Column by Todd Wickersty
It’s been a week since the Hokies disappointed thousands of Virginia Tech alums, students, and fans with a 24-21 loss to Danny Manning and the Kansas Jayhawks.
I am still pissed, partly because I’ve been involved in a spirited e-mail exchange with a few other Hokies about public enemy #1, Brian Stinespring (the Virginia Tech offensive coordinator). I’m sick of talking about Stiney, and Tech’s embarrassing offensive rankings over the past five years, as I am sure other Hokie fans are as well. If you search for Bryan Stinespring on the TechSideline.com message boards, the site will come to a grueling halt due to the extraordinary number of records in their database. OK, not really, but the topic has reached a boiling point after the Orange Bowl. For me, the Orange Bowl was an annual reminder that the greatest sports figure in Virginia Tech history, Frank Beamer, cannot win “The Big Game.” But this loss was different, and it has led me to believe that Beamer is at the most challenging point in his coaching career.
First off, I believe Frank Beamer can keep his job as head coach as long as he wants. He should never be shown the door unless he commits a criminal or unethical act. He has earned that right, and I will support his position as the Hokies’ head man forever. I have met Coach Beamer a couple times, and he was extremely personable and kind. I love what he has done for the university, and he is a Hall of Fame coach. Even so, I have my doubts that Beamer will ever lead the Hokies to the national championship. Of course, every program strives to win the national championship, but when the Hokies opened the Merryman Center and left an empty space for the National Championship Trophy, the athletics department made a cocky statement. They expect it, expect it soon, and were not afraid to communicate that to the Hokie Nation in a very powerful display. Therefore, 10-win seasons and ACC championships should be viewed as solid accomplishments, but in the end, they are just stepping stones to the ultimate goal: filling up that empty space with some hardware.
Coach Beamer has won five conference championships (three Big East and two ACC). He was national coach of the year in 1999 and is up for that award again this season. He has defeated Tech’s two biggest rivals, Virginia and West Virginia, more times than he’s lost to them, and he has led the Hokies to 15 straight bowl games. These stats are even more impressive given the fact that he started out 24-40-2 in his first six seasons. I attended Tech for seasons 3-6. Football was an afterthought. More students went to the games so they could bombard their fellow students with drink cups. I can’t tell you how many games students came late or left early because booze was more important than Beamerball. Beamer changed all of that, and now the Hokie football program, atmosphere, and spirit is looked up to by many, many other programs.
Thank You, Coach Beamer.
However, Beamer’s record has one major blemish: The Big Game. What defines a big game?
– Conference championship games
– Major bowl games (Sugar/Orange/Rose/Fiesta)
– Games against Top 10 teams
Here are Beamer’s stats in those three categories:
– Conference Championship Games : 1-1
– Major Bowl Game Record: 1-3
– Games vs. Top 10 teams: 6-27
That last stat is worse that I thought.
If you throw out all of the games vs. Top 10 opponents before the ‘93-94 season (the first of 15 straight bowl games), the Hokies are still a miserable 5-14. In head-to-head Top 10 matchups, meaning that Tech and their opponent are both in the Top 10, Beamer is 2-6, with three losses coming this past season. In head-to-head Top 5 match-ups, Beamer is 0-3.
That’s a bloodbath, people. How has this happened? Well, look at who was coaching the other side of the ball.
In Beamer’s 11 losses against Top 10 opponents between 1993 and 2006, the winning coaches have been Dennis Erickson (twice), Tom Osbourne, Mack Brown, Bobby Bowden, Butch Davis*, Larry Coker (3 times), Pete Carroll and Tommy Tuberville. That list of coaches have won 12 national championships between them. All of these coaches have won national championships except for Butch Davis and Tommy Tuberville, although Tuberville’s Auburn team went undefeated in ‘04, but got hosed by the BCS. The reason for the asterisk next to Butch Davis is that loss occurred when Michael Vick was injured. He only played a couple series, thus the Hokies had no chance in the Orange Bowl that day.
