As the Sun Bowl approached last December, the reward for an 8–4 regular season, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer offered a rare moment of candor regarding his future. The resignations of Texas’ Mack Brown and Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe, two of his contemporaries and closest friends in the coaching business, weighed heavily on his mind.
“It just kind of reminds you that nothing is certain about this business,” the 67-year-old Beamer said. “I’m very sensitive to staying around too long. …
“It’s just the reality of the business. I understand it. I haven’t seriously thought of (retiring), but I’ve certainly thought about it. But I feel good about things right now. Our recruiting is going great. I like my coaching staff very much. Things are really very positive right now.”
There are few things tougher to pull off in football than the graceful exit of a long-time coach. Joe Paterno’s end was ugly at Penn State. Bobby Bowden’s wasn’t as scandalous but still came too late at Florida State.
With those situations as a backdrop, the question now facing Virginia Tech is this: Can Beamer, the winningest active Division I coach and about to begin his 28th season in Blacksburg, pull the Hokies out of a two-season swoon and get back to competing for ACC championships?
Beamer is partly a victim of his own success. Virginia Tech was the standard bearer for consistency for much of the 2000s, winning at least 10 games in eight straight seasons from 2004-11. But the bottom has fallen out recently. Years of offensive indifference and the decline of Tech’s play on special teams — not many people have been using the term “Beamerball” of late — finally caught up to the Hokies, putting the program at a crossroads.
A 7–6 mark in 2012, when Tech nearly missed a bowl game for the first time in two decades, prompted an overhaul to the offensive coaching staff. The Hokies went 8–5 last year on the back of a top-five defense and could have gotten back to 10 wins if not for several turnover-plagued games.
Still, 15 wins in two years and no ACC Championship Game appearances — amazingly, the longest drought the Hokies have had since the inception of the title game in 2005 — aren't what folks in Blacksburg are accustomed to.
“We’re used to winning 10 games a year, and we haven’t done that,” running backs coach Shane Beamer says. “Not to justify it, but at some places if you win eight, you win seven, they’re giving everyone contract extensions and having celebrations. That’s not our expectation here at Virginia Tech. Our expectation each year, why these players came here, is to win championships.”
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Those around the program — and even former players like running back Kevin Jones, who was on the committee that recently hired new athletic director Whit Babcock — are confident that the last two years have only been a brief hiccup, although the Hokies’ task of reclaiming their spot atop the ACC they dominated for so long is made tougher by Florida State’s resurgence and Clemson’s recent run.
The hope comes from the changes Virginia Tech made on offense prior to the 2013 season. After years of underachieving on that side of the ball, Beamer revamped his staff, going outside the program to hire former Temple and Auburn offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and two more offensive assistants (and since then, another one). For Beamer — who hadn’t hired an outside coordinator since 1994 and, it was reported later, considered calling upon old pal Ralph Friedgen to run the offense — it was a bold step, one outside his comfort zone.
“I think what he did last year as far as the coaching change showed that the guy still has a burning desire to go win a national championship and see this program continue to grow,” says defensive coordinator Bud Foster, whose consistently strong group has put the Hokies in the mix for two decades now. “You just don’t do that if you don’t have fire. … We’re not going to be complacent here. I think that’s a telltale sign.”
While Year 1 under Loeffler wasn’t a wild success — Tech actually went backward in the national rankings in total yardage, from 81st to 101st, and had one of the worst rushing attacks in Beamer’s tenure — it provided a starting point in modernizing the Hokies’ offense, utilizing multiple shifts and more complex schemes than Virginia Tech had used in the past.
The issue now is talent. The offense lacks difference-makers of the recent past like Tyrod Taylor, David Wilson and Ryan Williams, the result of several subpar recruiting classes, although Loeffler and Co. have gone about fixing that on the recruiting trail. In the new staff’s first full recruiting cycle, it signed 16 offensive players to replenish the ranks, the biggest influx of talent the program has had on that side of the ball in years.
In addition to a pair of freshman quarterbacks, Andrew Ford and Chris Durkin, Loeffler convinced Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer to join the Hokies, adding to the competition to replace three-year starter Logan Thomas.
“I see the young talent,” Shane Beamer says. “You look around this room and there’s a lot of young faces of guys that have three years or more of eligibility left. And our talent level hasn’t been probably what it needs to be the last couple years in certain positions, and we’ve known that. We’ve tried hard to get it right in recruiting and I feel like we have.”
A significant turnaround might be a matter of time and timing — time for those recruits to mature and timing to get all the parts lined up. This season, the Hokies have to retool on defense after losing seven senior starters and have no known entity at quarterback, despite an older offensive line that could start as many as four seniors. Next year, when an experienced quarterback might be in place and the defense is a year older, the offensive line could be starting an overhaul.
Will Beamer still be on the sideline by then? His current contract runs through 2016, and those closest to him say he hasn’t slowed down with age or taken on a figurehead role that many assume is the case.
“I’m his son, and we’ve never once talked about how long he’s going to coach,” Shane Beamer says. “Not one time. … I don’t see him slowing down at all.
“Anything you need him to do recruiting-wise, he does it. ‘Hey, I need you to call these 10 high school coaches today.’ The next day, he’s got it done. We just played Georgia Tech on a Thursday, he’s in Richmond all day Friday going to high school football games. If he was slowing down, I think he’d say, ‘You know, I think I’d rather just stay home and watch college football all day.’ But he doesn’t. Whatever needs to be done, he does.
“He sees the youth. The youth on this team keeps us all young. And I know he’s excited about the next step.”
Written by Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) of the Roanoke Times for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 ACC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.