BLACKSBURG, Virginia – Cheryl Beamer was calm. She’d been through this before, hundreds of times, this being the 424th time (and 357th time at Virginia Tech) to be exact. So while it was only natural for everyone else on that sideline to be nervous, from current Hokies to coaches to the nearly 200 former players who were there to witness a legend’s final home game, Cheryl was at peace, at least on the outside. With a VT hat pulled down low, she adjusted her scarf, cradled her lightly-colored purse with both hands and watched intently as overtime started.
“No matter what happens,” one Virginia Tech staffer told her, “we’re not gonna forget it. That’s for sure.”
People came up and told her how much the Beamer family meant to them. She offered hugs, handshakes, a friendly hand on the back, and kind words. But her eyes always drifted right back to the field. She leaned when the Hokies kicked a field goal during their possession, and put her hands over her mouth when North Carolina scored what would be the deciding touchdown to end the overtime period. And when the replay was over, she started walking out to the field to meet her husband.
He had a sour look on his face when the crowd of reporters, staffers, and cameramen surrounded him. But when Cheryl put her arm around him and whispered in his ear, the coach smiled. He gave an emotional postgame interview to ESPN, walked with her to hug his grandkids, and went back to the 50-yard line to give a speech to the crowd which was hanging on every last chance to see the Virginia Tech coach on the field at Lane Stadium.
“I see all the signs here thanking me and I need one down here that says ‘best fans ever,’ ” he said to a roar of cheers and clapping from a crowd that had to be exhausted from hours of cheering and clapping.
When he gave up the mic, a flood of Hokies swarmed and surrounded him, swallowing him in a sea of maroon and orange. Seconds later, the coach was lifted up. He put one fist in the air, and the moment seemed to freeze. This was something everyone present was going to remember the rest of their lives, and time – as it has a way of doing – bent to fit the experience. The glitch corrected itself, and everything went back to normal, with the players exiting the tunnel, and fans finally decided to make their way to the exits.
In the postgame press conference, his last at Lane Stadium, he tried his best to look forward and discuss the game against Virginia that would ultimately determine whether that long bowl streak would continue. He was the one who was calm now, and Cheryl was crying a few rows back of the podium with her daughter’s arm around her.
“I’m thankful that I had such appreciation from the fans today rather than them wanting to run you out of town,” he said. “A lot of people, when you change jobs in this profession you got run out of town. We ended it and I got some grandkids I’m looking forward to spending more time with. And I have a wonderful wife, Cheryl there, who I’m going to spend some time and travel and so forth, and maybe some other things out there too that can get my interest going in a different direction. I’m not a guy who doesn’t have anything else to do. I’ve been blessed with a great family, and my daughter Casey is back there, and she’s got a little guy I need to see more of. We’ll be alright. We’re going to be good.”
For Frank Beamer, that’s as declarative a statement as it gets. And after 29 years coaching this team, it’s hard to disagree.
A banner hanging from one of the suites read, “The house that Frank built,” and was fittingly draped over some Hokie Stone embedded in the tower. Those updated suites aren’t there if not for Frank Beamer, nor is the giant Hokie Vision video board, all that additional seating, or the indoor practice facility which opened earlier in 2015.
“He’s one of them,” Daily Press columnist David Teel says. Teel has been with the paper since 1984 and even though he’s never been an official Virginia Tech beat writer, he’s frequently been around the program since Beamer got there in 1987. Teel witnessed Virginia Tech coming out of probation, beginning the bowl streak in 1993, rising to power, flourishing academically and eventually joining the ACC, all of which he believes wouldn’t have happened if not for Beamer’s steady hand.
“The day he announced he was retiring I wandered over to the Kroger,” Teel says. “One of the students I talked to told me: ‘I’m not a huge football fan, but Frank Beamer’s the reason I applied to Virginia Tech. He’s the reason I went to Virginia Tech. He’s the reason I knew about Virginia Tech.’”
This coach gave everything he had to this university, as a player, as a student, as the head man of the football team. For that, he will be honored, and the signature that was on the field along with the number 25 for this game felt as if it should be there permanently. Somehow he gave even more to the community, and that was evident in the signs and tributes hanging everywhere, from hotels to bars to the Lyric Theater downtown. For that, he will be immortalized.
Quarterback Michael Brewer, who came to Virginia Tech as a transfer from Texas Tech, penned a piece for Sports Illustrated‘s Campus Rush last week about what playing for Beamer really means. Following the game he was asked to put things in perspective, to explain why he felt the way he did.
“It’s easy to write about a guy like that,” Brewer said. “I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s obviously a legendary coach, but an even better man.”
Beamer stepping down feels like the end of an era not just at Virginia Tech but in all of college football. As SI.com Senior Editor Mike Harris points out, only three coaches started their active tenure at a university prior to 2000 and have been there ever since: Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, and Frank Beamer. (It’s tempting to throw Bill Snyder in here as an addendum, as he coached Kansas State from 1989-2005 and returned again in 2008. Although there’s no telling how much longer the 76 year old will be with the Wildcats.)
With the way college football coaching has changed over the years, guys don’t stick around like this anymore. They move around in an elaborate shell game, or they’re fired before they have the chance to leave in the first place. That’s just the nature of the business, and they’re compensated appropriately. Even Beamer had other offers over the years (Boston College and North Carolina, most notably) and parlayed those offers into handsome raises.
Harris, who covered Virginia Tech from 1992-2006 for the Richmond Times-Dispatch believes Beamer never seriously entertained the notion of leaving the Hokies. He was, and always would be, a lifer. And the reason he was so successful – why as defensive coordinator Bud Foster said, “the guy is Virginia Tech” – was because he was the same person he always was. He was Frank Beamer, and he never tried to be anyone else.
“He’s just Frank,” Harris says. “And he just so happens to be the football coach. I think it’s just his nature. I’ve never seen a guy who can work a room the way he can. He would go to those Hokie Club dinners every year, and everybody in that room went to work the next day and said they had dinner with Frank Beamer. He’d go around, pose for pictures, chat with everybody, remember your name even if it had been three or four years since he’d seen you. It’s naturally him. He never really saw himself as a big time guy. The same way another guy was a history professor, and someone else maintained the Drill Field, he was the football coach.”
For everyone in that community, he’ll always be the football coach.
Long after the game was over, Hokies still mingled in the tailgating lots, sharing stories of the Beamers and some of their favorite Hokie memories. Everyone admitted unabashedly they’d cried – some multiple times – at some point during the day.
A small group took out their keys, the same way Virginia Tech faithful take out their keys during big plays. They cut holes in beers and got ready to shotgun. One fan lifted his beer up over his head. “For Frank,” he said. “For Frank,” they replied.
The last bit of daylight spilled onto Lane Stadium. Blacksburg was, and always will be, smiling for Frank Beamer.