BLACKSBURG — Every morning, when Frank Beamer rolls back the blinds in his big corner office at Virginia Tech, he's immediately reminded of just how far the football program has come in his 25 years as the Hokies' coach.
He sees the lush green practice fields with a new video observation tower in the middle of them. There's also the pristine 66,233-seat stadium that has expanded by more than 16,000 seats, including the addition of luxury suites, state-of-the-art video board and south end zone seating, during his tenure.
He can look out and see the patio outside the 17,000-square foot weight room and training center, and the glass doors that lead to a brand new locker room and player lounge. Beyond the practice fields, on a little berm behind the facility, he can envision what soon will be the site of an indoor practice palace.
Not a bad spread, especially for a guy who almost wasn't around to see any of it, or help make any of it come to fruition. Beamer, 64, is the product of another place and time in college athletics — a place where "long-suffering" described the Hokies, a more patient time.
"What I'm most proud of is, I don't think Virginia Tech is thought of now the way it was 10 years ago, 15 years ago," said Beamer, a 1969 Tech graduate. "How we're thought of on a national level, I think, has changed. I think you have to be consistent for your name to be mentioned on a high level.
"Right now, when I sit in my office and I look out the window, I see every facility that we have. … I take great pride in that. Things have changed, and that's all private money. It's not state money. It's people that believed in the program."
It's easy to believe these days when you tick off the achievements Beamer's program has accumulated since the start of the '93 season: 18 consecutive bowl games; seven conference championships (four in the Atlantic Coast Conference and three in the Big East); a national-best, and current, streak of seven consecutive seasons with at least 10 victories; wins in the Orange and Sugar Bowl and one national championship game appearance.
Of course, it wasn't always that way. Former Tech athletic director Dave Braine remembers the lean years better than most.
Braine, 68, was Tech's AD from 1988-97. When Beamer arrived from Murray State in '87 to take over Tech's program, the Hokies were just beginning a two-year NCAA probation resulting from improper benefits to players under former football coach Bill Dooley.
Tech lost 20 football scholarships in the next two years and was banned from postseason play in '88 and '89. Those issues contributed greatly to Beamer's rough start. In his first six seasons, the Hokies were 24-40-2.
As bad as it was, Braine said there really wasn't mass uproar from fans. Again, it was a different era, and Tech football barely registered a blip in the public sporting psyche.
"It was before the two giant things that run college athletics today," Braine said. "It was before the Internet and talk radio. If somebody didn't like what I did, they had three choices. They either wrote me, called me or they came to see me. Most people were afraid to call you. Most people didn't want a confrontation. So, they wrote me a letter, and it was over with. Seven days later, they got an answer back in a letter, and it was between that person and me.
"People forget that when Frank took over the program, there was a whole lot of apathy. The program was on probation. We were in debt. Season tickets were hard to sell. There just wasn't much going on. The interest just wasn't there in the football program until the '93 season when we won the Independence Bowl, and we've been going to bowl games ever since."
Braine recalls only small pockets of particularly vocal individuals calling for change.
A man in south central Virginia wrote Braine a nasty letter every day.
Another man sat behind Braine in church every Sunday. As soon as services ended, the man would rip into Braine about letting that idiot Beamer run the program into the ground — Braine stopped attending that church.
The most venom from any group came from Braine's Saturday-morning coffee crowd at a Hardee's in Blacksburg. They were longtime season-ticket holders and good-natured in their barbs.
"They were the ones that used to give me the hardest time, and it really wasn't that bad," Braine said.
The truth of the matter is, Braine was among a faction that believed in Beamer. The late Dr. Jim McComas, then Tech's president, also was a supporter.
"There never was any internal pressure at all," Braine said. "Dr. Jim McComas was the president, and he'd come from the Southeastern Conference and Mississippi State, where he was the president there. So, he had a good background. He didn't mettle into athletics at all. He let us do our thing."
Braine knew what was going on inside the football program. He had a privileged peek into the inner workings of the football program, thanks to the irresistible lure of fried bread.
"That whole '92 year, I bought doughnuts and coffee every Sunday morning and brought them into the coaches' office," Braine said. "I watched film with the coaches. Today, an AD would never, ever be able to do something like that. They'd think you were crazy. …
"I can remember asking Frank question after question after question, and he always had a good answer, and he never got upset or frustrated that I would be sitting there questioning him about something that happened on Saturday. He never lost his cool.
"I guess those 10 or 11 Sunday mornings are the reason he's still there today. I guess they couldn't tell me not to be there, but it was the doughnuts that got me in the door."
The '92 year may have been the most painful of all. Just when it appeared Beamer was progressing — the Hokies went 6-4-1, 6-5 and 5-6 from 1989-91 — Tech plummeted to 2-8-1.
Beamer's son, Shane, was 15 years old in '92.
He noticed the hurt in his dad's eyes when the family saw Virginia Cavaliers apparel in a Roanoke mall but nary a Hokies T-shirt or hat. Shane also heard some of the ugliness in the hallways at Blacksburg High.
