A trip to Cape Girardeau, Mo., a battle with some Redhawks and the biggest game of a young coach’s career. The Murray State Racers travel 100 miles to play Southeast Missouri State on Sept. 1, 1981 — a game they would win 37-23 — and launch a tally of victories that would span four decades.
Frank Beamer was forced to take a couple extra math classes before he could accept his first coaching job.
Fresh off a successful playing career as a cornerback at Virginia Tech, football was letting go none too fast, so the new college graduate took the courses in order to stay involved in the game. He passed, taking an assistant’s job at Radford High School while also attending graduate school. When Maryland offered a graduate assistant position, he accepted. When the Citadel came calling, he went. And before the age of 35, he was on a Murray State bus headed toward Cape Girardeau for his first game as a collegiate head coach.
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Details grow fuzzy over time, but the result proved as unforgettable as the rest.
“I’m not that old, I still remember. I was just glad to get a first one, it was a struggle back then now,” Beamer said.
More than 30 years after that September day, Beamer sits among the giants of college football.
Since then, he’s added 250 victories to his career total, 209 coming as the head man at his alma mater, Virginia Tech. When the Penn State tragedy unfolded late last October — eventually leading to the firing of late coach Joe Paterno — Beamer was immediately, albeit quietly, thrust into the role of winningest active coach in major college football.
There he stays entering the 2012 season.
The list of names below him resonates loudly: Mack Brown, Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops — all with BCS championships and acclaim, none with the career numbers to match Blacksburg’s celebrity citizen.
“I forgot all about how many wins he has,” Hokies cornerback Kyle Fuller said laughing. “As a coach, how he prepares his team week in and week out, nothing changes … and that is what leads to all the wins he has.”
And those to come.
Three games and three losses into the 1987 season, Beamer’s first in Blacksburg, Navy comes to town. The game’s outcome — a 31-11 result in the Hokies’ favor — appeared insignificant at the time, a muted victory in the midst of a 2-9 season.
Consistency is a mantra in Blacksburg.
Virginia Tech teams take pride in the program’s unwavering 19-year bowl streak. “Beamer Ball” is synonymous with special teams, a three-pronged approach to football holding true year in and year out. And, throughout, Beamer stands unyielding, running onto Worsham Field with his team for 26 consecutive seasons.
“We have an organizational meeting (at the beginning of the season) and it’s kinda been the same stuff in there for forever, but we go through it because I think it’s important to get your foundation every year,” Beamer said. “And I said, ‘This is gonna be the same stuff. But the good part of it is, we’re not changing. Because when you change, you usually have to adjust to the change.'”
But change inevitably creeps in.
Back in 2003, conference realignment was the program’s divergence, although Miami was deemed the crown jewel of Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford’s Big East raid. The Hurricanes flashed national titles and South Beach flair, and the league made all the necessary concessions to ensure their commitment. Virginia Tech was no cupcake, previously reaching the 1999 BCS Championship game behind dynamic quarterback Michael Vick, but they were considered an added bonus. The Hokies did not feature the NFL pipeline of the Hurricanes; Hall of Famers did not give pregame speeches in Lane Stadium’s locker room.
The ACC’s itinerary outlined a Florida takeover.
It did not plan for Beamer’s undeviating nature.
Miami has yet to be crowned ACC champion. Two coaching changes since 2006 characterize the program’s intermittent success. Now, with multiple reports, federal testimony and an NCAA investigation throwing more and more dirt onto The U’s reputation, it could take years for those initial promises to be kept, if ever.
Beamer, meanwhile, reigns over the ACC, claiming four conference championships and posting 10-win seasons with consistency. He wears one of the title rings on his right hand, opposite of his wedding ring, a Virginia Tech logo emblazoned on a burgundy background, his two marriages available to count on both hands.
One hundred and thirty.
All within reach, all falls apart. Virginia Tech stormed back from a 28-7 deficit to take a narrow lead, only to watch the favored Florida State Seminoles take it back on its way to national championship glory. The Hokies’ coach stayed at 130 career wins, unable to capture the one game that would have sufficiently capped off his illustrious career.
Beamer’s best opportunity at hoisting the BCS Championship trophy is behind him. The new four-team playoff in college football cracks the window a bit, but Michael Vick’s not walking back through that door — at least not in uniform.
But while strolling the corridors of Grandover Resort in Greensboro, N.C., this week at the ACC Kickoff, the 65-year-old coach iterated that he will continue coaching as long as good health and good quarterbacks allow. He’s confident in both at the moment. His health is much improved — “2,000 calories a day … eat as much fruit as you can … eat only half the stuff on your plate,” he says — and his offense’s leader, Logan Thomas, is considered one of the most talented passers in the country.
His knees no longer permit him to indulge in games of racquetball, so he has taken to the elliptical this offseason, losing weight and saving those competitive urges for the Hokies’ gridiron opponents once more. And in their coach the program continues to trust: Beamer just signed a four-year extension last September that will carry him through the 2016 season, at which point he is slated to serve as special assistant to the athletic director for eight more years.
“When it’s all said and done, I think what’s more important to me is how we did it, what people think about us and how we operate our program, how we treat people,” Beamer said. “And don’t get me wrong, winning is the name of the game. But how you do it is real important to me.”
Yes, Beamer uses words like “we” and “us” to describe his accomplishments at Virginia Tech, the two have slowly become synonymous over the years.
He stuck with his alma mater as he ascended up the coaching ranks, and it stuck with him when he won just 24 games in his first six seasons. That resiliency of Virginia Tech’s athletic department was not repaid in national titles, but rather in national relevance.
That has always been more than enough.
Through it all, Frank Beamer, the winningest active coach in the FBS, is grateful. He shows that gratitude with the ring on his right hand, the letters ‘VT’ over his heart and in his words, never forgetting about how divergent his coaching path could have been in today’s increasingly impatient world of college football.
“I just think the games are different. More money, expectations higher, I think how the game is right now, how information gets out, it’s changed,” he said. “I mean, it’s just a lot of things that’s stepped it up in the last few years … What it really means is how fortunate I’ve been.”
The Hokies never grew impatient. Beamer Ball stays the course.
Two hundred and fifty-one.
No ACC title. No Sugar Bowl trophy. Frank Beamer is stuck on an impressive win total following losses to Clemson and Michigan, respectively, to finish the 2011 season. Riding the coattails of those results, the Hokies enter 2012 ranked outside the top 15 and projected to lose in the ACC title game once again.