By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 2, 2005
JACKSONVILLE, Fla., Dec. 1 -- Following the 1999 regular season, Florida State beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl to win Coach Bobby Bowden's second national championship. And although the Seminoles played for the national title again the following season, losing to Oklahoma in the 2001 Orange Bowl, the Hokies might have been the biggest beneficiaries of that memorable night in the Louisiana Superdome.
At that point, Virginia Tech was considered an up-and-coming program taking on the game's Goliath. Florida State had spent the entire 1999 season ranked No. 1 in the country and won 10 games or more in 16 seasons, including 13 in a row from 1987 to 1999. And yet, thanks to the elusive running and strong throwing of freshman quarterback Michael Vick, the Hokies changed perceptions even though they didn't win the game.
"I watched that," Florida State tailback Leon Washington said of the 2000 Sugar Bowl. "Who didn't? Michael Vick running around all over the place and all those guys trying to chase him. Michael Vick put Virginia Tech on the map. I hadn't even heard of Virginia Tech before that game."
The Hokies actually had been a pretty good program before that. Virginia Tech had won 10 games in two of the previous four seasons before 1999 and had beaten traditional powers Texas in the 1995 Sugar Bowl and Nebraska in the 1996 Orange Bowl. But before playing the Seminoles in the 2000 Sugar Bowl, the Hokies were still largely flying under the national radar.
"I don't know that a lot of people envisioned Virginia Tech ever being able to play for a national championship and we were right there," Hokies Coach Frank Beamer said. "It proved things are possible here at Virginia Tech. It proved it's possible to win a national championship here."
In many ways, Bowden's work at Florida State was the blueprint for what Beamer was trying to do at his alma mater. Beamer built his team around superior speed, outstanding special teams and continuity and stability in his coaching staff.
While success came easily for Bowden in talent-rich Florida -- the Seminoles were 5-6 in his first season in 1976 and haven't had a losing record since -- building a Virginia Tech program from the ground up proved to be much more difficult for Beamer.
Beamer was nearly fired after a 2-8-1 season in 1992 but turned it around the following year and hasn't looked back since. And with the Hokies winning the ACC last year in their first season in the league, and winning 10 of 11 games this season, Saturday night's game against the Seminoles in the inaugural ACC championship game is an opportunity to prove they might just be the class of their new league.
Bowden, college football's winningest coach with 358 victories in 40 seasons, is certainly aware of what Beamer has done at Virginia Tech. The Seminoles defeated the Hokies in the last 11 meetings, including six in a row against teams coached by Beamer, but Florida State is an overwhelming underdog in Saturday night's game at Alltel Stadium here.
"He's on the way of doing the same thing" we did at Florida State, said Bowden, 76. "He's doing the same thing. Frank has been up there a long time. I think he's there at the same peak we were at. He just needs to get him a couple of national championships, and he's got it all."
Beamer credits an early experience against the Seminoles for his emphasis on special teams, which have been a key reason for Virginia Tech's rise from a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big East Conference to defending ACC champion this season. After losing at Florida State, 41-14, late in the 1988 season, a game in which the Seminoles thwarted a couple of fake kicks by the Hokies and Florida State all-American Deion Sanders had a long punt return, Beamer went back to Blacksburg, Va., thinking his team had to change its ways in the kicking game.
"It got so loud on fourth down because the crowd knew something was about to happen -- they were either going to block the kick or Deion Sanders was going to run the punt back," Beamer said. "I said, 'Man, there's something to this. If you can get fast guys to block the kicks and put a fast guy back there to run the punt back, you can really get the crowd into it.' It kind of confirmed to me that was the fastest way for us to win football games."
So during the summer before the 1989 season, "Beamer Ball" was born in the mountains of southwest Virginia, and the Hokies have been among the country's best teams at blocking kicks, running back kicks and defending them.
"That's the primary reason Coach Beamer got so involved with the special teams because he saw what Florida State was doing," Virginia Tech associate head coach Billy Hite said. "He saw Florida State scoring on offense and defense, and they were scoring about three times a game on special teams."
Hite has been at Virginia Tech even longer than Beamer, who was hired from Division I-AA Murray State to replace Bill Dooley in 1987. Hite and defensive coordinator Bud Foster have been with Beamer during each of his 19 seasons with the Hokies, and offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring has been with the program since 1990. Beamer's ability to keep his coaching staff intact, much like Bowden has done in his 30 seasons at Florida State, has been a key to his team's success.
"I was smart enough to figure that out on my own," Beamer said. "If you've got good coaches and they're going out representing you in high schools and they do a good job on Saturdays, you better find a way to keep them."
Beamer is so loyal to his assistants that during his recent contract negotiations with Virginia Tech, which resulted in a seven-year extension that will pay him more than $2 million per season, he held out until the school approved $100,000 in raises for his assistants.
In fact, when Beamer was named ACC coach of the year for the second season in a row earlier this week, he shared the $27,500 bonus with his coaching staff.
"If you had to pick one key reason for our success, I think the most important one is the staff staying together," Hite said. "We've developed great relationships with the high school coaches in the areas we recruit. I think the high school coaches are comfortable sending players to Virginia Tech now because they've sent players here in the past and they were successful on and off the field."