Beamer’s five wins were against John Mackovic (#9 Texas in ‘95 Sugar Bowl), Larry Coker twice (#2 Miami at home in ‘03 and #9 Miami away in ‘04), Rich Rodriguez (#6 WVU at home in ‘04), and Tommy Bowden (#10 Clemson at home in ‘06).
I will repeat: With the exception of the asterisk, Beamer lost all of his big games to coaches that have either won a national championship or went undefeated in the best conference ever, the SEC. His only victories are against coaches that have not won a MNC with the exception of Coker. You have to throw Coker and Miami out the window though because Tech plays them every year, and the law of averages say that Tech should win at least once in awhile (but it’s nice that it happens almost every year now).
However, if you look at the stats even more closely, you’ll notice that Beamer has improved in Top 10 battles over the past few years. He is 4-3 against Top 10 teams from ‘03 through ‘06.
2007 was a completely different story, though. Beamer’s Hokies lost three games to Top 10 teams, all Top 10 matchups against LSU, Boston College and Kansas. The opposing coaches were Les Miles (now a national champion), Jeff Jagodzinski and Mark Mangino. Beamer lost to who? These guys aren’t Pete Carroll or Bobby Bowden, although Miles’ stock is rising quicker than Yahoo! during the dot-com boom. Does this mean that Jagozinski and Mangino will pass Beamer by and win national championships? Or is Beamer slipping from the latest plateau that the program has enjoyed over the past four years?
This is my problem with the program right now. The Hokies have plateaued, and it won’t last unless changes are made. Compare the Hokies over the past four years to the Boston Red Sox during that same time frame. Many Sox fans, including yours truly, wanted management to keep the 2004 World Champion Red Sox intact for a few more years. This team had barely missed out on the Series in ‘03 and broke the curse in ‘04. However, it was pretty clear by the time the Sox were swept by the ChiSox in the 2005 playoffs that without serious personnel changes, the BoSox were not going to compete with the AL’s finest in the years to come. Yes, they were successful in ‘05, but the team was beginning to slip. So, the Sox brass made smart decisions to merge the few remains of the ‘04 team with new young blood and free agents to produce another championship in ‘07. 2005 was that “plateau year.” Changes were made in the offseason after ‘05 and two years later, the Sox were champs.
Anytime you reach a plateau, you can’t enjoy it for too long. You must continually make changes; otherwise that plateau will become a valley. The Red Sox management understood that and made some bold moves at the expense of the 2006 season. It has paid off tremendously with the World Series championship in ‘07, and a future that looks 10 times brighter than it did in 2004. I hear a lot of Hokie fans saying that Beamer will never win the MNC, but will always have the team on this plateau, meaning in the Top 10/15/20. What proof do they have to believe that? Look at FSU and Miami. The two greatest college football powers of the ’80s and early ’90s are now nowhere to be found in the Top 25.
Of all Beamer’s accomplishments and traits, I’ve been most impressed with how he continues to take the program from one plateau to another with each one being higher. On the verge of being fired after a 2-8-1 year in 1992-93, the Hokies turned it around in ‘93-94 by winning the Independence Bowl. From there, the Hokies won back-to-back Big East titles in 1995-1996. Then, in 1999, the Hokies put Blacksburg on the map with their appearance in the national championship game. Five years later, Beamer leads the Hokies to a more prestigious conference championship (the ACC) and does it again in ‘07. I like to compare these improvements to the improvements anyone can make in the game of golf. Most people say that it’s easier to improve your game by a few strokes when you shoot in the 100s. I’m not saying it’s an easy thing to do. It’s just easier to decrease your average score from around 100 to the mid-90s than it is from the high-70s to the low-70s. As you get better, the improvements are much more difficult to make and the changes are harder to execute. I should know because over the 22 years I’ve been playing golf, I’ve improved my game from the 100s to the high-70s, and have been fluctuating between the mid-80s and high-70s for the past 15 years. Every now and then, I have a “career” round and shoot in the low-70s, but I can’t get there consistently because I am not willing to change. My game has plateaued at a fairly high and respectable level, just like Beamer’s coaching career, and the changes needed to reach the ultimate level are much more challenging that at any point in the past.
