Frank Beamer puts VT on map
So, Frank Beamer, do you remember what your salary was during your first season as Virginia Tech's head coach?
"You'd have to ask my wife," says Beamer, speaking by phone from his office on the Blacksburg, Va., campus. "Back then I'd turn my check over to her and didn't know what I made. Today I turn it over to her and don't know what I made."
Now you know what Cheryl Beamer knows: $80,000 in 1987 about $2.28 million, plus bonuses, in 2012.
"A lot of places, they wouldn't have hung in there with me," says Beamer. "I went 2-8-1 in my sixth year. Most places you wouldn't survive. In today's college football, I don't think you'd be around."
As Beamer prepares for his 26th season at Virginia Tech (30, if you include his undergrad years as a Hokies cornerback), he's not only still around, but he's on top. No active Division I FBS coach has more victories (251), more tenure and more sweat equity at the same school. Or as Billy Hite, who has spent the past 34 seasons at Tech as an assistant coach or football administrator, puts it: "Frank Beamer is the front porch of this university, no ifs, ands or buts about it."
Beamer is as much a part of Virginia Tech as the signature HokieStone used throughout the campus. He has spoiled the place, leading Tech to 19 consecutive bowl appearances, including a BCS Championship Game appearance in the 1999 season. His teams have won 10 or more games in each of the past eight seasons, and he has four top-10 finishes in the past eight years and six in the past 13 years.
Not bad for a guy who was Tech's second choice.
The job was originally offered to then-Maryland coach Bobby Ross. Other candidates included Mack Brown of Tulane and a USFL coach named Steve Spurrier.
Of the 23 coaching changes made after the 1986 season (Spurrier to Duke, Bill Curry to Alabama, Larry Smith to USC, Dennis Erickson to Washington State, Ross to Georgia Tech, among others), Beamer's move from Murray State to Virginia Tech was a national afterthought. An 885-word Associated Press story detailing the Division I coaching turnover didn't mention Beamer until word 869. A brief Washington Post story quoted Beamer as saying, "It feels pretty doggone good to be home."
Nobody, including Beamer, thought he'd still be in Blacksburg 26 seasons later. "When Frank first got here, more people knew who I was than who he was," says Hite, the only coach Beamer retained from the previous staff. "Now he's stopped 25 times in an airport -- and he never turns down an autograph."
Hite once asked Beamer why he insisted on signing every autograph.
"Billy, you remember what it was like our first five, six years here?" said Beamer.
Beamer went 24-40-2 during those first six seasons. Virginia Tech's administration stood by him in the early years and now Beamer stands by Tech in the later years, turning down offers from Boston College and North Carolina in the past, and ignoring who knows how many feelers about other jobs.
Without putting too fine a point on it, Beamer is Virginia Tech's Joe Paterno, but without the drama. You think of Tech, you think of Beamer and, OK, Michael Vick. But guess who recruited Vick?
"The thing that kept me here is that there's not many places you can go in the country and change the status of the program," says Beamer. "Notre Dame is Notre Dame. Michigan is Michigan. Alabama is Alabama. Virginia Tech is not the same Virginia Tech it was 25 years ago. To see the place expand, the pride of the alumni base, the stadium improvements -- for me that was a hard thing to leave."
So he stayed and built a program that reflected his grinder personality, his sense of humility and family. If that sounds corny, then Beamer can live with the description. In fact, he takes it as a compliment.
It is a long-standing Beamer tradition that the wives and children of his assistant coaches join the staff for dinner each Tuesday of the season. And there's hardly a night that goes by during preseason practices that Beamer doesn't bring in a speaker to talk to his players about life lessons.
By the way, Beamer once declined to accept a raise until faculty members and university staff were eligible for raises of their own. "As poor as we were starting out and as good as we are now, none of it's gone to his head," Hite says.
Virginia Tech athletic director Jim Weaver, who played for Paterno and later coached on his Penn State staff, understands there's an expiration date on every coach. Beamer isn't there yet. Not even close.
But despite his legend status (there have been discussions about renaming a campus street next to the stadium "Beamer Boulevard"), no one is fully protected from the realities of college football in 2012. There are no more five-year rebuilding plans. More like three -- or else.
"I think the world is a little different," says Weaver. "I think expectations might be of a greater intensity today than they used to be. I think it's going to be harder to find the kind of tenure that the Beamers, the Paternos and [Bobby] Bowdens have had because of the expectations that are out there."
Don't bother telling Beamer about expectations. From his desk he can see the empty glass trophy case just outside his office. A small sign inside it reads, "Reserved For National Championship."
The Hokies haven't played for a national title since 1999, when Vick was a redshirt freshman and they lost to Bowden's Florida State team. It remains one of the very few things missing from Beamer's coaching checklist.
"Every loss is devastating here," he says, "like the bottom of the Earth is dropping out. We've had success. People here want more success. I hope people know how hard it is to win 10 games. We're going to try to give them a little bit more."
Beamer didn't record his 10th victory at Virginia Tech until his third season. He didn't have a 10-win season until his ninth. He knows the difference between winning and losing, especially these days, is as thin as a strand of hair.
But no matter what happens, he knows he's always had a crush on Virginia Tech. And Virginia Tech is crazy about him, too.
"He's one of the greatest men I've ever met in my entire life," says Hite. "Virginia Tech wasn't on the map until Frank Beamer got here."
Not long ago, Beamer returned to Murray, Ky., for a wedding. He turned to his wife and said, "Cheryl, it's been 25 years since we lived here. Twenty-five years."
The meaning of it all wasn't lost on Beamer. "When you're enjoying things, time really does go fast," he says.
Beamer, 65, is still having a gas. Virginia Tech opens its season Sept. 3 at Lane Stadium against Georgia Tech. He can already hear Metallica's "Enter Sandman" -- the Hokies' entrance anthem -- on the stadium sound system.
"It doesn't get any better than that," he says. "That never gets old. Everybody in the stadium is jumping. Students, alumni, fans everybody together."
"I'm jumping on the inside."