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Decision to keep Beamer proved to be the right call

- - Friday, September 2, 2011

BLACKSBURG — Dave Braine walked into Burruss Hall that Monday morning ready to lobby for a football coach who had few allies. It was a decision Braine knew could end up costing him his own job. Two days earlier, Virginia Tech finished the 1992 season 2-8-1 by losing to rival Virginia for the fifth time in six chances under Frank Beamer.

As Beamer walked off Lane Stadium's field with his 15-year-old son Shane, a fan leaned over the railing. "Bye-bye, Frank," he shouted. Earlier that fall, after a loss at Louisville, a man called Beamer's house. His 10-year-old daughter Casey answered. The man "just unloaded on her, telling her what a bad coach her dad was," Shane recalled.

Braine heard grumbling, too. Every Saturday morning, he met a dozen guys for coffee at Hardee's on Main Street. The conversation often turned, Braine said, to "maybe I needed to make a change in the football program and I wasn't smart enough to do it." The demand for Beamer's firing became so incessant that Braine stopped attending church.

Instead, he bought doughnuts on Sunday mornings and brought them to the football coaches' meetings, where he listened to Beamer talk with his staff. Braine, a former assistant coach at Georgia Tech and Virginia, wanted to evaluate Beamer, so he sat in Beamer's office after the meetings and asked him to explain his game-planning decisions.

Braine always thought Beamer gave the right answers. Moreover, Braine admired how Beamer never seemed upset or intimidated that his boss questioned his coaching. So Braine was prepared to defend Beamer that Monday morning when he walked into school president James McComas' office. Braine wasn't sure what to expect, and had no idea what he would do if McComas told him Beamer was finished.

McComas began the meeting by addressing his athletic director the way he always did.

"Mr. AD," McComas said, "do we need to make a change in our football coach?"

"No, sir," Braine replied. "He's a good coach and we need to give him some help."

The meeting lasted 10 minutes, and Braine left shocked by its brevity and outcome. Beamer would not only stay, but get more money Braine thought the coach needed to pay assistants. McComas never asked Braine, "Are you sure?" Others would question the move, but Braine said his decision to stand behind Beamer "was not tough at all."

"I had a great deal of confidence after spending that period of time every Sunday with him," Braine said. "It was probably 10 or 11 the most important Sundays in Frank Beamer's life, because it basically saved his job. And look where he is today."

Beamer, 64, is about to begin his 25th season at his alma mater. A homespun icon, Beamer turned his emphasis on game-changing defensive and special teams into a nationally known brand — Beamerball — and transformed Tech from a backwoods program to a fixture on the college football landscape.

His 240 wins are the ninth-most in Division I-A history. He hasn't missed a bowl game since 1992. He coached in the national championship game after the 1999 season. He is a no-doubt College Football Hall of Fame inductee.

Tech's athletic department was about $4 million in debt when he arrived in 1987. Last year, the department made $7.8 million and the football program profited $14.8 million.

When that fan heckled Beamer out of Lane Stadium in 1992, Beamer's record at Tech was 24-40-1 and the stadium sat 52,500 — and rarely sold out. Since then, Beamer's record is 174-55-1, and Lane now holds 66,233. Saturday's opener against Appalachian State will be Tech's 82nd consecutive home sellout.

"When I took the job, you were trying to survive," Beamer said. "I don't think I ever really considered: OK, I'd like to stay here 25 years."

Beamer speaks in simple terms because he was raised in a simple time and place — the 1940s and '50s in Fancy Gap, a map dot just on the Virginia side of the North Carolina state line. Every fall, several families gathered on one of their farms to slaughter hogs. Beamer and his older brother, Barnett, were responsible for hauling away tubs of innards.

Beamer's mother, Herma, was a teacher in the local one-room schoolhouses. His father, Raymond, was a maintenance engineer for the highway department. They owned 70 acres and raised dairy cows, beef cattle, hogs and chickens. Like most families in Fancy Gap, that's how Herma, Raymond and their four kids got their milk, meat and eggs.

After chores, Frank and Barnett played one-on-one football in the yard. They wore coats with wide fur collars for shoulder pads and winter hats with pull-down earflaps for helmets. Barnett, five years older than Frank, spaced out two sticks. "You've got to run between those sticks," Barnett would say, "and I'm gonna tackle you when you come through here."

