In the middle of the field, Frank Beamer was on his hands and knees, a riot going on around him. Up in the stands, his wife, Cheryl, thought her husband was having a heart attack.
It was November of 1989 and Virginia Tech had just lost 32-25 to Virginia at Scott Stadium. Words were exchanged at the final gun and a fight broke out.
Beamer, Tech's head coach, ran onto the field to break it up and caught an unintentional elbow from one of his own players, defensive end Jimmy Whitten. The blow knocked out his front right tooth. While students and players were swinging and punching each other, Beamer, Whitten, and Tech team physician Duane Lagan were on the ground looking for the tooth.
To fully appreciate what was going through Cheryl's mind, consider that her husband had suffered chest pains during an earlier game that season, at East Carolina; doctors had performed an angioplasty to relieve what was 90-95 percent blockage of an artery leading to his heart.
"I was down on the turf in Charlottesville thinking, 'This is a helluva thing,' " Beamer said. "We just got our butts kicked, people are swarming all around me, I'm on my hands and knees looking for my tooth and my wife thinks I'm dying.
"It seems funny now, but it wasn't funny then. Those were tough times." The scene typified Beamer's early years at Tech: A struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds. But he found his tooth.
A decade later, his football program would find its way to the National Championship game.
During those tough, early years, Beamer had a mantra: "Good things happen to good people. And we have good people at Virginia Tech." You just knew this wasn't a canned politician's line. The man really, truly believed those words. He was a Hokie through and through and wanted nothing more than to succeed at his alma mater.
He needed something to believe in because his dream job had turned into a nightmare. At the age of 40 he had become head coach at his alma mater, and this is what he faced: Scholarships cut by 10 a year. Stricter university-imposed academic standards for athletes. No football conference affiliation. And schedules vastly upgraded from Bill Dooley's previous regime.
He also had a tough act to follow, taking over a year after Tech had won the only bowl game in its modest history, a 25-24 victory over North Carolina State in the Peach.
"I didn't know about the NCAA sanctions when I took the job," Beamer said.
"I still would have taken it, but there were a couple of times when I thought, 'This thing might be tough to solve here.' " Then, his first week on the job, then-athletic director Dutch Baughman took him across campus for lunch with university officials.
"Before I had taken my first bite of salad they started telling me all the things wrong with the football program," Beamer said. "Twenty minutes later - I still hadn't taken my first bite of salad - I told them, 'hey, we're on the same side here.' "It was kind of an eye-opening experience."
His first year the Hokies were beset by key injuries, academic losses and struggled to grasp their new wide tackle six defense. They won two games.
The next season he was allowed to sign just 13 newcomers, had a freshman starting quarterback and played a schedule ranked the toughest in the nation. Tech won three games.
Each week after a loss, Beamer would face reporters and have to answer their questions. Often they weren't easy questions. But he never blamed a player for a loss and his faith never wavered.
And at least once every session he'd repeat his mantra.
"Good things happen to good people. And we have good people at Virginia Tech."
After four years, it appeared Beamer's positive philosophy was taking hold.
The Hokies put together back-to-back six-win seasons, including upsets of No. 9 West Virginia in Morgantown in 1989. The next year Tech lost four games after leading or holding a tie going into the final period, but beat No. 17 Virginia in the season finale.
Enthusiasm was high going into the 1991 season. The Sporting News predicted a bowl bid for the Hokies. But Beamer's team was working against a schedule that featured five consecutive road games against killer competition: North Carolina State, South Carolina, No. 6 Oklahoma, West Virginia and No. 1 Florida State. Tech later faced No. 16 East Carolina.
(And some people wonder why Beamer isn't one of those clamoring for the Hokies to upgrade their nonconference schedule. Hey, he's been there, done that.) Tech finished a disappointing 5-6. Then, the next season, the bottom fell out.
