Frank Beamer’s seen it all – or at least most of it.
Incredibly, he’s never been to Ohio State in his 42 years of coaching, the last 27 spent as head coach at Virginia Tech. That will change on Sept. 6, when the Hokies make their first trip to the Horseshoe (The Buckeyes play at Virginia Tech on Labor Day 2015).
Eleven Warriors recently traveled to Blacksburg, Virginia, to sit down with Beamer. From his opulent office inside the Merryman Athletic Facility, we discussed a wide range of topics, including Beamer’s growing legacy, the rise of dual-threat quarterbacks and, of course, the upcoming trip to Columbus.
Eleven Warriors: People don’t like talking about themselves, but do you ever stop to think about your legacy at all at this point of your career? You built this program from the ground up – winningest active coach, sixth all time in FBS. You’ve done some incredible things.
Frank Beamer: I take a lot of time to realize how fortunate I am. My sixth year here we were 2-8-1. That probably won’t ever happen again – sixth year, 2-8-1. We had come in and lost scholarships, and that’s the worst kind of punishment because when you don’t have people, three and four years down the road it really affects you.
But the administration at the time here stayed with me. They thought we were doing things the right way and understood the situation. Since then, we’ve been able to do OK [smiles].
I understand I was fortunate enough to survive that. This school is in a good recruiting area, we were fortunate enough to get in the Big East – I can’t imagine what would have happened if we hadn’t been able to get in that conference and then on to the ACC. I understand how fortunate I’ve been to be here at the right time.
11W: Do you think yourself and Bill Snyder at Kansas State are the last of a breed? Are there going to be coaches that stay at a school for 25-plus years and take a program from nothing and lift it to major status?
FB: I think the money’s gotten too big. It’s a ‘we want it right now’ kind of society. I don’t think it’ll ever happen again. Again, when you say 2-8-1 after six years, I don’t know if there’s a school in the country that would keep a guy with that record. I don’t know, we’ll see.
11W: In the last few years, you’ve passed Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, titans of the sport. Have you stopped and noticed that? I don’t think you’re thinking during the season, ‘Oh, I passed Woody Hayes on the all-time wins list.’ But when you see that, does it resonate?
FB: Yeah, I’m aware of it. Those are people when I grew up, my eyes got big. I’m proud of it. I’m proud to be in the same conversation as all those great coaches.
“Those are people when I grew up, my eyes got big. I’m proud of it.”– Frank Beamer on passing Woody Hayes in wins
11W: When people think of Virginia Tech, they think of Frank Beamer. You’ve become synonymous with the university. It’s not always that way with colleges, that the first thing people think of is a coach. Virginia Tech maybe isn’t in the place it is today or doesn’t have the stature it has if the football program isn’t successful over the past 27 years.
FB: I grew up an hour from here. My uncle used to bring me to games. I played – actually I didn’t play, I stood – I stood on the sidelines for the first game ever to be played in Lane Stadium. It was a JV game. We played the University of Maryland. I was a quarterback coming out of high school, and they brought in five quarterbacks that year. So I stood on the sidelines for the first ballgame at Lane Stadium. It’s just one of those things that turned out right for me here. I think I’ve always worked hard and put my best effort into it. I’ve been fortunate to be here all these years and have happen what’s happened.
11W: When you look out there now, what do you think?
FB: I’m proud of it. I’m proud of the facilities. We’re getting ready to build an indoor facility. I’m really proud of what’s happened at Virginia Tech.
11W: Beamerball and the whole special teams phenomena that’s been successful here – how did that philosophy come about? When you first got here, did you think you needed to have superior special teams to gain an edge and beat the big-time programs? How have you sustained it?
FB: I like Beamerball to be whatever team is on the field; they have an opportunity to score, whether it’s the offense, defense or special teams. But from a kicking standpoint, I’ve always been around coaches who put a premium on special teams. I figured out real quickly it was the quickest way to win a football game and lose a football game.
Momentum plays, you’re always talking about big yards, you’re always talking about possible scores. A guy lines up to kick a field goal and instead of getting three points, you block it and take it back for seven points. That’s a difference of 10 points in one play and it changes momentum. So I’ve always believed in that.
