One story explains much about Beamer's childhood and his fortitude: In 1954, when Frank was seven, he was helping burn a pile of trash. After the job was finished, he took the push broom he'd been using into the garage, unaware that it was still smoldering. The broom ignited a can of gasoline, which exploded in front of Frank His 11-year-old brother, Barnett, rolled him in the dirt outside the garage, extinguishing the flames, but Frank was left with severe burns on the right side of his neck, shoulder and chest He underwent 30 operations over the next four years, most of them unsuccessful attempts at skin grafts. "I remember feeling sorry for myself a lot," says Beamer. "Then my mother would walk me down the hall of the hospital to see some people who were really hurting, and that would take care of that." A long scar and permanent swelling are still visible on the right side of his neck. He also has disfigured skin on his chest and shoulder from the burns and on his back and knee from the grafting.
Despite his injuries he became a star quarterback at Hillsville High and a 5'9", 170-pound starting defensive back at Virginia Tech from 1966 through '68. "There's no denying that this school is a special place to me," says Beamer, who majored in distributive education. For several years after his return as football coach, his experience was more agonizing than special. Burdened by NCAA penalties levied against the program of Beamer's predecessor, Bill Dooley, the Hokies won a total of five games in Beamer's first two years. They improved to 6-4-1 in '89, 6-5 in '90 and 5-6 in '91, but a 2-8-1 disaster in '92 put Beamer's job in jeopardy. "Plenty of people wanted us to fire Frank," says Dave Braine, who was Virginia Tech's athletic director at the time and now holds the same position at Georgia Tech. Braine and school president James McComas stuck with Beamer, although they told him to fire three assistant coaches and gave him the money to hire ostensibly better ones.
Since that crisis Virginia Tech has won 64 games in seven years and, by Jan. 4, will have played in a bowl in seven straight post-seasons. This apparently was achieved without any sudden lowering of admissions standards for football players. "It hasn't happened here, and it won't," says Torgersen. Rather, the advent of Big East Conference football in 1991 gave the Hokies access to major bowls and some opponents—principally Syracuse and Miami—that recruits would find attractive. One of the assistants hired in '93 was Phil Elmassian, who installed a variation of the attacking, eight-in-the-box defense that would become the rage across college football in the mid-and late '90s. That defense gave the Hokies an identity, as did Beamer's fanatical emphasis on special teams. Since '87 Tech has blocked 75 kicks in 149 games and scored 57 touchdowns on defense and special teams, including eight in '99. In Blacksburg this is called Beamer Ball.
Virginia Tech has grown into a national championship contender with few nationally recruited high school players. There are three reasons for this: One, most top recruits haven't been interested in the Hokies. Virginia tailback and Heisman Trophy candidate Thomas Jones of Big Stone Gap, Va., who was wooed by Notre Dame and Tennessee, among others, has to drive past Blacksburg on his way to Charlottesville, yet says, "I never considered Virginia Tech." Two, Virginia Tech has done an exceptional job in keeping many good—if not nationally pursued—Virginia recruits at home. This is no small factor, because Virginia talent has long been underrated. "Only Florida, Texas and California are clearly superior," says MacPherson. Three, Beamer's staff has been astute at finding less-renowned players who fit Tech's attacking defensive system and, lately, its multiple offense, and then making them into solid players.
On the current team, All-America senior defensive end Corey Moore of Brownsville, Tenn., was dumped from Tennessee's recruiting list in his senior year and wound up in a junior college before going to Blacks-burg as a 200-pound lineman (SI, Oct. 25). The other starting defensive end, fifth-year senior John Engelberger, walked on as a 210-pound tight end and now weighs 269. Junior cornerback Ike Charlton grew up in Orlando as a Florida State fan, but the Seminoles dropped him from their recruiting list in his senior year. André Davis, a 6'1", 200-pound sophomore wideout who caught two long touchdown passes against Boston College and improves with every game, was a high school track star and, until 11th grade, a soccer player in Niskayuna, N.Y. His cousin, Rich Bowen, had played at Virginia Tech in 1995 and sent the coaches a tape of Davis playing football as a senior; the Hokies staff liked what it saw. Because of an injury, Shyrone Stith, a junior tailback, only played in five games as a senior at Western Branch (Chesapeake, Va.) High, but Virginia Tech took a chance on him, and he has rushed for more than 2,000 yards in his career. "We just don't believe in lists," says Beamer. "We believe in finding players drat we like by talking to people we trust."
They believe in lists a little more now. The Hokies' success over the past few seasons has put their recruiters in the homes of many top-rated players, and Beamer and his staff now straddle the fence between joining the chase for the highly coveted players or continuing to pursue the unwanted.
There's no chance of Beamer's becoming unwanted. Last winter he interviewed for the openings at Clemson (which went to Tommy Bowden) and South Carolina (Lou Holtz). He was offered neither, but the dalliances pushed Virginia Tech athletic director Jim Weaver to restructure Beamer's contract. In addition to his base package of $500,000 a year and a $1 million annuity that Beamer can collect on July 1, 2005, if he stays at Tech, the school added annual bonuses totaling $525,000, which can also be collected in 2005, plus a $25,000 annual fee for making Hokie Club appearances, which Beamer already had been doing. Tech also dramatically increased Beamer's bowl incentives: He now receives two months' salary (approximately $30,000) if the Hokies appear in a bowl game and another $10,000 if they win it, or three months' salary if Tech makes a BCS bowl and another $15,000 if it wins it. The national title carries a $100,000 bonus. "We intend to stay a top program for many years," says Weaver. Expansion projects costing $15 million, including increasing the capacity of Lane Stadium from 52,000 to 65,000 by 2003, are on the board.
All this has made a celebrity of a simple man. Beamer's tastes run to lazy man's barbecuing in the backyard ("He'll sit out there for four hours," says Beamer's 22-year-old son, Shane, the Hokies' long snapper), sandbagging fellow coaches with his 14 handicap on the golf course and listening to Shania Twain, whose concert he and his wife, Cheryl, attended on Monday night in Richmond. Yet he refuses to give in to any reverie on the fulfillment of his or his program's dreams. As he walked through the postgame darkness last Friday, sidestepping puddles en route to his office, he said, "What's happened here is the product of good players and good coaches, nothing else. This is real."
That's easy to say when Vick is your quarterback. A 19-year-old from Newport News, Va., Vick is the difference between a very good team and a national championship contender. He's a mesmerizing player who would be a serious contender for the Heisman Trophy were it not for the voters' practice of favoring upperclassmen. Against Boston College he completed 11 of 13 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed for 76 yards, a figure skewed downward by 42 yards in sack losses. He threw a 69-yard touchdown to Davis that sailed 63 yards in the air, and he dropped a 30-yard touch pass down the chimney to Cullen Hawkins for another score. On short passes his lefthanded release is blurry-quick. At 6'1", 211 pounds with 4.33 speed, he's a threat to run on every play. That's why Boston College coach Tom O'Brien compared Vick to 1993 Heisman winner Charlie Ward and Syracuse's star of the recent past, Donovan McNabb—when they were seniors.
A sensational high school player from the talent-rich Tidewater region of Virginia who was named to several high school All-America teams, Vick is an exception to the Hokies' no-name recruiting. His choice came down to Virginia Tech or Syracuse, where he was hosted by McNabb, whom he idolized. "Syracuse had him, they were sure of it," says one person familiar with Vick's recruitment.