Good things might happen to good people, but after Beamer went 2-8-1 in 1992, a lot of people thought it might be good if the Hokies had a new football coach. To his credit, Tech AD Dave Braine stuck by Beamer. Braine knew he had a man of class and integrity. He didn't need a new head coach; he needed help for his incumbent one.
In a profession where your triumphs and failures are trumpeted on the sports pages and on television and on radio, where 80-hour weeks are the norm and there is no such thing as a day off from August to March, Beamer remained a bastion of class and good judgment.
"I can't say enough about him," said Cleveland Browns center Jim Pyne, one of Beamer's first big-name recruits. "One of the reasons I came to Tech was because of him. he is an honest man and he delivered on everything he told me when I was being recruited." So Braine stuck with Beamer, but they agreed staff changes must be made.
This wasn't as easy as it sounded. An intensely loyal man, Beamer was forced to fire men who had been with him at Murray State. Men who were teammates of his during their Virginia Tech playing days. Men who were his friends.
"It wasn't that they were bad coaches," Beamer said. "We just had a season where we were close but not over the top. Sometimes you just have to change something. It wasn't that the new guys we brought in were any better than the ones we lost."
New coaches on his staff for 1993 included Phil Elmassian, who took over as defensive coordinator; offensive line coach J.B. Grimes; tight ends coach Bryan Stinespring; and defensive ends coach Rod Sharpless. (Only one of those, Stinespring, remains on today's staff; Elmassian, ironically, left the Hokies for the University of Washington in 1995 because he "wanted to compete for the national championship.")
Beamer switched Terry Strock from defense to handle Tech's receivers. And he handed the offensive coordinator duties to quarterbacks coach Rickey Bustle.
Offensively, Beamer now had a much more efficient logistical system. Before, Steve Marshall - who left the staff to join SEC power Tennessee - doubled as offensive coordinator and line coach. It was probably a bit much to expect Marshall to call the right plays and coach five men during a game. With Bustle observing from above in the press box, Tech had an extension of the quarterback helping him with the plays. It made good sense.
The new arrangement clicked. The Hokies went 9-3 in 1993, beating Indiana in the Independence Bowl. The next year they went 8-4 and played Tennessee in the Gator Bowl. Then came two 10-win seasons and berths in the Sugar and Orange bowls. After a "down" 7-5 season in 1997, Tech bounced back to go 9-3 last year, three plays away from a perfect run. The Hokies crowned it with an impressive 38-7 win over Alabama in the Music City Bowl.
"This could be the start of something really big for us," Beamer said in Nashville. "Very few programs have a chance to change their status; you are what you are. But we have a chance to do that."
The rest is history. Tech ripped off 11 consecutive wins in 1999, won the Big East, finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in the country and earned a spot in the national championship game against No. 1 Florida State.
Even when things were at their worst, Beamer can't remember ever giving up hope. "Even when we were 2-8-1, I knew we could turn it around," he said. "I wasn't reading the newspapers or watching TV, so I probably didn't know how bad it was.
"I was just focusing on what I could do to get us over the hump." The turnaround had to be especially gratifying for him, after what he had experienced.
But he had been through tough times before.
Beamer grew up on a 70-acre farm in Fancy Gap, Va. In 1954, when he was seven years old, he used a push broom to help keep a pile of burning trash in place. When the job was done he returned the broom to the garage, unaware that its brushes were still smoldering. A spark ignited a can of nearby gasoline, which exploded in front of him. His 11-year old brother, Barrett, saved him by rolling him around on the ground, but Frank was left with burns on the right side of his neck, chest and his shoulders. Over the next few years he endured dozens of painful skin grafts and was left with permanent scarring.
Many people might be self-conscious about the scar. But Beamer, a proud, handsome man, wears it like a badge of honor, even to his advantage; it adds to his mystique. While the experience might partly explain his compassion, it certainly stands as a tribute to his grit and determination. He went on to become a star athlete at Hillsville High School and earned a football scholarship to Virginia Tech.