What happened when I first got here, I was deeply involved in offense and defense. I finally figured out I had good people. I always had people around me that had the same philosophy. I always assigned different coaches to a team. Well, a couple coaches left, so I decided to take over the punt block team. We call them pride and joy. It kept me involved, and I enjoyed doing it. It’s kind of been a logical sequence for me, as far as putting an emphasis on special teams.
11W: There have been huge changes in college football in recent years and there will continue to be. What do you think of the health of the sport? Obviously the playoff is coming, there have been unionization talks, conference expansion. What do you think of these last few years and the future?
FB: The way I see it coming, we’re probably going to separate on abilities – your ability to fill stadiums and play at a certain level, and I think that’s probably good. Anytime you have an organization, you have so many parts. People that can afford to pay players more money than people who don’t have the budget and the attendance or TV support that never allows them to operate in the black. I see that coming and it’s the way it should be.
I’ve been at 1-AA schools. I’ve seen both sides of it. I would hope we would never lose sight of you’re here, you’re a fortunate guy who does things most other students at this university couldn’t do, you’re on scholarship. When you start talking unions, I think you’re getting into a lot of things. I don’t think that was well thought out. I think common sense will prevail.
I think we’re in a healthy state. College football is watched more now than ever before. We’re getting ready to play in a game that’s going to have the highest attendance to ever watch a game.
11W: Do you think players should get an extra stipend?
FB: Yeah, I do. If you’ve used them to promote whatever, they deserve something from that. The thing about if you start paying, you have to keep it on an even playing field. You don’t want it to get to a point where one school gets a tremendous recruiting advantage because they can pay whatever over another school. But I think a stipend makes perfect sense.
“I firmly believe an eight-team playoff is where you’d like to see it. I’m hopeful that one of these days we’ll get there.”
11W: At Murray State, you played in the 1-AA playoffs, you’ve played in the national championship game and other BCS bowl games at Virginia Tech. Do you think the four-team playoff is the right direction to go?
FB: I do. I firmly believe an eight-team playoff is where you’d like to see it. I’m hopeful that one of these days we’ll get there.
11W: It seems inevitable.
FB: Yeah. When you take four teams, generally, there are about two, three, four teams that have a legitimate claim that they should be national champion. I know when you get eight you’ve taken care of yourself. I think the excitement and buildup from that would be just tremendous. But I think the four-team playoff is going in the right direction and it’s where we need to be.
11W: There were always option quarterbacks that were fast and could run, but couldn’t always do the throwing part. Michael Vick takes the college football world by storm in 1999, the first of the current generation of dual-threat quarterbacks. Do you ever look back on that like Dr. Frankenstein and think, ‘What did I create?’
FB: Well, Michael Vick created it. He was a special talent. An athletic guy but could throw the football on a rope. He was the total package. He could take over a game. He made the play against West Virginia, Shayne Graham kicked the field goal that kept us on the path to play for the national championship. He was just a special, special talent.
11W: It was so unique when he came on the scene because there had never really been a quarterback like him. You saw him in high school, he redshirted his first year and you saw him in practice leading up to his redshirt year, even as a coach did you wonder how are we going to do this? Are we going to just let him run and throw? How’d you manage that? Now, dual-threat quarterbacks are the norm and coaches know how to deal with it.
FB: What happened with the redshirt was I promised his high school coach, Tommy Reamon, that we’d redshirt him. Tommy thought that’s what he needed. I can remember in 1998, we lost our first-string quarterback, lost our second-string quarterback and we had to go to Boston College to play Thursday night football.
So we took a guy who was a free safety for us but played quarterback in high school. We go to Boston College, playing on national TV and Michael Vick is standing next to me and we have a quarterback who played safety the previous week. I said, ‘How much sense does this make?’ But I gave Tommy my word. (Virginia Tech won, 17-0.)
Then Michael left after two years and we redshirted him. That didn’t make a whole lot of sense. I can remember coming in off the practice field after he ran the scout team. Our defensive coaches would be talking about Michael Vick and what he did that day. It didn’t take me long to realize this guy is special.
11W: Football is cyclical. But do you see dual-threat quarterbacks still being dominant at that position 20 years from now?
FB: Oh yeah. I’ve always believed if you have a guy that can throw and then he can get himself out of trouble, you’ve got an advantage. There’s no question about it. I think it makes perfect sense. Right now, we look for guys that can throw and then can they get themselves out of trouble. We haven’t had a guy who just stands back there and throws the ball for a while. We still work like heck on protections, but I like a guy who can get you out of trouble when a play breaks down.
