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Friday, November 3
Beamer has Hokies back in national title hunt

By Bob Harig
Special to

MIAMI -- Frank Beamer knows adversity.

And we're not talking about his Virginia Tech football team perhaps having to face Miami without quarterback Michael Vick. We're not talking about the recent struggles against West Virginia, Syracuse and Pittsburgh. We're not talking about the venom that will spew from the Orange Bowl on Saturday.

Go back several seasons, to the fall of 1993, when the Hokies were coming off a 2-8-1 season that nearly cost Beamer his job. Speaking at a Hokie Club booster meeting in Richmond, a Tech fan introduced himself to Beamer afterward. Turns out, they had the same last name. In fact, they were from nearby Virginia towns.

"Do you suppose we're related," Frank Beamer finally asked.

"Not with a 2-8-1 record we're not," replied the fan.

Frank Beamer
Frank Beamer did the right thing by staying at Va. Tech.
So it was for Beamer, 54, who survived the rocky times (he was 24-40-2 after six years) to build Tech into a power. Now in his 14th season, Beamer won four national coaching awards last season in leading the Hokies to a 11-1 record and a Sugar Bowl loss to Florida State.

The second-ranked Hokies are 8-0 heading into the game against the third-ranked Hurricanes, the first time two Big East teams will play each other while both are ranked in the top-five.

Since the beginning of the 1993 season, Tech is 72-20, an average of nine victories. Virginia Tech has won three Big East titles and can all but wrap a fourth with a victory over the Hurricanes. An eighth straight bowl trip is assured.

But can the Hokies maintain this level? They figured to be one-year wonders after last season's magical run to the national championship game. Although all-world quarterback Michael Vick was returning, the Hokies lost eight starters from their "Lunch Pale" defense. Another championship run did not seem likely.

"I'll be honest, when we started the season I didn't think we'd have this kind of pressure at this time of year," Beamer said. "When you lose eight starters on defense and all your kicking game, I think it's pretty remarkable this team is still undefeated at this point in time."

Perhaps that says something about the job Beamer and his staff have done in Blacksburg, Va. Several factors are at play.

Beamer has been aided by his ability to keep assistant coaches in Blacksburg, which added credibility and consistency to every aspect of the program.

"He's a friend to all of us," Tech offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle said. "He cares about his players and his assistants and we care about him. He makes it so much fun. We've had several coaches on our staff who had the opportunity to leave and didn't."

I'll be honest, when we started the season I didn't think we'd have this kind of pressure at this time of year. When you lose eight starters on defense and all your kicking game, I think it's pretty remarkable this team is still undefeated at this point in time.
Va. Tech's Frank Beamer

Beamer has won mostly with players not pursued by schools with bigger reputations. Only once before this season -- 1998, when quarterback Vick signed -- has SuperPrep magazine ranked one of Tech's recruiting classes among the nation's top 30. Compare that with Miami or Florida State, where a class not ranked in the top 10 would be considered a disaster.

The Hokies have a knack for finding talented players who might be missing one of the blue-chip ingredients. Perhaps they are undersized by Division I standards. But they typically are fast, hungry and willing to work.

"We're not going to change," defensive line coach Charley Wiles said. "We don't recruit kids based on who else is recruiting them."

But even Beamer said, "I don't think we've ever been hotter recruiting. I know we've never been hotter."

That will help the Hokies sustain their success. So will the Big East Conference. Recruits know the Hokies play Miami and Syracuse every year in the Big East and that winning the league means playing in a big bowl. Tech used to play in the Southern Conference, then became an independent in the mid-1960s. It joined the Big East in 1991.

"The thing that Tech needed was to get in a conference," said former coach Bill Dooley, at the school from 1978 to 1986. "I worked like the devil to get in the ACC. They've gone to the Orange Bowl and the Sugar Bowl . . . we were fighting to get the Independence Bowl."

The Hokies no longer have those worries. But they do have to be concerned about Miami, which appears to be back from the doldrums of the mid-1990s, when NCAA sanctions crippled the program. Beamer called it a huge turning point for his program when he defeated Miami for the first time in 1995. He hasn't lost since, winning five in a row.

Now, it is Miami that would consider a victory over the Hokies another defining moment. The winner of this game could conceivably play for the national title.

"There's no question our backs are up against the wall," Beamer said. "But I welcome the pressure. These last few weeks have been a rewarding time."

Bob Harig covers college football for the St. Petersburg Times.

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