BLACKSBURG, Va. — Frank Beamer had a heck of a time last Saturday trying to get into Atlanta’s Georgia Dome so he could watch his son, Shane, the special teams coordinator and tight ends coach at Georgia, and cheer on the Bulldogs. It had been more than four decades since Beamer last had to worry about security gates and metal detectors at a college football stadium or where to find team buses after the game so he could greet his son.
“Frank said, ‘I’ve never had so much trouble getting into a football game in my life,’ ” his wife, Cheryl, said with a laugh this week. “All he knew was ride in, get out and you’re there — well, there was none of that. We had to walk to the game from the hotel, so it was a different experience for him, being a fan. That’s for sure.”
Another different experience: The Beamers spent college football’s opening weekend away from a Virginia Tech game for the first time since 1986. The coach who drove his alma mater to national prominence retired at the end of last year after 29 seasons and 238 victories, tied for ninth in major college football history. Like so many milestones in Hokies fo otball, he helped make possible Saturday’s prime-time game against No. 17 Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway. But he will stand among, not before, an expected record crowd of more than 150,000. He will be not a coach but a beloved figurehead.
“I’m going to enjoy coming and watching, being a part of the proceedings down there,” Beamer said before ceding the limelight to his successor, Justin Fuente. “But I’m going to enjoy watching Justin do his thing. I think we’ve got an excellent coach to continue building Virginia Tech bigger and better.”
No one is revealing exactly what role Beamer, who turns 70 next month, will have in this weekend’s proceedings or whether he will make an appearance on ESPN’s Saturday morning broadcast of “College GameDay,” just that he will be there as a representative of Virginia Tech.
“He’s a big, big part of why we’re there, without a doubt,” said Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster, an assistant coach for Beamer’s entire tenure in Blacksburg. “He deserves to be there, and I hope ESPN has him up there on that podium talking GameDay and all that stuff because he needs to be a part of it.”
Beamer’s fingerprints are indeed all over the plans for the “Battle at Bristol,” the initial talks for which began in the late 1990s, around the same time Beamer first led Virginia Tech to national prominence.
The game was always going to be a perfect match of venue, occasion and fan bases, with Bristol sitting on Interstate 81 halfway between Tennessee and Virginia Tech’s campuses and many Volunteers and Hokies fans sharing a healthy interest in NASCAR.
Beamer, the face of the Hokies and a die-hard NASCAR fan raised near the Virginia-North Carolina border, was a natural spokesman. At the game’s official announcement in 2013, he told the media that other than Lane Stadium, Bristol was his favorite sporting venue in the world.
“Oh, I think I fit in perfectly with that whole crowd right there,” Beamer said this week. “I feel comfortable at Bristol Speedway, I can tell you that.”
Said Cheryl: “Well, he definitely loves NASCAR, my God. He’s driven on the track. He’s been in the pace cars. He’s started races at Charlotte and Richmond and Bristol. Denny Hamlin brought him up one year. He has a [race] suit and everything. Frank absolutely loves it. Because they’re his kind of people, just hardworking people that just appreciate you. No pretense about them.”
But Beamer’s desire to be on the sideline at Bristol, as well as a late-season trip to Notre Dame, wasn’t enough to make him hang on for another year. Late one night last season, after a quadruple-overtime loss to Duke dropped the Hokies to 3-5, he sat down next to Cheryl at the kitchen table and told her he would call it quits at the end of the year.
“I knew he would know when, and he did,” Cheryl said. “I think it was just the grind, the stress and the social media — because for his players, he would’ve never walked away. I think it was just the rest of it.”
Football legacy secured, the Beamers have enjoyed Frank’s dialed-back schedule of speaking engagements and coaching clinics. They spend a lot of time out of state nowadays, particularly in Georgia, where their children, Shane and Casey, reside. Last weekend, they were in Georgia instead of Blacksburg so they could be there for the birth of Casey’s second son, their fifth grandchild, and attend Georgia’s 33-24 win over North Carolina. They own a lake house an hour away from Shane’s family in Athens and a few hours away from Casey’s family in Columbus. There is time to visit Cheryl’s family in Richmond and time for Frank to golf.
His legacy remains in Blacksburg — in the new football offices, with the honorary jersey emblazoned with Beamer’s old Virginia Tech No. 25 given each Saturday to the Hokies’ special teams player of the week. Beamer stays connected. He called Foster and longtime defensive line coach Charley Wiles from the hospital the day before the season opener to wish them luck.
“That was really special for me,” Foster said, “that he would take the time to do that. Particularly because his daughter was getting induced in like two hours.”
But retirement has been an adjustment — Frank says more for Cheryl than him.
“Everybody said give it two years,” Cheryl said. “Well, I told them, I said, ‘I don’t want anything to happen to him, but I may kill him.’ He’s always had so many people — administrative assistants, the secretary, the trainers and everybody that catered to him — and now it’s just a team of one, and I don’t know if I can pick up all that slack.
“It’s been fun. It really has. But it is an adjustment. That’s all we’ve ever known for many, many years.”
The Beamers’ transition from being Virginia Tech’s first family has been gradual. Both say emotions crop up unexpectedly, such as when they attended the Hokies’ spring game — “It was just weird, and different,” Cheryl said — even though both agree nostalgia doesn’t tinge their daily lives.
Frank would like to work radio or television broadcasts this college football season should the opportunity present itself, but he doesn’t dwell on the fact that he won’t get to coach at Bristol.
This weekend, he is happy to be back serving his old purpose, in a way. How he sees it, he will be helping Athletic Director Whit Babcock expand Virginia Tech’s brand, even if it’s now under the watch of Fuente.
“Virginia Tech has been so good to me,” Beamer said. “I told Whit, I told Justin, ‘Anything I can do to help it grow bigger and better, give me a call.’
“That’s the way I feel, and that’s what I’m going to do this weekend. Anything they want me to do to represent the school, I’ll be there. I’ve always had a love affair with Virginia Tech. That’s not going to change.”