11W: They say cell phone technology becomes obsolete every six months. If you look back five years, cell phones have changed unbelievably. What has it been like with recruiting, from 1987 to now?
FB: It’s definitely changed [laughs]. I have my son on my staff (associate head coach and running backs coach, Shane) and he knows all that stuff (Twitter, social media). I don’t know very much about it. I still believe in picking up a phone and calling a guy. I like going about it that way. But the guys on my staff are up to date on it. You have to be.
We’re getting ready to hire a person just for recruiting. That’s just the way it is – keeping kids informed, getting material to them and how you communicate with them. It’s a different animal.
11W: When Thursday night games became the norm, Virginia Tech was the king of Thursday night. Was that a big recruiting advantage and did the exposure from ESPN tie into the decision-making?
FB: Yeah, and what happened with us was we got to a point where we did it so much that they allowed us to do back-to-back Thursday night games. I liked that a lot. You had 10 days before the first one and 10 days after the second one. It gave you a bit of a break in the middle of the season.
I thought if you can be successful, you have a captive audience. It’s kind of like Monday Night Football – you’re the only game on, it’s in your stadium, it’s packed and rocking. Everything’s good. The one thing is you need to be successful, and more often than not we were. I thought it worked out great.
11W: In your years of coaching, you’ve been to a lot of places – stadiums, campuses, cities. But you’ve never been to Ohio Stadium. What do you think of that game this season?
FB: I look forward to it. I’ve never been there. I’ve seen games on TV. I’ve always admired that program. When you think about Ohio State, you’re thinking about one of the top programs in the country. I’d much rather play in a stadium where it’s packed and it’s rocking and people are loud, even if they’re loud for the other team. I’ve played in half-full stadiums and the people there didn’t care. I’d rather be in an exciting stadium. I’m sure that’s the way it’s going to be.
11W: It’s not a conference game, so that kind of devalues some of its importance. But with the new playoff; the Ohio State game is at night, it’s in primetime, everyone’s going to be watching it, how important is a game like that early in the season? You guys have been in that position a lot recently – Alabama, Boise State, USC. I know you’re not into moral victories, but is it important to play well that game and get your season off to a good start?
FB: I think the importance of it is what happens before the game, and that is the preparation for the season. When your kids have something like that to look forward to the summer workouts are better and more intense, preseason practice is better. I think it goes all the way back to spring practice. Whatever happens in that game happens. But I think you’re a better football team as you go through the season. If you can be successful, you have a leg up. There are a lot of games left, but you’re on the right path. You put yourself in a good position.
11W: Is that a game that already has your attention, and are people in Blacksburg talking about it?
FB: People here are talking about William & Mary [laughs]. I played golf with a guy yesterday who had a West Virginia hat on and he kept reminding me that William & Mary came to West Virginia for the opener last year and almost beat them. My good friend Jimmye Laycock, I respect the way he’s run that program. So let’s get ready for William & Mary and then we’ll look toward Ohio State.
11W: With the playoff now, psychologically could you have a different mindset? You used to have to go undefeated unless you were an SEC team. If teams lose these big games early in the season, but if it’s a close game, could you think, ‘Well, if we win out, we’ll still probably be in the playoff?’ Do you think the mindset will change after competitive losses in big games?
FB: I think it depends totally on what other people do at that point. Some other people have to lose and you have to win out. But I don’t think it’s all over. If you lose early to a quality opponent and it’s close and competitive, then if you win out you have a shot.
11W: The Virginia rivalry. It’s unique because it’s in-state. It has that Alabama-Auburn factor because everyone in the state lives it all year. Has it changed over the years because now you’re in the same conference?
FB: When we were in the Big East and they were in the ACC, you’re competing against your in-state rival, but when we joined the ACC, it increased it even more. Now a kid’s reason to attend a school wasn’t about playing in the ACC or Big East. That was out of the equation. What’s left is which school do you want to go to in the state of Virginia. I think the tension in the game has increased.
Virginia never leaves my thoughts. If something happens up there, I’m reading about it and thinking about it. They never leave my thoughts.
Ohio State and Virginia Tech kick off at 8 p.m. on Sept. 6. The game will be televised by ESPN.