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To truly appreciate what Frank Beamer has done for Virginia Tech, allow me to share some of my earliest memories of being a Hokie.
The year was 1973, my senior year of high school. The check was in the mail to the admissions office, and I was going to be spending the next 4 years in Blacksburg. I picked up the Sunday Virginian Pilot in Norfolk (my hometown) and there was a story on Virginia Tech losing to Alabama in Tuscaloosa. By a score of 77-6.
That’s no typo. 77-6. Laughingstock wasn’t a strong enough word for how the Hokie football program looked back then.
My four years at Virginia Tech would be the four years of Jimmy Sharpe. The wishbone worked in the second year, as the Hokies won 8 games, but didn’t get a bowl bid. Things then fell apart as the team would go 6-5 and then 3-7-1. Sharpe would be fired. A football player would die in the dorms the day after a game in 1977, and Virginia Tech was in the national news for all the wrong reasons.
Meanwhile, teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference were the envy of all of us. "Why not Virginia Tech?" many of us thought, but the perception was simply we were not good enough. In 1977, an expansion committee actually sent a group to Blacksburg to examine the possibility, but they stayed all of about 45 minutes. Their minds were made up before they ever got there.
The Hokies were small potatoes.
Bill Dooley improved things slightly as the next coach, but he did it with a clock in his window that was a replica of a UNC football helmet. He didn’t particularly like Virginia Tech traditions, he wasn’t a Hokie, he was never going to be a Hokie, and he sure wasn’t going to stay around for a long time. Then he too was asked to leave.
Enter Frank. He was a Hokie and a gentleman. He showed respect to everyone, whether it was the press, fans who stopped him at the airport, donors or somebody out in the hall way. He was humble Fancy Gap Frank, and he set out to fix what was wrong. His only major failing was his loyalty to friends, and after a number of disappointing seasons, then athletic director Dave Braine essentially told him to fire some of his friends and bring in better coaches, or he would be shown the door. Frank did what needed to be done.
The next year, the bowl streak started, which was a big deal for those of us who had a couple of Peach Bowls to show for the last 20 years of being a fan. In 1995, Jim Druckenmiller and company made it all the way to the Sugar Bowl, but ESPN’s Lee Corso consistently said the Hokies had no chance against Texas. We weren’t a brand name and had no place in even being in the bowl. Texas fans bemoaned the notion they had to play a no-name like Virginia Tech. The game had the worst slot of all the major bowl games: New Year’s Eve at 8 PM.
Then, after trailing 10-0, Frank and the Hokies beat Texas 28-10. Corso even had to apologize the next day and admit the Hokies were for real. My daughter was 8 months old, and I thought how cool it would be if she one day went to Virginia Tech when they were considered a big-time program.
Back then you couldn’t buy Virginia Tech merchandise such as jackets, coats, etc. in regular stores. The Hokies were not a brand name, so you could buy Oklahoma, Nebraska..even UVA stuff at sporting goods stores. But anything VT was either in the bookstore or nowhere. When the Hokies came back and made the Orange Bowl the next year, jackets by Starter with the unique “square root of 1” VT logo started showing up. Maybe, many of us thought, we’re about to belong.
Then came Michael Vick and the magical 1999 season. ESPN Game Day came to campus for a game with Syracuse and you couldn’t help but feel giddy in seeing thousands upon thousands of Hokies turn the broadcast into a Virginia Tech commercial. The team helped out by winning 62-0 that night and a few weeks later, it was decided Virginia Tech and Florida State would play in New Orleans for the National title. Sports Illustrated would print a cover with Andre Davis catching a football and the simple headline “They Belong.”
I stared at that magazine in the driveway when I got the mail. And yes, I had both goosebumps and something in my eye.
I was lucky enough to be in New Orleans. The night before, I was standing on a corner near Bourbon Street, with Lynn Swann standing only a few feet away smoking a cigar. 40,000 Hokies – all dressed in orange and maroon – were dominating the area. We belong, indeed, I thought.
None of that happens without Frank. Not even close.
Virginia Tech lost that game after leading 29-28, and hasn’t been able to replicate that magic since. But the team stayed in the top 10 for many years, proving it was not a one-time miracle with a once-in-a-generation player like Vick. The Hokie chip on its shoulder I had known for a long time – of being the red-headed stepchild who had to sit at the kids table and never got the invite to the Atlantic Coast Conference Ball – faded with all this success. A whole generation of Hokies started believing that “They Belong.”
Even the ACC, which for a half a century refused to put Fighting Gobbler on the menu, finally did the right thing and let the Hokies into the league circle. Frank thanked them by winning the ACC Football title the very first year, and 4 times in the first 7 years, lest they forget the “They Belong” part.
But Frank’s finest moment may have come in 2007. To many of us, Virginia Tech represents more than a college campus; it’s home. We’ll drive an hour out of our way if in the Western part of the state just to drop by the campus if possible. It’s special.
So when a deranged individual shot and killed 32 Hokies on April 16, 2007, it was beyond terrible. Many of us still get a tear in our eye just thinking about how awful and emotional that day was. In the midst of it, the leader who stepped forward because he has always been one of us and knew the depth of the pain – was Frank Beamer. He knew what to say. He knew what to do.
Yes, the program has slipped in recent years, and nothing goes on forever. But Frank maintained a sense of class, dignity and pride while taking Virginia Tech to heights no one could have ever dreamed. Sit in Lane Stadium during a night game with fireworks going off and 66,000 jumping up and down and compare it to a 1 PM game in 1977. It’s like comparing an old clunker to a race car.
Remember my 8-month-old daughter I mentioned that night Virginia Tech won the 1995 Sugar Bowl? This year she graduates from Virginia Tech. For freshman orientation a few years ago they put her group in newly modernized Lane Stadium, turned on the massive new state-of-the-art scoreboard (all made possible by the success of the football program) and played music while a buffet lunch was served. Although he didn’t have to, guess who was out and about saying hello to everyone?
Fancy Gap Frank.
All good things have to come to an end, and indeed, these are the days when a lot of stuff is changing that I don’t like. Bill Roth is no longer the voice of the Hokies after many decades. Same with Dave Smith as Sports Information Director. There’s a new basketball coach and a new athletic director. Our class, I told a friend, is graduating.
But the ride would have never been the same without Frank. Frank did more than just win football games. He went out and grabbed respect for all Hokies. He made being a Hokie cool.
For that, I can’t say thank you enough.