"I remember a classmate of mine walked by me one day that year and said, 'Hey, where are you going to be living next year?' " said Shane, entering his first season as the Hokies' running backs coach. "Dad always told me, 'You can't get into it with people like that. You have to stay positive. You can't say anything.' Well, I probably should've said something."
It wasn't just high school numbskullery. Adults were just as cruel.
Shane recalls trudging back to the locker room with the family after Tech's 41-38 home loss to Virginia in the 1992 finale. His dad was about 15 yards ahead of him, and as they reached the tunnel leading off the field, a fan leaned over the railing and yelled in Frank's direction:
"Bye bye, Beamer. Bye bye."
A few weeks later, Shane, his sister and mom attended Tech's basketball game against North Carolina in Roanoke.
"I don't remember why, but we were running late, and it was my fault," Shane said. "I just remember standing outside the arena and my mom and sister were mad at me. I said, 'I can't believe you all are going to blame this on me.' Well, somebody walking behind us recognized us said, 'That's OK. We can just blame it on your daddy, just like everything else.'"
Frank's wife, Cheryl, loathed the way her husband was treated, but she understood the nature of fans. She just worried how all the negativity would affect her kids, Shane and younger daughter Casey.
"I remember little Casey was about 5 years old, and she sitting in Frank's lap while they were watching TV in that first season (1987) when we were in Blacksburg," Cheryl said. "We'd just lost a game and were getting ready to play Miami the next week.
"Anyway, she saw scores rolling on the screen, and she noticed scores for Miami of Ohio and Miami, Florida. She asked him, 'Which Miami are we playing next week?' He told her it was the one in Florida. She said, 'I wish it was the one in Ohio,' because she'd seen the scores and was like, 'Whoa,' when she saw the one for Miami, Florida."
The program's upturn started after the 1992 season when Beamer hired four new assistant coaches and reshuffled others' duties.
Among the changes: He promoted Bryan Stinespring, now entering his 10th season as offensive coordinator, from director of sports programs to tight ends and assistant offensive line coach. He handed offensive coordinator responsibilities to Rickey Bustle, previously just the quarterbacks coach.
Braine, who insists he never forced Beamer overhaul the staff, said the biggest change was bringing in Phil Elmassian as defensive coordinator. The widely respected Elmassian only stayed in Blacksburg for two seasons, but Braine said he introduced the blue-collar mentality that still exists today.
Tech, which started to get added exposure when it was admitted to the Big East in 1991, started winning. The Hokies went 9-3 in 1993 and defeated Indiana in the Independence Bowl.
Beamer had discovered a winning formula, and even when Tech opened 0-2 in 1995, he didn't panic.
"We had a 9 o'clock staff meeting Sunday night after we lost to Cincinnati the day before," said Billy Hite, a Tech assistant coach from 1978-2010 who now serves as Beamer's senior advisor. "We'd been working all day, grading film and trying to get ready to play Miami the next week while being 0-2.
"Beamer walked in at 9 o'clock. Now, if I'd have been the head coach, I think I would've fired everybody sitting in that room. He just looked at every one of us and said, 'Our guys want to win. Put them in the best position you possibly can to win against Miami,' and he got up and walked out.
"We all just sat there and looked at each other. We were all in disbelief that that was all he said to us. We went out and beat Miami, and we went on to win 10 straight and beat Texas in the Sugar Bowl."
Finally, the darkest days in Blacksburg were over. Tech hasn't missed the postseason since the 1993 Independence Bowl win and has played in four more BCS games since the '95 Sugar Bowl.
Beamer sits just two victories away from 200 at Tech, but like most coaches, holes remain on his impressive resume: a 1-19 record against top-five opponents and no national title. Perhaps those gaps keep him motivated.
"I think the part of his persona to most people when you see him is that he's a calm individual," Stinespring said. "Now, what most people don't get a chance to see is the competitive ire of Frank Beamer.
"I was on a racquetball court with him for 18 years. I've seen a guy that would have to get taped up to just walk on a racquetball court. You don't think he can move, and then all of a sudden, he's diving for balls. I've been on a golf course with him, too. I've been in a (football) meeting room with him. Trust me, I know what it's like to be with a person that enjoys competition the way he does."
In any case, Beamer is the first to admit things have had to break just right for him to hang around as long as he has in Blacksburg. It's certainly a few parts luck, but a big chunk has been knowing exactly what he's doing, and knowing precisely what he has been aiming for over the last quarter-century.
"I feel fortunate to be around 25 years," Beamer said. "There's been a lot of good coaches, and a lot of good players, and an administration that hung around when most wouldn't these days after about the first four or five years. …
"Being able to go into the Big East was a great situation for us. That helped, because that gave you TV and bowl games. Coming into the ACC [in 2004], that helps, because that's the right conference for us. We've had some fortunate things happen that helped me stay there for 25 years."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun