Virginia Tech Thrives in Football Doing Things the Beamer Way
Monday, August 10, 2009
BLACKSBURG, Va. -- In 1987, Frank Beamer was a first-year coach at Virginia Tech and the Hokies were heading into the final week of what would be a 2-9 season. But on a chalkboard in the team's weight room, Beamer or a member of his staff wrote a bold statement about the program's future: "We will be a perennial top 20."
"I remember looking at the board and thinking, 'Is that really possible?' " Nick Cullen, a Hokies wide receiver from 1987 to 1990, said in a recent telephone interview. "Beamer was a believer way before any player or coach or fan was."
Beamer has made good on a promise that might have seemed unfathomable after he finished 2-9 and 3-8 in his first two seasons. As the Hokies start their first full week of practice Monday, Beamer enters his 23rd season as coach having transformed Virginia Tech, ranked seventh in the USA Today coaches' poll, into one of the nation's most prominent programs.
In division I-A, only Penn State's Joe Paterno, entering his 44th season as coach, and Bobby Bowden, entering his 34th year at Florida State, have spent more consecutive years at their current school than Beamer has at Virginia Tech.
With his commitment to detail and an even-keel manner, Beamer has not changed his approach much since he arrived in Blacksburg. Special teams still are his specialty. Expectations still are compartmentalized in day-by-day segments. And he still anticipates the start of preseason practices, particularly as this year's talented team aims for its third consecutive ACC title.
"This year, as I've said all along, I've really looked forward to this year because of the kids," Beamer said last week, adding, "it helps when you feel like you've got some good players that's ready to play."
That was not always the case. Beamer took over at Virginia Tech during a turbulent period, despite the Hokies' Peach Bowl win in 1986, the program's first bowl victory. The NCAA had placed Virginia Tech on probation as a result of violations under the outgoing coach, Bill Dooley, and Beamer got off to a rocky start. The players already in Blacksburg did not fit into his schemes, scholarships for new recruits were limited as a result of the probation and some thought Beamer was loyal to a fault to his initial coaching staff.
Steve Johnson witnessed the program's transition as a tight end for four years under Dooley and for one under Beamer. Asked about the mind-set on campus, Johnson said, "If someone said in the very near future this program is going to be competitive for a national championship, they probably wouldn't have believed you."
Back then, Virginia Tech was just a tucked-away engineering school with a low-budget football operation. Team-issued apparel consisted of a white T-shirt and plain gray sweatshirt, and players used a black marker to write their numbers on the outfits. Freshmen were sometimes given Converse Chuck Taylors to use as indoor practice sneakers.
But Beamer soon began to leave his imprint. He pored over special teams at practice and in film sessions. He tried to evolve the offense into something less conservative by adding better athletes at wide receiver and tight end. Virginia Tech, then playing as an independent, also began to schedule competitive programs such as Miami.
After those early years, Virginia Tech blossomed, evidenced by the program's first appearance in the national championship game after the 1999 season.
In 2000, Beamer nearly left Blacksburg when he was in discussions for the head coaching job at North Carolina, but he stayed. His influence on the university, from its academic reputation to its football prowess, is apparent.
"You honestly can't believe it, if you were there when I was there, the change that has come to the university," Will Furrer, the Hokies' quarterback from 1988 to 1991, said in a telephone interview. "It shows you what happens -- like with Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno -- it shows what happens once you hire someone, sticking with that hire."
On Thursday at the Hokies' first preseason practice, Beamer spent some time watching from a tower in the middle of the field. As he surveyed the practice facility, he saw a team that has the makings of a strong defense and weapons that could add spice to its offense. As the chalkboard predicted 23 seasons ago, Beamer has made Virginia Tech a "perennial top 20" program.
"He was never going to wow anyone; he was never going to be super packaged or super well-spoken," Furrer said. "He was just going to be Frank Beamer. And he was really good at that. I think he was less comfortable with that in the early days, but now he appears comfortable: This is Frank Beamer."