Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer still knows football at age 68 as he enters his 29th season with the Hokies. Of that there should be no doubt.
But knowing it and retaining the ability to teach it changes with time. Sometimes coaches and their team’s personality no longer connect.
Consider that Virginia Tech has posted two 7-6 seasons sandwiched around an 8-5 record in 2013. What would another subpar season mean for Beamer and his legacy? The answer is the much the same if his Hokies managed a rebound season.
From this point forward Beamer is more likely to cloud his legacy than return the Hokies to a second national championship game to match a 1999 runner-up finish. Another subpar season will push 1999 further into his history, and already many Virginia Tech fans are too young to remember that long ago season.
Imagine if Florida State’s Bobby Bowden had retired after back-to-back ACC titles in 2002 and 2003 and then went out after 2004 with a 9-3 record and Gator Bowl victory. He and Seminoles fans would have been spared the indignity of Florida State’s president and board members pressuring him into retirement as he aged and lost his grip on the program.
The Seminoles were clearly in decline his final five seasons, including three 7-6 seasons. He had turned 80 late into his final the season, which turned out to be only a 7-6 record and that was thanks to a Gator Bowl win.
By then, former players were complaining that Florida State was playing for bowl eligibility instead of ACC titles or a Bowl Championship Series berth.
Imagine if Penn State’s Joe Paterno had retired 10 years earlier instead of hanging on into his mid-80s by the time he was a fired in November a month before he turned 85.
The Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal aside — which would have ultimately marred Paterno’s legacy whether he was coaching or retired — Paterno’s grasp on his football program had been fading.
We would have been spared stories coming out later about how Paterno couldn’t remember his players’ names and called them out by number on the practice field. Or the story about how board members and the president went to his house in 2004 to suggest retirement and Paterno’s response was to throw them out.
If JoePa had retired gracefully, we would have been spared the ugly spectacle of former players fighting the university over its decision to accept the Freeh Report that was a scathing indictment of Paterno overlooking Sandusky’s warning signs.
Bowden and Paterno are only two examples. Imagine if Ohio State’s Woody Hayes had retired after the 1977 season, his 28th with the Buckeyes at age 65. One more year was all it took for Hayes’ 1978 team to slip to 7-4-1 with an infamous Gator Bowl loss. That was the night Hayes punched a Clemson player after he intercepted a pass and was tackled along the Ohio State sideline. Hayes, who long had a reputation as a bully, was fired before the team returned to Columbus.
The irony of coaches staying too long is Beamer began his career when college sports — under less financial stress than now — allowed a coach time to turn around a program.
Now a coach might only get three or four years.
Prior to Michigan, Rich Rodriguez was successful at West Virginia, but he was fired after three disappointing seasons at Michigan. After a year away from the game in the TV booth, he’s turned around Arizona with back-to-back 8-5 seasons and a Pac-12 South title and 10-4 record in 2014.
Same coach but different team — such are vagaries of coaching.
Brady Hoke turned around Ball State in five years and San Diego State in two. But he was fired after four years at Michigan. Same coach, but he was with a different team. He was forced out with the belief the fifth year would have been the turning point.
Beamer needed three years for his first winning season and six before his first highly successful year at 9-3 in 1993. The Hokies were 2-9 in his first season in 1987 and 3-8 in 1988. He was above .500 in 1989 (6-4-1) and 1990 (6-5) before slipping back to 5-6 in 1991 and 2-8-1in 1992.
Beamer’s legacy at Virginia Tech is secure for now. He’s bound for the College Football Hall of Fame.
He has enough talent to post a winning season in 2015. The Hokies might even exploit suspension-depleted Ohio State in the season opener. But they also upset Ohio State last year – the only team to beat the eventual national champions – and finished only 7-6.
Beamer should learn from the mistakes of Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno. Don’t stay too long.
He doesn’t want to hear a knock on the door one of these off-season nights, open it and allow the president and board members to enter and sit down with the suggestion it is time to retire.