BLACKSBURG, Va. — What happens when Virginia Tech football Coach Frank Beamer and his most trusted adviser, John Ballein, go on their lunchtime walk around campus can be unpredictable and, these days, verified by only two people. Longtime associate head coach Billy Hite would occasionally join. His successor, Shane Beamer, has not.
“Never been asked. Never been invited,” Beamer’s son said. “A lot of major decisions have been made on that daily walk.”
Sometimes the walks can alter the direction of the program, such as when Ballein, Virginia Tech’s associate athletic director for football, told Beamer it was time to hire Shane three years ago, the first in a series of staff moves. Sometimes the walks take on greater meaning, such as when Beamer and Ballein walked more than ever to show a student body reeling from the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history that the campus remained safe.
One day this preseason, a walk became downright goofy.
Ballein noticed a street sign with a radar gun on campus had picked up his speed during a morning jog. Beamer wanted proof of how fast Ballein could go. After several tries, Ballein got up to 13 mph. Before he knew it, Beamer, 67, came barreling down Washington Street as fast as he could on a knee that was replaced in 2008.
“It kept flashing, ‘6, 6, 6.’ It was priceless,” Ballein said. “That’s the competitive side in him.”
These are the sorts of stories Beamer’s closest allies come armed with whenever talk turns to the end of Beamer’s coaching career.
It is a frequent topic, one new Virginia Tech Athletic Director Whit Babcock recently said was “asked about in every interview” in his first seven months on the job.
Babcock addressed the issue this week, announcing Wednesday Beamer had agreed to a two-year contract extension that will keep him at the school through the 2018 season.
Only Kansas State’s Bill Snyder, Ohio’s Frank Solich and South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier will be older than Beamer entering this fall, but he appears to feel rejuvenated, awakened by consecutive disappointing seasons. On Saturday, he will begin his 28th campaign leading the Hokies with more wins and a longer tenure than any other active Football Bowl Subdivision coach, and those who know him best think the general public might be underestimating just how badly he wants to win big again.
“Since he’s quiet and always says the right thing and he’s classy, he’s much tougher than people give him credit for being,” said former Texas coach Mack Brown, a friend for more than 25 years. “You can’t stay at Virginia Tech for 28 years without being tough.”
Beamer is polite but firm when the issue of retirement comes up. He says the endless questions don’t bother him, that he has no plans of ending his coaching career anytime soon.
He’ll usually spin the conversation toward how much he likes his current staff, the recent infusion of young talent after a few lean recruiting years, the ongoing construction of the program’s indoor practice facility or even a 2016 game against Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway that is expected to set attendance records.
Beamer still talks about contending for championships again, 15 years after Virginia Tech burst onto the national scene with Michael Vick, insisting “the bottom hasn’t fallen out,” after the program’s eight-year run of winning 10 games or more ended in 2012.
“Just being with him on the golf course, he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t even want to lose a game of checkers. He plays to win,” said former Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, one of Beamer’s close friends and currently an analyst for Fox Sports South. “He’s got a twinkle in his eye, a bounce in his step right now.”
But Shane Beamer said his father does not want to be “in his late 70s, early 80s coaching. That’s not him.” He is mindful of the criticism Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno took toward the end of their long tenures at Florida State and Penn State, respectively.
“I think this comes across, but I really enjoy my job right now. I feel like the same guy I was 10 years ago. . . . You’ve got things to look forward to,” Frank Beamer said. “I think I’ll know when it’s the right time. I don’t think about it very much. I think when you’re enjoying yourself, life is good. When you’re not enjoying yourself . . .”
“I think I’ll know when I’m not a positive influence on this program.”
Beamer understands only winning will alleviate the pressure, but the prospect of retirement became more real after last season when Brown and Grobe were forced to resign. For the most part, though, he steers clear of the subject.
“If you’re talking about the end, you’re finished,” said Brown, who will work for ESPN this fall.
This is why Beamer wouldn’t admit to any exit strategy in an interview earlier this month. But he conceded the plans likely would be hatched on one of his walks, when Ballein “will probably say . . . ‘It’s time for you to step down,’ ” Beamer said.
When told of this later in the afternoon, Ballein looked out onto the practice field, where Beamer barked orders during a special teams drill, and shook his head in disbelief.
“I’m going to think about that all night,’ Ballein said. “I’d never thought about it.”
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