After graduation, Beamer rose quickly through the coach ranks. In 1972 he began working as a graduate assistant at the University of Maryland before moving on to The Citadel, first as an assistant and then as defensive coordinator. He became head coach at Murray State in 1981, where he compiled a 42-23-1 record before arriving at Tech in 1987.
Now, as the Bruce Springsteen song goes, "These are better days." Even in his wildest dreams, Beamer, 53, probably never imagined himself standing on a platform in the middle of a melee on Worsham Field, microphone in hand, addressing the sold-out Lane Stadium crowd after his Hokies had just secured their first 11-0 season.
"Standing up there and looking down on all these great players and coaches, I realized what a fun year it had been," Beamer said. "Then I looked around the stands and field and saw all of those Tech fans who had been dreaming of this day for so long, and I was just filled with so much pride and emotion."
The milestones kept on coming; on Dec. 9, USA Today featured him as the sports cover story. "Cheryl picked up that USA Today and told me, 'It's almost like this is another team. It's not us,' and I know what she means," Beamer said. "We've read about other teams in national publications for so long, and now it's happening to us."
Then the honors started pouring in. The Walter Camp Foundation named Beamer the national coach of the year. A few days later the Associated Press followed suit.
"Coach Beamer deserves everything he's getting," consensus All-America defensive end Corey Moore said. "Frank Beamer is the best coach in America.
There's absolutely no doubt in my mind." Moore himself won the Lombardi and Nagurski awards and was named national defensive player of the year. Redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Vick finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting. To top it all off, Beamer's team is set to play Florida State Jan. 4 for the National Championship.
It turns out he was wrong after all. Good things happen to good people? He should have said great.
-- Chris Colston
(The above article is reprinted from Lindy’s special commemorative edition "Sugar Time" magazine, recapping Virginia Tech’s undefeated season with articles, profiles, and game recaps. "Sugar Time" is available on newsstands and in grocery stores throughout the state of Virginia and can be purchased from TechLocker.com.)
STEPS UP THE LADDER
Frank Beamer is Virginia Tech's most successful coach, compiling a 13-year 88-59-2 record and three Big East titles. These are the five biggest days in the Hokies' climb to the top.
Feb. 5, 1991: The day it was announced Virginia Tech was joining the Big East Football Conference. It was the key step in opening the door to attract national level recruits, gain television exposure and obtain a bowl tie-in. None of Frank Beamer's success would have been possible without it.
Oct. 31, 1992: You might find it funny that a heartbreaking loss could be so important to a program. But this was the game that served as the last straw, so to speak. After watching Rutgers beat Tech 50-49 on a last second play, athletic director Dave Braine vowed that changes would be made to Tech's staff. Those changes led directly to a string of seven consecutive bowl appearances.
Sept. 11, 1993: The Hokies, coming off an embarrassing 2-8-1 record, had beaten Bowling Green 33-16 in their season opener. Next was a road game at Big East rival Pittsburgh, a team fresh from a 14-10 upset of Southern Mississippi. The game was considered a tossup. But Tech gained a school-record 500 yards on the ground and rolled to a 63-21 win. It set the tone for the rest of the season, which set the tone for Beamer's program.
Sept. 23, 1995: Beamer considers this game his program's turning point. It proved Tech could beat the big boys. The Hokies were 9 -point underdogs but defeated the vaunted Miami Hurricanes 13-7. Said longtime Tech assistant Billy Hite at the time: "That was the biggest win I've ever been a part of."
Oct. 16, 1999: Beamer had taken the Hokies to a new level, but they had never experienced anything like this. With ESPN's Gameday in town, Tech crushed Syracuse 62-0, making a statement that they were indeed a contender for not just a Big East title, but the national title as well.
Jim Alderson, best known for his biting political commentary on the A-Line email newsletter, also brings a unique, sarcastic, and well-informed perspective on college sports, particularly (1) Virginia Tech sports and (2) ACC sports. While Hokie fans currently have very little use for subject number 2, Alderson is an entertaining and informative columnist on subject number 1. For even more fun, visit Jim's A-Line home page.
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