- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 25, 2004

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Call it Frank Beamer’s series of unfortunate events.

This picture ends in the Sugar Bowl, where Beamer’s Virginia Tech Hokies face unbeaten and third-ranked Auburn on Jan. 3.

The script didn’t seem nearly so promising in June 2003, when the Hokies left the Big East Conference and forced their way into the ACC.

The Hokies’ Big East swan song season turned into a swan dive: Virginia Tech lost four of its final five games and finished fourth in the conference and out of the national rankings for the first time since 1997.

A 52-49 loss to California in the Insight Bowl further clouded the ACC forecast for the Hokies.

“To have the letdowns we did the last couple of years is disappointing,” said Bud Foster, the defensive coordinator who has been with Beamer as a player or coach dating to their Murray State days 25 years ago.

The letdowns got worse after the season ended.

Cornerback DeAngelo Hall and running back Kevin Jones, two of the team’s brightest stars, left school early for the NFL.

Quarterback Marcus Vick was suspended for the season after pleading no contest to a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Starting running back Mike Imoh was suspended for three games for his involvement in the incident.

Cedric Humes, Imoh’s backup, suffered a broken leg in spring practice.

The Hokies’ backfield looked so empty that Justin Hamilton, a converted wide receiver, started at tailback.

The troubles were noticed across the country: The Hokies were not ranked in any preseason poll for only the second time since 1992 and were picked to finish sixth in the ACC.

Beamer and his staff set about to lower expectations for what has been one of the top programs in the country.

“We handled things a little different this year,” Beamer said. “We never talked about bowls.”

A season-opening loss to top-ranked Southern California didn’t encourage talk of bowl prospects. Neither did the Hokies’ performance three games later, when Brandon Pace’s field goal sailed wide right as time expired to ensure a 17-16 loss to N.C. State.

At that point — 2-2 overall and 1-1 in the conference — Beamer’s decision not to talk about bowl possibilities looked pretty smart, and the chances of reversing the slide looked pretty slim. Virginia Tech’s old Big East nemesis, sixth-ranked West Virginia, was up next.

Fans began to believe a preseason prediction by a local newspaper columnist that Virginia Tech would never win an ACC title in any sport.

But despite the string of failures and unfortunate events, something was happening. Beamer remained optimistic, the coaching staff never lost direction and the players stayed focused and disciplined.

“It doesn’t matter what’s happening; he’s so even keel,” said Billy Hite, who coaches the running backs. “I’ve been through some good times, and I’ve been through some bad times with him, but Frank Beamer’s the same every day.”

Senior quarterback Bryan Randall had yet to beat the Mountaineers in two tries as a starter. But Randall threw for 192 yards, safety Vince Fuller returned a blocked field goal 74 yards for Tech’s only touchdown and Pace kicked four field goals. Imoh, back from suspension, rushed for 115 yards on 30 carries.

The resulting 19-13 victory gave the Hokies confidence to win close games against good teams and put Virginia Tech on an eight-game winning streak that ultimately gave the Hokies the ACC title.

“To come back and win the conference championship in our first year and to do it in a conference as competitive as the ACC is a real sense of pride,” said Beamer, who this season guided Virginia Tech to its 12th consecutive bowl game. “I’ll take the 10 wins we got cause we had a chance to lose about six or seven of those games.”

Said defensive end Darryl Tapp: “We didn’t come in [to the league] just to be a member. We wanted to come in and win the entire thing, so we definitely took that approach.”

Randall, who nearly lost his job to Vick, rescued his senior season, capturing ACC player of the year and offensive player of the year honors. In the same week, Beamer was named Sports Illustrated’s coach of the year and voted ACC coach of the year.

“I’ve been looking for this position for four years,” Randall said of the BCS bid. “To finally do it on my last go-round, I’m excited. I know it’s a one in a lifetime chance to be in a position like this. This opportunity doesn’t come to everybody.”

The ninth-ranked Hokies (10-2, 7-1) broke practice for the holidays last week, savoring what they had accomplished and anticipating the challenge ahead in the Sugar Bowl.

“I was telling Coach the other day that this was one of the best years of my life, probably the best year,” said cornerback Eric Green, a Florida native who became his family’s first college graduate when he walked Friday.

Meanwhile, Beamer’s eternal optimism awaits a happy ending for a season prefaced by a series of unfortunate events.

“It’s been a good ride,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s not over.”

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