A change in the weather was brewing across the state of Virginia last November, on Black Friday at Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium. The heat was about to dissipate on Virginia’s Mike London, and be turned up on Tech’s Frank Beamer.
With 2:55 left in the annual battle for the Commonwealth Cup, Virginia took a 20–17 lead. The Cavaliers appeared on the verge of beating the Hokies for the first time in a decade, qualifying for a bowl game, and easing the pressure on London.
Just two days before, London had received a vote of confidence from athletic director Craig Littlepage, who announced that the long-embattled coach would be back in 2015, no matter the outcome. To some, it seemed premature. But with the game winding down and Virginia on top, Littlepage looked prescient.
A Virginia win wasn’t to be, however. The Hokies moved 75 yards in just three plays to stun the Cavaliers and establish the coaching narratives for the 2015 season, in both Blacksburg and Charlottesville.
Tech’s win extended Beamer’s bowl streak to 22 years and quieted some of the growing skepticism about his fitness to continue to lead what he’d built in 28 years with the Hokies. After a victory over Cincinnati in the Military Bowl, athletic director Whit Babcock broke a season-long silence and clarified where things stood with the 68-year-old coach.
The bottom line was that Babcock was satisfied with Beamer’s plan for reversing a three-year decline and returning to ACC title contention. As the leader in FBS wins among active coaches, Beamer had earned the right to try to turn things around.
“We have high expectations here, and the guy who’s our coach created them,” Babcock told reporters.
Beamer certainly did, playing for the national title in 1999, winning at least 10 games in every season from 2004-11, and claiming four ACC titles during that stretch. The Hokies are 22–17 the past three seasons, though, and have entered a delicate phase in their aging coach’s tenure. Could an icon have lost his edge? Overstayed his welcome? Babock emphasized that there was “never a day” in the 2014 season when Beamer’s job was in jeopardy. But he and Beamer agree that improvement is needed — and soon.
“There were no ultimatums issued, no magic numbers issued,” Babcock says. “I support Coach, and I think we’re going to be a lot better next year.”
Littlepage expressed similar sentiments when announcing that London would be back. He said he’d seen signs of progress in “many areas” in 2014.
“I trust the plan Mike has in place and believe his leadership provides the best opportunity for Virginia football to be successful in the future,” he said.
Clearly, it’s a crucial season for both of the Commonwealth’s ACC coaches. But the similarities end there. Beamer is on firmer ground and seems better positioned to write his own ending. For London, this year is make or break.
Babcock says he wanted to see if Beamer was “ready to get back in the saddle and dig” after a wearying up-and-down season. The coach had throat surgery in December, leaving the day-to-day work of bowl preparation to his assistants and coaching the Military Bowl from the press box.
Beamer lost his voice for a bit, but not his drive. He said he was back to full strength for spring practice and feeling refreshed.
“When you get out there and you’re not a part of it, you kind of start thinking how much you want to be a part of it,” he said in his pre-spring press conference.
Last season was humbling and exasperating. At times — like after a 30–6 loss to Miami — Beamer appeared to be campaigning for his job, citing his team’s youth and pointing to brighter days ahead. The same team that beat eventual national champ Ohio State lost six of its next nine, including four out of five at home, and bottomed out in a 6–3 double-overtime defeat at Wake Forest in which the offense scratched out a season-low 254 yards.
The Hokies were decimated by injuries on both sides of the ball. Tailbacks Shai McKenzie and Trey Edmunds went down, as did cornerback Brandon Facyson and defensive tackle Luther Maddy.
Still, the defense held up better. An offense that struggled all year took much of the blame. The Hokies ranked 96th in total offense and 98th in turnovers lost and sacks allowed. Quarterback Michael Brewer was inconsistent, the offensive line was often ineffective and big plays were scarce.
Third-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler has promised improvement, saying that this is the season when familiarity should kick in, and a leap forward can happen.
With most of last year’s offense back, the Hokies could indeed be better. Beamer is counting on it. Despite last season’s struggles, he called the Military Bowl win one of his proudest moments at Tech, considering the adversity the team faced.
As for Beamer’s long-term plans, Babcock says he and the coach have not discussed much beyond 2015. Beamer’s contact runs through 2019, when he’ll be 72.
“We’ll know it when we know it,” is all Babock will say about a possible retirement date for Beamer.
London hasn’t earned the luxury of leaving on his own terms. After finishes of 4–8, 2–10 and 5–7, his stay on the proverbial hot seat enters its third season. The Cavaliers were 2:55 away from changing the storyline, at least for one offseason. Virginia couldn’t close things out, however, either in the game or the season. A 4–2 start provided hope that a program dogged by inconsistency and meltdowns at inopportune times might have turned a corner. But Virginia went 1–5 in the final six games, and old questions about the Cavaliers’ preparation and London’s game management surfaced again.
A late drive in a loss at Duke got mired in miscommunication, with a harried timeout, and then a delay of game penalty. A week later vs. North Carolina, Virginia blew a coverage on a routine pass route, was caught napping on an onside kick, and set up the Tar Heels’ winning field goal with a penalty for having 12 players on the field.
The usual distracting chatter followed Virginia into November. Littlepage’s statement didn’t do much to quiet it, and London missed an opportunity in Blacksburg on a frigid Friday night.
“I feel very thankful and humble about the fact that I’ll be the head coach of this team next season,” he said prior to spring practice. “You can speak to the players about how they felt. I’m very indebted to President (Teresa) Sullivan and Craig Littlepage, and very respectful of the job that I have to do.”
Lauded for his ability to connect with players as a recruiter, London retains the loyalty of the team. When the heat was on last year, many players said they considered him a father figure and were playing to save his job.
“He’s a genuine guy,” cornerback Demetrious Nicholson says. “He sticks to his word. His door is always open to talk about anything. He has that great relationship with players that makes you want to play for him.”
London’s teams have done well in the classroom and the community. He’s a one-man wave of positivity, always stressing the bigger picture of life and education and rarely letting any pressure he’s feeling show — perhaps because he’s known real pressure outside the gridiron.
Before he got into coaching, he worked as a detective in Richmond, Va. One night, a suspect whom London had cornered in an alley after a chase pointed a gun at his head. The man pulled the trigger, but the gun didn’t go off.
Years later, London donated bone marrow to help save the life of his then-7-year-old daughter, who had a rare blood disorder.
That’s not to say he downplays the importance of what happens between the lines.
“It’s important that we win football games,” he says. “It’s important that we perform.”
Heading into his sixth season overall, and his third with a revamped staff, London insists that the team is on the right path. The administrators who granted him another year did him no favors with the schedule, however. With UCLA, Boise State and Notre Dame on the slate, the challenge is daunting.
With significant losses from last year’s team on both sides of the ball, a window may have closed on the best chance to turn things around. And with just two years remaining on his contract, the cost of buying London out won’t be as steep as it’s been the past two years.
Nicholson says the players have learned to ignore the chatter about their coach’s uncertain status.
“We don’t really worry about whether Coach is getting fired,” he says. “We just focus on our goals at hand and trying to take care of business.”
Unless Virginia greatly exceeds expectations, players will have to spend another long season trying to tune out the noise.
-by Ed Miller, the Virginian-Pilot