and how tantalizingly close they had come to winning it all, yet how far away they really were.
Some of Beamer’s best attributes don’t translate well to success in the current day college football landscape. First off, and you’ll get this from anybody in the profession; he’s the nicest most genuine guy out there, and that’s not me being a homer. You can peruse the Internet and you’ll find account after account of that. Go ahead and check (My personal favorite is the story that he felt bad for being unable to refill his bowl-issued rental car because of the swiftness of the Hokies’ travel plans back to the East Coast after the California Diamond Walnut Bowl, so he mailed them a check covering the balance he thought he owed…a first for that bowl director, who refused to cash the check). He also has humility in spades. When he does something wrong in his personal life, for example being short with his coaching staff, like when he snapped at Bud Foster in the 2005 ACC Championship game, he apologizes for it. Foster was set to hand in his resignation until Frank stunned him with the way he handled it. "Bud, that’s not me. I’m sorry." Lastly, and fortunately, he’s not willing to bend the rules in an era that almost demands it, with ticker tape parades often followed by years of allegations of improprieties, inquiries and sanctions. That’s not at all to suggest that every team that beats Beamer and the Hokies does so underhanded or below board at all. It’s only that the teams that continually win in this business (and yes, it’s a business or you’re kidding yourself) usually do so with some (or more than some) assistance. Compare that to the Hokies, who generally won’t over-sign and won’t even recruit a kid who is already committed elsewhere. So ultimate kudos to Frank for running a clean beyond clean program, not only refusing to do things because they’re against the rules, but also not doing them if they’re not right. But those traits don’t translate to success on the field in 2015.
Speaking of fields, it’s about time to go back to that practice field in 2001. If you hadn’t already guessed, the guest Coach Allen was introducing was Coach Beamer. He was just in from playing a few holes at the Glenrochie Country Club (highlighting his ultra-competitive side, a trait that was discussed in great detail in his autobiography, Let Me Be Frank, that DOES absolutely translate to success on the field) after shooting a spot for one of his more obscure endorsements at the time, Dixie Pottery, and had a few words to say to us. But before Coach Allen could finish introducing him, someone stole his thunder. He had just reached the "Coach of the Virginia Tech Hokies…" part of his introduction when I leapt from the ground. If NFL Combine staff had been present to measure, they would have found that I easily registered my personal best vertical…perhaps doubling it. For some reason, I felt compelled to shout out "THE BEST COACH IN THE WORLD!" completely torpedoing Coach Allen’s last words and inadvertently turning all of the attention away from the coaching legend that stood before us and to me, a skinny, annoying little kid who was now not only pestering the entire Abingdon coaching staff and varsity/JV teams, but also unintentionally upstaging one of my mentors in an outburst that would have been most at home at a speaking in tongues religious service. For his part, Frank gracefully handled the situation, responding with something to the effect of, "Well…uh…thank you," or "Well…okay…thanks," sentiments that did seem heartfelt but also encapsulated the awkwardness of the situation appropriately. I immediately sat down (I think at the gesturing of one of the coaches, perhaps even verbally), embarrassed and face burning red, still catching a piercing glance or ten from the coaches and players huddled around me (why did I have to choose to sit on the outside of the circle where everyone could see me?). What right did that eighth grade kid have to speak up? Why did that pipsqueak interrupt coach? Or even, who the hell was that? I feel you guys. I really do.
Looking back though, I’m glad that I did it. I had to. It was who I am. It was the kid who once swore off eating turkey for two years because he considered it cannibalism (and it would have lasted longer if not for the fact that I hadn’t eaten dinner and the last food vendor of the night at Walt Disney World had some Lane Stadium-worthy turkey legs, because, well, theme park food…yuck), an idea he took from a Wal Mart brand "Top 10 Things About Being A Hokie" t-shirt.
For what it’s worth, I highly doubt Frank ever received a better introduction than "THE BEST COACH IN THE WORLD!" I also highly doubt he has similarly ever again been effectively photobombed by an eighth grader at a speaking engagement. Few people followed him and the Hokies with that manic level of fervor. Few Hokie fans worshipped at the altar of Lane Stadium as religiously as I did. But we all wanted the Hokies to win. We all wanted Frank to win, and, all things equal, we wanted him to be the one to win it all. We wanted him to crest that hill. We wanted him to solidify his legacy with that elusive championship. We wanted it for no one more than him. But it didn’t happen. It was a wonderful ride, but it’s a different ride now. You see this isn’t so much about firing Frank Beamer, or about when his tenure will end. It’s not about the end at all. That point is irrelevant, yet completely relevant. It’s everything and nothing. Frank Beamer is a legend. He’ll go when he goes. In the mean time, Hokie fans are just in a state of stasis, spending our Saturdays doing something else, wishing we were doing something else or wishing that we didn’t have to want to be doing something else. I, for my part, will be grateful and glad for the ride, and perhaps even someday, I’ll find my way back to being the kid who refused to volunteer (read as Volunteer) for things because he couldn’t, he was a Hokie. Maybe by then, Virginia Tech will have another coach who causes eighth graders to leap up in front of their football team and proclaim them in an excited utterance the "GREATEST COACH IN THE WORLD!" But even so, he won’t be Frank.