It took Frank Beamer seven years to get Virginia Tech to a bowl game after taking over a program that had experienced little national success, but once he got the Hokies to the postseason they never looked back.
Now, Beamer returns to the place where his program's magnificent run started – just as his own is coming to an end.
The final game of Beamer's 29 years on the Virginia Tech sidelines comes against Tulsa on Saturday at the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, the same venue where the Hokies began their once-unfathomable string of 23 consecutive bowl appearances in 1993.
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To most in the early 1990s, Blacksburg, Virginia, was a nondescript town tucked in the foothills between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains, but over the last few decades it's become known as the home to one of college football's most consistently good teams.
The Hokies (6-6) often were more than that during college football's longest active postseason run, winning four ACC and three Big East titles, finishing in the top 10 of the AP Poll seven times, playing in eight major bowl games and reaching the BCS championship game in 1999.
“I have always said I think I will know when it's time, and I think it's time,” Beamer said upon announcing his retirement in November. “There have been some difference of opinions out there, and any time you have a public life, there will be that.
“I do feel like it's the right thing to do, and it's the right thing for Virginia Tech. I think it's the right time for me. It's a tough business. I think it's a younger guy's business, talking about practices and games. Everything is critical. Every loss is critical. After you do that a number of years, I think it wears on you a little bit.”
A young man's business indeed, as the coach who will take over in Blacksburg was just 10 years old when Beamer arrived at Virginia Tech. That's Memphis' Justin Fuente, who turned around a decrepit Tigers program by going 19-6 in the past two seasons.
Fuente will keep Beamer's longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster when he inherits the job, but for now the attention is on Beamer as Virginia Tech returns to the Independence Bowl for the first time since a 45-20 win over Indiana on New Year's Eve 1993.
Keeping that bowl streak alive was no small feat after Virginia Tech's 3-5 start. But the Hokies won three of their final four – all on the road, including a come-from-behind victory at Virginia on Nov. 28 – to earn the chance to send Beamer out a winner.
“It's kind of (a) neat deal really,” Beamer said. “I remember how excited and how great a thing it was when we got that first bowl bid to go to the Independence Bowl, and such excitement around the program and our fans. To go back there, what goes around comes around. I'm excited.”
Fuente is working out of a temporary office in Lane Stadium and is busy recruiting, but he might be able to offer Beamer some tips about Tulsa (6-6). Memphis won both of its American Athletic Conference games against the Golden Hurricane after Fuente's arrival, including a wild 66-42 victory in October.
Those were the most points Tulsa gave up this season, but that poor defensive performance was hardly an anomaly. The Golden Hurricane ranked 119th out of 127 FBS teams in scoring defense (38.6 points per game) and 125th in total defense (531.5 yards per game).
Like Virginia Tech, Tulsa had to rally on the final day of the regular season to become bowl eligible. It trailed Tulane 34-24 midway through the fourth quarter before a Zack Langer touchdown run and a pair of interception returns for scores ensured the Golden Hurricane would go bowling in coach Philip Montgomery's first season.
“I'm so proud of our football team,” Montgomery said. “These guys have worked so, so hard. I'm overwhelmed with the emotions that I have for them and what they've done.”
Virginia Tech allowed the second-lowest completion percentage by opposing quarterbacks (47.9) in the nation, and it should have a pretty good idea where most of Dane Evans' passes are going. Keyarris Garrett and Joshua Atkinson combined for 153 receptions and 2,383 receiving yards.
Garrett accounted for 1,451 of those, the second-most in the nation.
“He's just an unbelievable playmaker,” Montgomery said. “He is probably one of the most unselfish receivers I've ever been around.”
Sophomore Isaiah Ford (63 catches for 937 yards, 10 TDs) is Michael Brewer's top weapon, and the passing game is key considering Virginia Tech is 114th in the nation at 3.6 yards per carry. If ever running back Travon McMillian was going to break out, though, it'd likely come against a Tulsa team that allowed 922 rushing yards over its final three games.
The Golden Hurricane are appearing in their first bowl since 2012, and they've won four of their past six heading into their first meeting with Virginia Tech since 1978.
The Hokies are 10-12 in bowls under Beamer, beating AAC foe Cincinnati 33-17 in last season's Military Bowl.