The east stands of Lane Stadium, home of the eighth-ranked Virginia Tech Hokies football team, soar so high that it takes an extra few minutes for fans to climb to the top rows--and even longer for the moon to rise above the rim of seats and shine on a splendid autumn evening of college football. The sold-out stadium with its festive crowd deep in southwestern Virginia made for a picturesque setting last week when Clemson came to Blacksburg. And if Frank Beamer gets his way, and it surely looks as though he will, still more seats will be added until the stadium is fully enclosed at one end and capacity is raised from 52,000 to 65,000. A college football empire grows.
Beamer is more coach than emperor. He's the commander-in-chief of the increasingly renowned Hokies' football program, all right, but he is guiding the team toward national acclaim by pragmatism and friendly persuasion. As he said in his spacious office the morning after the Hokies humbled Clemson: "In this business, you go where you feel like you can win because if you can't be successful, then you're not going to be there very long." Visits he made last December to Clemson and South Carolina to discuss possibilities of coaching those teams persuaded Virginia Tech to add a reported $800,000 to $1 million at the end of his current 10-year contract, which expires in 2005, and to increase salaries for his coaching staff.
Already, Beamer was set to collect a $1 million annuity on July 1, 2005, if he remains at Tech. His existing annual financial package, which includes TV- and radio-show revenue, is worth $450,000, and he is able to increase that income from such sources as a sports apparel/shoe company and speaking engagements.
In addition to sweetening his contract after Beamer cocked his ear in the direction of South Carolina, Tech officials presumably were reminded of the importance of continuing to build on to the football plant. A $10.6 million all-purpose facility, the Merryman Center, opened last year; it includes a state-of-the-art strength-and-conditioning facility. A new stadium video board is scheduled to be in place next season. A longer-range plan calls for a new field house that would allow the football team more access than its present indoor practice facility, which it shares with several teams.
"I don't think there's any question but this program's going to rise," Beamer said. "I think we got everything to keep it going in that direction. . . . It's slowly taking place that the name Virginia Tech is known. To me our goal is to win a national championship. Now whether we can do it this year, I'm not sure. Whether it's going to be three years from now. . . . But I do think it's possible at this university to win a national championship."
The most fervent Hokies fans believe it can happen this year. Near the head of the parade, at least figuratively, is ESPN's Lee Corso, who predicted before the season a 1999 national title game between perennial power Florida State and--the Hokies!
Between such euphoria and bitter disappointment, however, little margin exists. While the Hokies can beat any team on their schedule, almost any opponent can beat them--a threat that hangs heavy this very day because at 6 o'clock in Charlottesville, the Hokies take on arch rival and 24th-ranked Virginia.
Hokies senior linebacker Jamel Smith put the game in perspective, at least from the Blacksburg view: "We're going to prepare just like it was the national championship."
A Hokie, Born and Bred
Beamer, 52, has led Virginia Tech on a steady climb to its highest ranking ever with a 53-19 record the past six seasons, all culminating in bowl appearances. He came "home" to Tech on Jan. 1, 1987, after being head coach for six years at Murray State. Beamer grew up in southwestern Virginia, in nearby Hillsville. As a 7-year-old, he almost burned to death when a can of gasoline he was carrying in the family garage ignited. Fortunately, his older brother, Barnett, was there and rolled him around in the grass to put out the flames. Beamer underwent more than 30 operations, mostly for skin grafts. A smooth patch of skin on the right side of his face remains.
Beamer attended Hillsville High, where the football team hadn't been very good. But Beamer changed that--and it was there that his all-out drive and relentlessness to succeed began. Frankie Beamer proved to be a hotshot quarterback who as a junior and senior threw 43 touchdown passes. Word of this sensation traversed the Virginia hills and Virginia Tech's coach, Jerry Claiborne, offered a scholarship that Beamer accepted immediately. He longed to go to Tech. He'd been familiar with the school from the time he was a boy, and an uncle used to take him regularly to the then-big annual game between Tech and VMI.
At Tech, Claiborne made the 5-foot-9 Beamer a defensive back, from 1966 through 1968. He was captain his senior season. Claiborne once said: "He was very intelligent on the field. That's why he's a coach, and a good one." Beamer also was a dean's list student. And at Tech, he met his wife, Cheryl.
He began coaching as an assistant at Radford High from 1969 through 1971 while obtaining a master's degree in guidance from Radford University. He was described by one associate at the high school as "very intense" and clearly hoping to become a college coach. In 1972, Beamer became a graduate assistant at Maryland under Claiborne. He then worked for five seasons at The Citadel under Bobby Ross, now the Detroit Lions' coach. After another year at The Citadel, he moved in 1979 to Murray State as defensive coordinator, becoming head coach in 1981.
As an example of Beamer's persuasiveness, Murray State's 1986 roster included 26 players from the state of Florida; Beamer had "sold" them on the rural western Kentucky school. Florida remains the one state Beamer regularly taps into in the otherwise regional recruiting effort he directs at Tech.
