Retiring on your own terms

I have to admit that as much as I have written about Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer and his future at the school, the announcement on Sunday that Coach Beamer is retiring after 29 seasons at the end of this year still hits me as hard to believe.

In 1992, his 6th team had just finished a 2-9 season in which one win was over FCS James Madison.  At most schools, that would have been the end of his run and he’d have been fired.  Certainly in this modern era of football, he may never have come close to coaching 6 years at the school.  Now a days you get 3 or 4 at the most before the big boosters who pay such things, donate the money for your buyout and send you packing.

Instead, he made some staff changes, signed a player from Lynchburg named Cornell Brown which led to improved recruiting and complete domination of the Tidewater area of Virginia where frankly most of the best players in the Commonwealth of Virginia reside, and in 1993 the school went on a run that peaked with an appearance in the BCS National Championship Game.  No one who had ever watched Virginia Tech football could have imagined that this program which once played in a 40,000 seat stadium with high school type bleachers in the South End Zone could have achieved so much.  The Stadium now includes a jumbotron that I honestly believe you could see from nearby Christiansburg, and without Beamer’s success, Virginia Tech is playing in the American Conference right now instead of the ACC.

Frank Beamer is Virginia Tech football and he deserves all the credit, and yes shoulders the blame for the erosion that came in the last few years.  He’s not retiring on top, but it appears he’s largely retiring on his own terms although I will never be convinced that this is 100% his decision.  But, true to form he’s handling it with the grace and humility that has defined his career saying only that he wants what’s best for Virginia Tech. Deep inside, he has to think that at age 69, he’s not giving Virginia Tech his best so it’s time to let someone else try it.

Beamer has endured tough times when some of his players could not behave.  He coached a game on National Television the night his mother died.  Along the way, he had heart surgery in 1989 and missed a game despite his best efforts to convince his wife to let him watch from the press box, and then last year’s “minor” throat surgery which I suspect was more serious than we were led to believe.

He’s seen plenty of highs but numerous lows as well such as losing to Temple at home and mysterious losses to Miami of Ohio on homecoming, to James Madison, and the most head scratching of them all the loss to Michigan in the Sugar Bowl.  For a while before Tech went on its magical run in 1999, it seemed as if his teams had one letdown game per season.  That cured itself for a while when they were winning 10 games per year and conference championships, but in recent years has returned.

As tough as it was for Frank Beamer to build the program, imagine how tough its going to be to follow him.  Does anyone remember who replaced Bear Bryant at Alabama?  It was former NFL coach Ray Perkins, who had that unenviable task and after just a few years was ready to go back to the NFL and he coached when ESPN was in its infancy, FOX was something you went hunting for, and there was no thought of Twitter, Facebook or Smart Phones.

To members of the media he was always accommodating and accessible.  One  story immediately comes to mind for me.  About 1994, while working at WVVA in Bluefield, West Virginia, I decided to do a story on his relationship with his son Shane who was a back-up quarterback and receiver at Blacksburg High School.  I told the Sports Information Department what I wanted to do and expected to get a “no.”  I mean why the hell does a Division One coach need to spend his time talking to a station in the Nation’s 150th television market?  Instead, I got come on down, coach will talk to you at 3:00 pm in front of the building.  Mind you, this was during the season when he had other things to do.  Instead, he sat and told me all kinds of stories about having his young son holding the cord on his headset during the game. It included a classic line where he said he made sure to tell Shane that whatever “Coach Beamer” said on the sidelines, stayed on the sidelines.  Shane’s mother didn’t need to know about coaches’ use of certain parts of the English language.

To anyone who is a fan of Virginia Tech or graduated from there like me, we owe Frank Beamer one simple statement.  THANK YOU.  You’ve been the face of the football program, and in the aftermath of the 2007 shootings on campus, the face of the University.  He was well compensated for his efforts for sure, but as he leaves his post at the end of the season (and his team still needs to win 2 of its last 3 games to run his bowl streak to 23 straight years), this humble son of Ray and Herma Beamer from Fancy Gap, Virginia has done himself, his family and his university proud.  Enjoy retirement coach.  As Frank Sinatra once sang “I’ve done it my way.”  And, in doing your way you made a national brand out of what was nothing more than a local football program and did it without even a sniff of an NCAA violation.  Frank Beamer is living proof that nice guys don’t always finish last and good things do happen to good people.


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