Charles Steger was not the most visible or vocal proponent of Virginia Tech athletics. But as Hokie Nation reflects on his retirement after nearly 14 years as university president, there’s no questioning his advocacy or appreciation for major college sports.
From the array of infrastructure that sprouted on his watch to the advent of a football playoff, from the contracts that kept Frank Beamer and Bud Foster in Blacksburg to Tech’s move to the ACC, Steger played a leading role in the Hokies’ success.
Not to portray Steger, an architect by trade, as the driving force of any of those initiatives. That credit belongs to folks such as Tech athletic director Jim Weaver, generous Hokie Club donors, ACC commissioner John Swofford and, when it comes to Tech’s 2003 conference move, then-Gov. Mark Warner, then-University of Virginia president John Casteen and Bill Goodwin, then a member of U.Va.’s Board of Visitors.
But at many junctures, Steger could have vetoed such decisions. He did not, and the athletic department will long reap the benefits.
Steger’s most recent and public role was as chairman of the Bowl Championship Series’ Presidential Oversight Committee. That group last summer approved a four-team playoff crafted by commissioners, and if you think that was a fait accompli, then you weren’t listening to Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman, a staunch playoff opponent.
“Charles Steger just did a tremendous job in chairing this group,” Swofford told me the evening the playoff was unveiled in Washington, D.C. “He’s got a terrific way about him. He’s an outstanding consensus-builder, and he was very well-versed in running the meeting. I think he was prepared to lock everybody in the room until 10 o’clock and not feed them before letting anyone out without a decision.”
Unlike many presidents, including his predecessor at Tech, Paul Torgersen, Steger dodged the spotlight. Indeed, each of my requests to interview him one-on-one was politely declined by his staff.
“I think that’s part of why he’s so effective,” Swofford said. “He’s not an individual who leads by stroking his own ego. He’s got a quiet strength and confidence about him. … He trusts people around him and he’s got a way of bringing people together, and this (BCS) group may be the ultimate challenge in terms of bringing something like this together, not only at the commissioners level but at the presidential level as well. … He is the perfect president to be sitting in that chair as this came about.”
Steger reluctantly met media that historic June day after a three-hour meeting produced agreement.
“There is not a shrinking violet on this platform,” he said, referring to his presidential colleagues. “There was difference of views. ... I think it would be a serious mistake to assume it was a rubber stamp.”
Steger said he conferred “informally” with Beamer, Tech’s iconic coach, and Weaver throughout.
“The ACC presidents were unanimously in favor of the four-team playoff,” Steger said, “and I wanted to be sure they [Weaver and Beamer] were comfortable with it. Frank’s the one who’s got to coach the team. Not me. He’s very supportive.”
A former Hokies defensive back, Beamer is as Virginia Tech as a Lane Stadium turkey leg, but like most coaches, he was not immune to wanderlust — the closest Beamer came to exiting was in late 2000, to North Carolina. When Weaver asked Steger to approve raises for Beamer or assistants such as Foster, the program’s renowned defensive coordinator, Steger obliged.
Beamer and Steger were classmates at Tech — they graduated in 1969 — a connection that served them well. And both were instrumental in shepherding the university through the 2007 campus shootings that claimed 32 innocents.
As Bill Roth, the Hokies radio voice, reminded me, Steger’s grace was clear from the start. Scheduled to take office Jan. 1, 2000, he delayed the transition for five days so Torgersen could be front-and-center as Tech prepared for the Jan. 4 national championship football game against Florida State in New Orleans.
Steger was equally supportive of facilities upgrades for football, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s swimming, baseball, softball, golf and men’s and women’s track. Such projects aren’t funded out of the general budget, but ground wouldn’t have been broken without his OK.
The improvements have made Tech a far more well-rounded athletic department. The Hokies placed 35th nationally in last year’s Directors’ Cup all-sports standings, their best finish ever.
If he or she chooses, Steger’s successor also will have a lasting impact on Tech athletics. Weaver has made clear his intention to retire when his contract expires Dec. 31, 2015, and at 66, Beamer is in the fourth quarter of his career.
Those hires will be paramount and merit presidential attention. Virginia Tech will be fortunate if that president is, quietly or otherwise, as astute about college sports as is Charles Steger.
For a ledger of Virginia Tech’s considerable academic accomplishments under Steger, click here.
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