Various obstacles have failed to deter Beamer in his quest to make Virginia Tech a capital on the national football map. On becoming coach he ran into NCAA sanctions brought about during predecessor Bill Dooley's time. Beamer began with 2-9 and 3-8 records. In 1989 he suffered chest pains during a loss to East Carolina that required an angioplasty--but his health has been fine since. Then in 1992, when it finally seemed the Beamer program was about to lift off, it fizzled with a 2-8-1 record. Shane Beamer, the coach's son who was then in high school, recalled, "I wasn't sure we were going to be around here the next season."
But several of the '92 defeats were suffered late in games. And the Beamer program did take off in 1993 with a 9-3 record that began the streak of bowl games. "Frank has worked very hard at becoming a good football coach," said former Virginia Tech athletic director Dave Braine, now Georgia Tech's AD.
Beamer influences people--recruits, fans, potential sponsors--with a pleasant personality. He isn't the folksy storytelling type that Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden is. Beamer is business-like and sells statistics when he recruits: Tech's conference, the Big East, covers one-third of the nation's population; the conference provides an avenue to major bowl appearances; Tech has appeared on national or regional TV 60 times during his tenure.
"He's not an up-and-down guy," Corso said. "He's very steady." In fact, when Clemson scored a touchdown last week on a fake field goal play that he and his assistants saw coming, Beamer's reaction on the sideline was restrained; he simply took off his baseball cap and shook his head.
Beamer is known for delegating authority well. "He's learned to let other people do their jobs," said defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who played on defense for Murray State when Beamer coached defense there. "At first, he was very much a hands-on guy. Now he lets people run the offense and defense."
Beamer concentrates much of his time on coaching special teams and preaching defensive opportunism. Tech has blocked 61 kicks in the 1990s--more than any other Division I-A team--and during Beamer's tenure, the Hokies' defense has scored 34 touchdowns, their special teams 17. Beamer's roster of specialists who basically play no other position includes a long snapper, a short snapper and a holder. His son, Shane, is the long snapper. "I get to see him more now than I ever did," the son said. "In high school, he was always so busy and I was playing high school football and we didn't get to see each other a lot. But playing for him has made our relationship closer."
Beamer faced another major problem just as his teams of 1995 and 1996 rang up 10-2 records, including a 28-10 victory over Texas in the '95 Sugar Bowl. He and all Tech officials suffered embarrassment from the arrests of numerous players for their off-field behavior. As a result, the school instituted a "comprehensive action plan," that went into effect in April 1997.
The plan includes standards for appropriate behavior by Tech athletes and sets down the penalties for poor behavior and law-breaking. Derita Ratcliffe, who oversaw the plan until taking a new job at Eastern Kentucky this summer, said that "clearly stated guidelines for behavior are more effective than something vague." In the 2 1/2 years since the plan went into effect, reportedly only two football players have run afoul of the law, both this year. One was kicked off the team; the other, after a less serious violation, was suspended and reinstated.
"People say the punishment system is in place, and it is," Beamer said. "But what's more important, you've got some programs going to educate our kids better about things that are out there today. The important thing out of this 'comprehensive action plan' is that we've got more educational devices in place so that these guys are well aware of sexual harassment or date rape or alcohol abuse, all those things."
Big Game Today
Beamer's prize player this season is senior defensive end Corey Moore--a second-team all-American last season, and a surprising force for his size: 6 feet, 212 pounds.
Virginia Coach George Welsh had Moore above others in mind when he said of today's tactics: "We're going to try to run the ball, but I'm not counting on it."
Welsh said quarterbacking would be the "key." In Michael Vick, Beamer has his latest blue-chipper. But the left-handed passer out of Newport News, Va., who is fast and a threat to run the ball, is a redshirt freshman who, because of injury, essentially was making his big-time debut against Clemson. He threw three interceptions and lost a fumble.
If Tech had an experienced quarterback, Corso might be sitting pretty with his prediction that the Hokies would be playing in the national title game. This week, Corso was sticking to his story: "Every team ahead of Virginia Tech plays each other or plays a tough game. If Virginia Tech keeps taking care of business, well, hello, there they are."
That's what's at stake most of all today for the Hokies and Beamer, keeping alive their dreams of a national championship. Beamer's and Tech's long climb toward the pinnacle--and all that has been involved, including the school's cost of operating a top-flight program, the embarrassment brought by some players' behavior in the midst of the program's rise--can be measured to a degree by what happens this evening in Charlottesville.
CAPTION: Coach Frank Beamer of No. 8 Hokies: "It's slowly taking place that the name Virginia Tech is known. To me our goal is to win a national championship."
CAPTION: Frank Beamer played defensive back at Virginia Tech in 1966-68, and became head coach on Jan. 1, 1987. Hokies have been in a bowl game the past six seasons.