Jan. 3, 2000
By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) – The most revealing story about Frank Beamer has nothing
to do with football. Not at the beginning, anyway.
That was 1954, long before Virginia Tech’s 53-year-old coach had any idea
how he would make his living or that one day he would play for a national
A long scar running down the right side of Beamer’s neck is a reminder of
that episode. Yet somehow, it wasn’t until the spotlight landed on him that his
own son learned the details.
“He didn’t like to talk about it,” said Shane Beamer, who doubles as the
long snapper for the Hokies, “and I didn’t want to ask.”
It isn’t hard to understand why.
Frank Beamer was an easygoing 7-year-old growing up on a farm in the tiny
town of Fancy Gap, Va., the passageway between two Appalachian peaks. One day,
after helping his own father burn a pile of trash, Frank carried a smoldering
broom back into the garage. It ignited a can of gasoline, causing an explosion
that left him with severe burns on the right side of his neck, shoulder and
Beamer’s older brother, Barnett, probably saved his life. He had the
presence of mind to roll Frank in the dirt and extinguish the flames. But the
suffering was only beginning.
Over the next four years, Beamer underwent 30 operations, most of them skin
grafts that didn’t take. But every time he began to feel sorry for himself,
Beamer’s mother, an elementary school teacher, made him walk down the hall at
the hospital. He always found someone in worse shape. Those memories steeled
him for nearly every challenge that followed.
“The doctors said he might be able to walk, but that he definitely was
through with sports. He was determined to prove them wrong and he did,” Shane
said. “If he tells you he’s going to do something, whether it’s golf or
football or even cooking out, it will happen. I see that determination in him
now more than anything.”
This sort of thing happens every so often at the national championship. A
coach with a chance to validate his credentials by winning the biggest game of
his career comes in with a reputation but turns out to be very different.
All season, as Virginia Tech erased opponents and critics, the pictures
relayed from the sidelines and post-game interviews in Blacksburg, Va., made
Beamer look like the most regular of regular guys. Quiet. Content with his good
fortune. Hoping he had many years ahead on the job.
And yet from the moment Beamer arrived in Blacksburg in 1987, his
determination simmered just below the surface.
He recruited the local kids that big programs overlooked and taught them to
overachieve. He hired defensive whiz Phil Elmassian a half-dozen years ago and
gave him the freedom to play an attacking style. It became known as Beamer
Ball, and soon other colleges were trying to imitate it.
Beamer told reporters who showed up for his first news conference at
Virginia Tech that he would be playing for a national title. They snickered,
but after seven straight bowl appearances, he’s the one laughing now.
“I may be from a small town,” Beamer said not long after his arrival in
the Big Easy, “but I don’t think I’ve ever thought small.”
After that day in 1954, he could hardly afford to.
Beamer went on to play the games the doctors said he would not, and hasn’t
quit exceeding expectations since. He was a star quarterback in high school, a
5-foot-9, 170-pound starter at defensive back for Virginia Tech in the
mid-1960s and the coach at Murray State. He then returned home to inherit a
program the NCAA had just put on probation.
Beamer started in a rut and hit a handful of others on the way. He lost five
of his first six games against rival Virginia. In his sixth year, he went 2-8-1
and learned that he wasn’t the only one suffering the consequences.
Shane and daughter Casey caught flak from schoolmates and his wife, Cheryl,
heard about her husband’s shortcomings in the grocery aisles. When the phone
started ringing at home, it bothered Beamer more than the losses.
“If they wanted to write him or call him, that’s the way he wanted it to
happen,” Cheryl Beamer recalled. “I was naive. I thought everybody was nice.
So I had our number unlisted.”
Everybody knows where to find Beamer these days. He’ll be the coach on the
sideline at the Sugar Bowl looking calmer than he has a right to be.