Humble start to sweet heights

College football: Frank Beamer has built a coaching career that has made Virginia Tech a power and put it into the national title game.

January 02, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS -- He is now the coach of the year in college football, poised to lead his Virginia Tech team into the Superdome on Tuesday night against Florida State for the national championship.

The roots of Frank Beamer's success are dug in many places, including on the top of a building that was once adjacent to Byrd Stadium at the University of Maryland.

It was there, in the fall of 1972, that Beamer got his first taste of big-time coaching.

From a distance.

"I was a graduate assistant under Jerry Claiborne, and my job was to watch the other team's defensive tackle line up," Beamer recalled recently. "It took me about 10 minutes to figure out I was talking into a microphone and nobody was listening."

From those humble beginnings, the latest coaching genius was born. It took nearly 20 years before Beamer returned to Virginia Tech, where he had played under Claiborne, and started bringing the Hokies to national prominence.

After losing 17 of 22 games his first two years, Beamer has coached Virginia Tech to winning records in nine of the last 11 seasons -- including a perfect 11-0 in 1999.

The Sugar Bowl will mark the seventh straight bowl appearance for the Hokies.

"I always thought it was a good school for football," said Beamer. "It was close enough to places where we could get talent -- Washington, Baltimore and the Tidewater area of Virginia. I thought it could work, but we needed the Big East."

It wasn't merely the affiliation with the Big East, beginning in 1991, that helped Virginia Tech gain credibility; it was a 13-7 home victory over Miami in 1995 that enabled the Hokies to open some eyes -- and doors -- in recruiting.

"When we beat Miami, it showed that we could play with anyone in college football," said longtime assistant coach Billy Hite. "Now we've done it five years in a row."

Hite, who has been at Virginia Tech since 1978, recalled how Beamer would often fly recruits to Blacksburg by private plane so they wouldn't know how far it was from most places.

"Then they'd drive down when school started and say, `Hey, Coach, how come you didn't tell me how long it was going to take?' " Hite said, chuckling at the memories. "But it worked."

In truth, most of Beamer's top recruits didn't have many big-time schools courting them. Nor did they get much notice once they arrived. Just ask Antonio Freeman.

Freeman, who left Baltimore for Virginia Tech in 1991, played on teams that went to the Independence Bowl and Gator Bowl, but was barely heard of when he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers.

"When I first started getting attention in the NFL, people would say, `He came out of nowhere,' " said Freeman, an All-Pro receiver last season. "Because of what Virginia Tech has done, nobody is saying that anymore. Now they say, `He played for Virginia Tech.' "

For different reasons, similar things have already been said about some of Beamer's current stars. Defensive ends Corey Moore and John Engelberger, the heart of the Hokies' top-rated defense, are typical in how far they have come since high school.

Moore was headed to a junior college before offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle, returning to Virginia Tech after a season at South Carolina, told Beamer about him. The undersized Moore was recently honored as college football's top defensive lineman.

Engelberger was a walk-on tight end out of Springfield, Va., who weighed 207 pounds as a freshman. Five years later, he is a 6-foot-4, 269-pound All-Big East player and, along with Moore, among five fifth-year seniors who start on defense.

"A lot of big programs won't recruit kids if other big programs aren't, but Frank doesn't go by what everyone else says about some players," said Hite. "If he thinks the kid can play, he doesn't care what anybody else says."

Virginia Tech's rise to prominence is similar to that of Colorado early in the decade. There were bumps on the field -- a 2-8-1 record in 1992, Beamer's sixth season -- and controversies off it.

The most difficult stretch came during the 1996 and 1997 seasons, when there were 19 arrests of players, including two for rape. As a result, the university took the responsibility of punishing the players away from Beamer.

The Comprehensive Action Plan has been a success. Only one player, who is no longer at the school, has been arrested since.

"Some of it was real, and some of it was blown out of proportion," Beamer said during the 1999 season. "But we've got some programs in place now to better educate our players on taking responsibility for their actions. I like the fact that we're better educated."

Other coaches considered as hot a property as Beamer was at that time might have taken the first good offer just to escape.

"That never was an issue," he said. "There was never any doubt in my mind that this was the right place for me."

Though redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Vick will be around for a couple of more seasons at least, this could be Virginia Tech's best chance at a national championship for a while.

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