How will Beamer go down in the history of college football coaches when all is said and done? Will Beamer’s career resemble Kansas State’s Bill Snyder or Nebraska’s Tom Osbourne? Both are Hall of Fame coaches, but at this time, the answer is no doubt, Snyder.
Snyder put K State on the college football map. No one outside of Kansas knew of Manhattan, Kan., until Coach Snyder made the Wildcats a Big 12 power and national contender. But, Snyder could never get over that last hump and win a MNC. He came oh so close in ‘98. K State was 11-0, the #1 team in the country, only to lose “The Big Game” to Texas A&M in the Big 12 championship.
Tom Osbourne, on the other hand, won three national championships, but it took him 21 years to get his first. Leading up to that first national championship, Osbourne won 10 conference championships, and his teams played in 16 major bowls. However, in the 10 years preceding Nebraska’s national championship in 1994, Osbourne went 2-8 in bowl games. His 1993 team lost to FSU for the national championship in the Orange Bowl. Ten years earlier, the Huskers were upset by then upstart Miami for the national championship. With all that success in his first 20 years, Osbourne had disappointed the Nebraska faithful with his big game losses. Read this excerpt from FoxSports.com about Osbourne:
After another humiliating loss to Florida State after the 1992 Orange Bowl (played in 1993), Tom requested his entire defensive staff to matriculate down to Bobby Bowden’s Florida State Seminole staff to learn the vaunted 4-3 attacking defense. A staff that included Charlie McBride and George Darlington. If you know any Husker fan over the age of 30, I don’t believe that they have NOT uttered the words Jesus Christ before the names of McBride or Darlington. And not to mention was the signing of the legendary Tommie Frazier took place in 1992. (NOTE: This was before the 1992 season.). The emphasis for speed and athleticism brought about by Bowden and Jimmy Johnson had taken a stronghold in college football. Without it, you simply couldn’t compete with the best. In 1991 and forward, the Husker staff strongly held true to that notion, and were recruiting speed much more than size. They were also very fortunate to gain many solid offensive lineman that were either Nebraska natives or were flying under the radar pertaining to national recruiting.
In 1993, the Huskers unveiled their attacking 4-3 defense after their visit to Florida. With Trev Alberts and company, it was one of the fiercest defenses in the entire country. With Tommie Frazier at the helm, the option attack was once again very productive due to an extremely productive defensive team. An 11-0 roll through the regular season saw the much-maligned Huskers once again playing against Florida State in the Orange Bowl. This time as the #1 ranked team, as 17 point dogs, and with all the marbles on the line. In a tightly contested battle the Huskers lost a heart-breaker 18 – 16. In a game where the oft-criticized ‘slow’ Huskers showed that they belonged, and then some, they fell in defeat once again. Once again Tom Osborne was ridiculed for not being able to ‘win the big one.’
After 21 years of coaching Tom Osborne was once again being shunned as a ‘nice’ guy but not a winner. A man who could win a lot of games, but never a winner of anything noteworthy. After 21 years, coach Osborne was at the brunt of many a Husker fan looking for something ‘better’.
Well, Coach Osbourne’s decision to change his defensive strategy by learning from those who had beaten him in previous big games eventually led him to the peak of his coaching career. Like Osbourne, Beamer must make a major change, but on the offensive side of the ball. I’m not suggesting he fire a certain individual. That might be the answer, and frankly, that’s my opinion. Even so, it’s clear to me that Beamer must make some sort of significant change in order to go down in history as one of the greatest coaches of all time, and not just the man who put Blacksburg on the map.