Thursday, December 31, 2009
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Va. Tech's Beamer: An ordinary man in an extraordinary position

Frank Beamer says he tries not to let the pressure get to him.

ATLANTA -- Frank Beamer was leaving a team dinner Sunday night at the downtown Marriott Marquis when he was surrounded by a small group of fans who'd been waiting for him to emerge.

Instead of brushing them off with a smile and a nod, the 63-year-old Virginia Tech football coach stopped. He talked with them. Laughed with them. Answered their questions. Signed their paraphernalia.

This happens hundreds of times each season, in every city the Hokies visit. And after all these years, this is still what makes Beamer extraordinary: He's just so, well, ordinary.

The college football coaching business no longer seems a place for ordinary. It's a place for ego, money, scandal and, sometimes, flat-out wackiness.

Just watch the big names tumble. This week, Texas Tech coach Mike Leach was fired amid allegations that he mistreated a player. Mark Mangino, Beamer's counterpart at Kansas in the Orange Bowl two years ago, was fired last month after similar complaints. South Florida's Jim Leavitt has been accused of grabbing a player by the throat and slapping him at halftime of a recent game.

And in a stunning announcement last weekend, Florida coach Urban Meyer, just 45, said he would take a leave of absence because of health issues stemming from the stress of the job.

There's plenty more, but you get the idea. College football coaching is becoming the realm of the ridiculous. Perhaps, then, we ought to step back and appreciate the one in our back yard who proves that the terms "normal" and "successful" aren't mutually exclusive.

Tonight, Beamer will steer Tech against Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Hokies are favored to win. If they do, they'll finish their sixth straight season with at least 10 victories. Beamer also would nab his 229th career win, moving ahead of Ohio State's Jim Tressel into sole possession of third place on the active list. (The Buckeyes play Oregon in the Rose Bowl on Friday.)

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On Friday, Bobby Bowden (388 wins) will coach his final game at Florida State -- not by choice -- in the Gator Bowl. That would leave Penn State's Joe Paterno (393 wins) as the only active coach ahead of Beamer.

That's major stuff.

But to understand how he's done it, how he's been able to stay at Tech for 23 years, you have to look beyond recruiting victories and X's and O's.

You have to look at that scene with the fans at the hotel this week -- and what moments like that represent.

"What you see is what you get every day with him," said associate head coach Billy Hite, who's been with Beamer throughout his Blacksburg tenure. "There are no peaks and valleys with him. He's the most down-to-earth head coach in America.

"You actually look forward to coming to work every day. Half the guys I know in coaching, they don't want to go to work. Their bosses -- you never know what you're going to get at these other places."

As a result, Tech's assistant coaches don't want to leave. Beamer has been able to maintain staff continuity throughout his streak of 10-win seasons, something he's long identified as the key to success.

That doesn't mean he doesn't experience stress or criticism. The money -- Beamer makes more than $2 million annually -- magnifies the need to win every game. And while he hasn't gone the Meyer route, Beamer does feel the pressure.

Earlier this season, after Tech dropped back-to-back games against Georgia Tech and North Carolina, it almost became too much.

On the day the Hokies were playing at East Carolina, Beamer took his usual pregame walk with director of football operations John Ballein.

"I didn't get very far," Beamer said. "I needed to go back and lay down for a while. I just didn't feel very well. That's the way the profession is. Nerves'll get you. Everything's big."

Tech won that game and the three that followed it, earning the ACC's most prestigious non-BCS bowl bid.

"I think staying even keel is the deal," Beamer said. "I think if you get real, real high or you get real, real low in this business, you probably won't last very long.

"I think you've got to deal with what's real. I think a lot of times people want to deal with things they think should happen. They read you guys [in the media] and think whatever should happen. But I try to deal with what's real."

Beamer has given no indications that he plans to retire anytime soon. If he wants to avoid Bowden's unfortunate ending and go out on his own terms, he'll need to be able to sense when the time is right and step aside before someone forces him to.

That seems years away, though. The consistent results suggest the game remains several laps down in its attempt to pass him by.

"We have great respect for what he's done," Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin said. "Anybody can do something once in awhile. But if you can do that year after year like he has and continue to win so many games and do so well, it's unbelievable."

Kiffin is 34 years old, part of the next generation of coaches. He listens to rapper Lil Wayne on his iPod.

Beamer?

"I don't have an iPod," he said.

Nor does he want or need one.

Earlier this week, a reporter asked Tech linebacker Cody Grimm to compare Beamer to Kiffin. Grimm mentioned the age difference but couldn't come up with anything else.

"I don't know what Coach Beamer was like in his prime," Grimm said.

Seated nearby, Beamer laughed.

"I thought I just hit my prime," he said.

And maybe he has.

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