Frank sometimes fussed after getting hit, but always popped back up. He seemed to gravitate toward contact. As a toddler, he plowed his tricycle into the screen down, swinging it open and sending him onto the back porch, down the concrete steps and over the handlebars. When he was about 5, he lost his balance in the back seat of the car, grabbed the door handle and fell out into a ditch alongside a gravel road.

By the late 1950s, Frank was a teenager who had spent most of three years in the hospital after suffering serious burns as a 7-year-old during a trash-burning accident.

There wasn't much to do in Fancy Gap, besides the occasional weenie roast at the Methodist church the Beamers attended. So Frank and Barnett jumped at the chance to attend Hokies football games with their uncle, Sharrell Allen, who graduated from Tech. They sat on the embankment at open-ended Miles Stadium — Frank's introduction to Tech football.

"We were just in awe because we were even going somewhere," Barnett said.

Frank eventually became a good enough player that Tech offered him a scholarship for its 1965 recruiting class. He accepted on the spot.

"I was afraid if they got off the phone and had time to think about it, they might take it back," he said.

When Gov. Gerald Baliles spoke at Tech's 1987 commencement, he blasted its athletic department.

"I expect extracurricular activities to have a place, and to be kept in their place," he said.

In addition to the department's debt, Beamer's predecessor, Bill Dooley (also the athletic director), broke NCAA rules by awarding too many scholarships and sued the school on his way out. That October, the NCAA eliminated 10 scholarships from the football team for 1988 and 1989, and reduced its recruiting class size by 13 in '88 and five in '89.

After the sanctions were announced, Beamer called them "unfair," but it didn't matter. He had to deal with the complex fallout, as the most prominent coach in an athletic department whose multifold problems worried many at Tech.

"Dire is a good word," said Paul Torgersen, the College of Engineering dean at the time, who was Tech's president from 1993 to 2000.

The athletic director who hired Beamer in December 1986 first targeted Bobby Ross, who had just left Maryland. Dale Baughman even asked Ross whom he would hire as an assistant head coach. Ross immediately said Beamer, who worked for Ross at The Citadel from 1973 to 1977.

When Ross later cooled on the job, he recommended Beamer, then Murray State's head coach.

"It was an incredible endorsement from someone I had enormous respect for," Baughman said.

Baughman interviewed Beamer and loved his humble and comfortable demeanor, his simple approach.

"He didn't come in trying to sell himself," Baughman said. "He wasn't pushy."

But Beamer had plenty of selling to do when he arrived. Tech was an independent that attracted little interest locally, let alone nationally.

Braine, who became the athletic director in 1988, personally distributed tickets at elementary schools on Friday afternoons to boost attendance at games. Assistant coach Bud Foster was once asked during a recruiting trip to Philadelphia, "Are you guys I-A or I-AA?" Foster came with Beamer from I-AA Murray State, and based on Tech's talent alone, he understood why someone might wonder.

"We had better players at Murray State," Foster said recently.

But Beamer weathered the early lean years, and after McComas kept him following the 1992 season, Beamer revamped his staff by firing three assistants. This was his chance to chase his dream for the Hokies that few others shared. In the late 1980s, he told a recruit during a home visit that Tech would eventually play for the national title.

"I almost fell out of my chair when he said that," said assistant Billy Hite.

Said Beamer's brother, Barnett: "Somewhere along the line, Frank became a bigger dreamer than the rest of the family."

The ultimate dream — the national title — is still out there. But Beamer took Tech to places that once seemed unreachable largely because he made his assistants want to stay. And he did it by relying on the personality he got from his father, a reserved man who never tried to dominate a room by blurting out his opinion.

"It's kind of always been my nature that I wanted people to enjoy working here," Beamer said. "Some places, [assistant] coaches coach out of fear. I never wanted to be that way."

So he got raises for his assistants when he declined North Carolina's advances after the 2000 season. He had money set aside in his contract in the mid-1990s to take all of his staff members and their spouses on a trip after bowls. (Foster's favorite moment is seeing Hite parade around in a leopard-print Speedo in the Dominican Republic.)

For 25 years, Beamer, and everybody and everywhere around him, gathered lasting memories and markers of what he has done.

There was the call he got from President Bill Clinton after the 1999 national championship game. There are the palatial facilities Tech's players now enjoy. There is the sign in Fancy Gap that welcomes you to "Coach Frank Beamer Country."

And posted in the kitchen of a Blacksburg home where Dave Braine retired with his wife, there is a note from Beamer that arrived this spring: "I just want to thank you for everything you've done for my career."

Read Darryl Slater's blog at vteffect.com