By Larry Bisagni
At some point in his or her life, a writer will have the opportunity to pen a story that hits particularly close to home. That said; I ask you to forgive my biases in advance.
You see, in 2000, I left ESPN Radio in Washington, D.C. to work for WSLS in Roanoke, Virginia. At barely 25, I had a chance to work on a show called Virginia Tech Sports Today for the local NBC affiliate.
While the showstopper for me was being able to cover a phenom every week named Michael Vick, it isn’t a stretch to say that the primary reason that happened is Frank Beamer.
This nearly didn’t happen. During his redshirt year, Vick considered changing positions from quarterback to wide receiver, but Beamer would have none of it. The coach sat down with his homesick young prodigy and told him he had the tools to become a good receiver, but with his arm, his legs, as well as a 3.3 GPA, he also had the tools become a great quarterback. Vick would go on to become the first African-American quarterback to be the number one overall pick, and along with Steve Young, become a pseudo-godfather of the super-freaky athletic quarterback.
When Beamer announced his retirement this month, I wasn’t surprised, yet it still stopped me in my tracks to ponder the life and career of the most important figure in the history of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
There will never be another Frank Beamer.
What he means to Virginia Tech, Southwest Virginia, and the Commonwealth as a whole goes beyond what I could possibly cover here.
Beyond 235 wins at the helm of his beloved Alma mater.
Beyond taking down the blue-blooded in-state rival Virginia 17 of the last 20 meetings.
And well beyond the gridiron.
Beamer is the hometown boy that was destined to do well. Hailing from Carroll County, he would go on to play cornerback for Tech, during some of the most turbulent times in American history.
After a few GA gigs and a stint as the head coach at Murray State, Beamer took over the reins at Tech in 1986, at a time when the Hokies were regional at best; an afterthought for many a recruit, and not affiliated with a conference. The legacy of Virginia Tech football consisted of Bruce Smith, career backup QB Don Strock, and little else. In fact, Tech was primarily known as a basketball school at the time.
Over the next three decades, that changed. Slowly and deliberately, but dramatically. While other schools went through coach after coach, ripping up blueprints and starting from scratch, Beamer was toiling away, building a program that brick by brick would become a crown jewel of college football in the 21st century. Blacksburg was converted from college football outpost to an annual College Game Day destination for ESPN. Lane Stadium expanded. Facilities were constructed. Roads widened. Hotels shot up overnight, not to mention student selectivity. Tech went from an Independent, to taking on the Big East and developing a passionate blood rivalry with conference heavyweight Miami, to becoming the toast of the ACC.
Today, gaining admission to Tech is no duck walk. That tends to happen when you have a prestigious academic reputation coupled with a winning athletic program.
And it isn’t a stretch to say that the primary reason is Frank Beamer.
I truly believe that the manner in which Beamer treated people was at the heart of his success on and off the field. With us in the media, Beamer never big timed anyone. From the rock stars like Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit to the local county newspaper beat writers, Beamer always saw to it that all the questions were answered thoroughly during press conferences. In my three years, I certainly heard the coach get asked a few questions that I would have deemed foolish, yet he answered each of them politely and in an articulate manner.
This was also indicative of why Beamer could recruit any player from any walk of life. Nobody related as well or better to such a diverse group of kids than Coach Beamer. I don’t mean used-car salesman nonsense, or some other phony baloney. When Frank Beamer talked with recruits, he talked about life, getting an education, family, philosophy, what they were into, and so many things beyond the gridiron. This allowed him to recruit studious athletes such as Andre’ Davis, preacher’s sons like Lee Suggs, the wealthy suburbs of Northern Virginia, the inner city of Richmond, the rough and tumble country boys out of Southwest Virginia, and the kids out of the projects in the Hampton Roads/Tidewater region. And he successfully got them all on the same page, year after year. From Bath County to Baltimore, Beamer was universally respected when he came calling.
The wins and BCS games got him in the living room with anyone.
The sincerity and honesty got him the prospect.
That’s how he put 143 players (and counting) in the NFL; ten of whom were first-round picks.
If there is one undeniably quantifiable testament to what parents thought of sending their son to play for him in Blacksburg, it’s this: parents trusted Frank Beamer enough to send another brother to play for him.
Not a handful of times.
Not a dozen.
Yes, twenty-five sets of brothers played for him, which has to be some sort of Division I-A record.
Today, Tech can recruit a kid from anywhere, provide the finest training facilities, and give them everything they will need to succeed, not to mention the privilege of playing before the most loyal, passionate fan base I have ever seen at any level. Trust me, there aren’t many experiences in American sports quite like Lane Stadium. It isn’t the biggest venue, but it is the best, and Beamer’s fingerprints are all over it. The unbridled enthusiasm and love showering down from 66,000 strong. A diverse sea of races and backgrounds greeting the Hokies coming out of the tunnel to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” at Lord-knows-how-many decibels is the envy of the NCAA. I haven’t taken it in firsthand in over a decade, but it’s just as vivid to me now as it was in 2003. Thinking about it clenches my teeth and gets my heart rate up. It is an experience that belongs on the bucket list of every college football fan.
Sure, it wasn’t always a Hollywood story. There were differences behind closed doors, which led to Beamer flirting with taking his whistle elsewhere at various times. I am aware that his people also had covert preliminary discussions with the Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins at various points, but his heart never strayed from Southwest Virginia. He almost left Tech for North Carolina in 2002, but this never came to fruition. In the end, I think Michael Jordan himself could have chauffeured Beamer to Chapel Hill in a Brinks truck and it might not have been enough.
Clearly, the apex of Beamer’s coaching career was the 2000 BCS Championship against Florida State, which saw the Vick-led Hokies ahead in the final quarter of the game. But Beamer’s finest moment would come in the aftermath of April 16, 2007. Providing a steady hand to a region that had just been rocked by an unspeakable tragedy, Beamer took his leadership from the gridiron to the entire Hokie Nation; a community that was shaken to its core, but never broken.
Beamer has always said that nobody would have to tell him when it was time for him to exit stage left. And once again, it feels like Beamer intuitively got it right. There was no Joe Paterno nightmare, nor a Bear Bryant or Bobby Bowden scenario, where the goodbye tour seemingly goes on for a decade. Yes, Frank Beamer is larger than life in Blacksburg and always will be, but walking away as he is will allow closure for everyone, and gives him the chance to write the next chapter of his life on his terms, which is so richly deserved.
To this day, I keep some Hokie gear in my wardrobe, and occasionally wear the familiar Chicago maroon and orange to the gym. If I’m headed out somewhere early in the morning, I’ll reach for a VT hat from time to time. Invariably I’m asked whether I went to Tech. While I respond with a no, I proudly follow it up with at the fact that Virginia Tech is the school that I love more than any university to which I didn’t pay tuition.
And it isn’t a stretch to say that the primary reason is Frank Beamer.
Thank you for everything, Coach. There will never be another like you.