The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Beamerball is gone. Brent Pry is Va. Tech’s second chance at redemption.

Virginia Tech football coach Brent Pry is trying to bring the glory back to Blacksburg. (Matt Gentry/Roanoke Times/AP)

BLACKSBURG, Va. — It wasn’t that long ago that Virginia Tech football’s Beamerball — an idiosyncratic mix of Tidewater talent, special teams wizardry and Metallica entrances — made the Hokies a national brand, and Brent Pry was there.

“This was Clemson before Clemson was Clemson,” Pry said.

Pry, a graduate assistant under legendary Hokies coach Frank Beamer and defensive coordinator Bud Foster from 1995 to 1997, left his defensive coordinator job at Penn State to sign a six-year contract as Virginia Tech’s head coach in December. Now he’s tasked with a balancing act of modernizing the program while maintaining the Beamer culture. And winning big.

“I was not trying to re-create ‘Coach Beamer and Coach Bud 2.0,’ ” Athletic Director Whit Babcock said about hiring Pry.

Virginia Tech is mindful of how it is messaging its second attempt at life after Beamer because the first one failed. When the program’s architect and native son announced his retirement in 2015, Babcock moved swiftly to hire Justin Fuente, then the coach of a surging Memphis program and one of the hottest names in the industry.

Brent Pry working to bring winning tradition back to Virginia Tech football

At the time, the plan was lauded across the industry: Bring Fuente — a soft-spoken, spotlight-averse offensive coach — into quiet Blacksburg to renovate Virginia Tech’s scoring attack and pair him with Foster, the defensive mastermind who agreed to stay on after Beamer’s retirement. Fuente and Foster produced a 10-win debut, but a sharp decline followed. Foster retired in 2019, the offense never developed, and the in-state goodwill Beamer had built over decades was squandered in recruiting.

Fuente was dismissed in November with a 43-31 record, no ACC titles and four consecutive years without a top 25 finish. Virginia Tech finished last season 6-7 and was walloped by Maryland in the Pinstripe Bowl.

“I don’t have anything bad to say about Justin,” Babcock said. “I think he worked as hard as he could and really tried and was dealt a tough hand following Coach Beamer. I also learned I was probably a little stubborn. I was going to will it to work and do everything I could and have Justin’s back. I learned a lot as an AD and realized how hard it is not to take it personally, but, yeah, I don’t like making $9 million mistakes.”

Pry is a personable, casual, defensive coach who’s effortless at small talk and already quite familiar with Blacksburg and the rest of the Commonwealth.

If Pry seems to fit Virginia Tech too well, it raises the question of why he’s such a necessary breath of fresh air.

“Six years ago, I wouldn’t have been what they were looking for,” Pry said. “I think they wanted the offensive prowess. I think they hired a coach, a good Midwestern guy that didn’t have in his plan and vision all the things that I think most people believe and now fully realize are really important to Tech’s success: the lettermen, recruiting in the state, community relations, all these things that come naturally to me, quite honestly.”

If anything, Pry got the Virginia Tech job because of what he had done to the Hokies, not for. As one of the Nittany Lions’ top recruiters under James Franklin, Pry helped win recruiting battles for some of Virginia’s top players to leave the Commonwealth for Happy Valley. While the Hokies’ in-state recruiting waned under Fuente, outside recruiters such as Pry raided Virginia for talent.

“If you’re looking for a snapshot of the Fuente era, one of the things we saw, especially as a few years passed, was that [Virginia Tech] only went for Virginia guys they were heavily involved with from the onset,” said Brian Dohn, a recruiting analyst for 247 Sports.

After finishing with top-30 classes nationally for three consecutive years, the Hokies finished 2020 last in the ACC in recruiting and farmed out offers to players far out of state, where Fuente and his staff had previous connections.

“It looked like they took the easy way out instead of battling for recruits, instead of fighting and utilizing the connections they had in the state of Virginia,” Dohn said. “There’s a point when it looks like they decided, ‘We’ll just out-scheme you and out-coach you and not really push for the best prospects.’ ”

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At least in recruiting, Virginia Tech has signaled the old ways have to go. Unlike Fuente, Pry came to the Hokies from a national powerhouse with a massive support staff, and he communicated the disparity between Blacksburg’s expectations and the reality of top 25 recruiting.

“There’s no such thing as keeping a Michael Vick quiet anymore, not like [Beamer] could 20 years ago,” Dohn said.

If Virginia Tech wanted a modern equivalent to the dominance of Virginia recruiting during Beamer’s time, relationships were only half the problem, and the price tag wasn’t cheap.

“What was important for me was to be honest when I interviewed. I needed to know that what they were looking for was what this place needed and that their vision was similar to mine. And it was,” Pry said.

Since his hiring in December, Virginia Tech officials have increased the football assistant salary pool to $5.2 million annually and created 10 new positions in the football department.

“We want to be in the top three or four budget-wise in the ACC in football and hopefully get to the top, but we can do fine overachieving from fourth in budget better than we can overachieving from eighth,” Babcock said.

Pry’s new-hire honeymoon period has been dedicated to renewing relationships with high school coaches in Virginia and former Hokies players. As soon as February’s signing period ended, he put his new staff on a bus to Richmond, where he invited local high school coaches to meet and greet over beer and pizza to talk ball and build relationships. The next day, the bus headed to Norfolk to do the same and so on. Once the high schools were greeted, it was on to the rest of Virginia.

“I’ve said yes to everything they’ve asked me to do — and asked to do it all,” Pry said, counting off his tour schedule: “Booster meetings, forestry association, chambers of commerce, rotary clubs, country clubs, all the Hokie clubs, NASCAR, drag racing. . . . If people are asking and it’s university-based, community-based, high school-based or donor based, we’ve said yes to everything.”

Such a routine is standard for any new college football coach, but in a community welcoming only its third coach in just under 40 years, there is an eagerness to certify Pry’s professed love of the school’s culture. Virginia Tech is more than willing to conjure Beamer nostalgia to erase the perceived standoffishness of Fuente.

Far past Fuente’s quiet personality, Virginia Tech and Southwest Virginia took serious umbrage with the coach’s flirtation with Baylor in January 2020, maybe a greater sin than the Hokies breaking a 15-year winning streak in the Commonwealth Cup under his watch. No fan base responds well to its coach playing the job market, but after Fuente succeeded a lifer who built the program outright, his wandering eye was received as a condemnation of Tech.

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“Even though not many people know Coach Beamer deeply, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people would tell you they know Coach Beamer,” Babcock said. “They have met him, they affiliate with him, because they want to know the head football coach.”

Babcock, born and raised in Harrisonburg, Va., also hired Radford native Mike Young as men’s basketball coach in 2019. But he has been wary of how native-son and former-assistant narratives can sour quickly if there aren’t results.

“These feel-good stories are great, but they have to produce, right?” Babcock said. “Sometimes that emotional tie can work both ways. I wasn’t just trying to create a throwback to the old days.”

Fans feel assured Pry will love them back by sticking around, in part because of how little interest he had shown in playing the job market throughout his career. Before Virginia Tech, the only head coaching jobs Pry considered were smaller schools at which he had worked as an assistant, including Louisiana and Georgia Southern. Otherwise, he was content as a well-compensated coordinator under Franklin. But in Virginia Tech, Pry’s familiarity from his graduate assistant days inspired him to imagine having the job.

“I always had an idea of what this place should look like and what it was for me,” he said. “I didn’t know what the plan would be if I was the head coach at Michigan State or Florida State. But I felt like I identified with this place and had a good idea.”

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