Patience pays off with college football coaches

Posted: Thursday, December 30, 2004

NEW ORLEANS — Frank Beamer wrapped up his sixth year at Virginia Tech with the sort of numbers that usually get a coach fired.

Twenty-four wins. Forty losses. No bowls.

But the Hokies stuck with Beamer, and look what's happened over the past dozen seasons.

Twelve straight winning records. Twelve straight bowl games. Four conference championships.

''When you think of Virginia Tech football, you think of Frank Beamer,'' said former Hokies quarterback Michael Vick, now a star with the Atlanta Falcons. ''Coach Beamer's a winner.''

So, here's a memo to Notre Dame, Mississippi and Syracuse, along with any school that might be pondering whether to dump its football coach: Sometimes, it pays to be patient.

''People want to react quickly,'' said Beamer, who led the Hokies to the Atlantic Coast Conference title in their first year after moving from the Big East Conference, where they won three titles. ''This is not a business that it usually happens quickly.''

He should know.

No. 9 Virginia Tech (10-2) meets third-ranked Auburn (12-0) in the Sugar Bowl on Monday night — a normal ending to the season for the Hokies. This is their third trip to the New Orleans in the past decade.

But the program was far from a national contender in Beamer's early years. After being hired by his alma mater in 1987, he went 2-9. The following year wasn't much better, the Hokies stumbling to a 3-8 mark.

Beamer managed a couple of winning seasons before Virginia Tech took two more steps backward, tumbling all the way to 2-8-1 in '92. At that point, no one would have blamed the Hokies for going in a different direction.

But then-athletic director Dave Braine — a former coach himself and now at Georgia Tech — decided to stick with Beamer. That turned out to be a stroke of genius. The Hokies went 9-3 in '93, won the Independence Bowl and haven't looked back.

''I was fortunate to have Dave Braine,'' Beamer said Wednesday, ''and a president and vice president who realized we had the foundation in place to be OK.''

In another precarious year for coaches, Beamer stands out like someone who belongs in a museum.

Just look what happened to Tyrone Willingham, fired after only three seasons at Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish broke the long-standing tradition of allowing a coach at least five years (yep, even Gerry Faust) to prove whether he was up to the pressure-packed job.

Not too far from New Orleans, Ole Miss handed a pink slip to David Cutcliffe after a 4-7 season, even though he was just one year removed from being named Southeastern Conference coach of the year. No one seemed to take into account that the Rebels had lost a pretty good quarterback, Eli Manning.

Then, on Wednesday, Syracuse reversed course and dumped Paul Pasqualoni — less than a month after saying the second-winningest coach in school history would be back for his 15th season.

Others have been gobbled up, as well. Ron Zook was fired before he finished his third year at Florida, overwhelmed by the expectations that went along with being Steve Spurrier's successor. Gerry DiNardo got only three years at Indiana.

''I certainly think there have been a couple of situations where you question if they gave the coach enough time,'' Beamer said.

The Sugar Bowl is the most striking example of two programs that benefited from NOT firing their coaches.

Auburn was poised to give Tommy Tuberville the boot when the Tigers failed to meet lofty expectations last season. But top school officials bungled the search for a possible successor, generating enough sympathy for Tuberville to save his job.

This season, the players rallied around their embattled coach, winning the school's first Southeastern Conference championship since 1989. In just about any other season, Auburn would have gotten a chance to play for the national title, but two other undefeated teams, top-ranked Southern Cal and No. 2 Oklahoma, will meet in the Orange Bowl.

''It takes a while to do it the right way,'' Tuberville said. ''You've got to have a solid base. There are no shortcuts. You hope everyone will look at a situation and factor that in. Obviously, a lot of schools don't do that.''

While the virtues of patience are certainly exemplified by the Sugar Bowl coaches, Tuber-ville understands the enormous expectations that go along with the job.

The football coach is the highest-paid employee on many campuses — and he's expected to provide a return on that investment.

Winning seasons and bowl games aren't always enough. Willingham, Cutcliffe, Pas-qualoni and Zook had more victories than defeats, but they didn't win enough to satisfy influential alumni and impatient administrators.

''We make a lot of money,'' said Tuberville, who has agreed to a new seven-year, $16 million contract. ''People watch it. You've got the Internet, the chat rooms. There's a lot more media attention.''

In all fairness to trigger-happy schools, the coaches must take some of the blame for the merry-go-round that takes place every offseason.

Nick Saban was one of the highest-paid coaches in college football, but that didn't stop him from leaving LSU to take an even better-paying job with the NFL's Miami Dolphins. Even Tuberville falls into that group, defecting from Ole Miss after the '98 season when Auburn came along with a more lucrative deal.

So, if a coach who doesn't win enough, he'll get fired. If he does win enough, there's usually a better job waiting elsewhere.

Which makes Beamer an anachronism from another era, when coaches such as Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden settled into lifetime positions.

''I haven't moved around a lot,'' Beamer said. ''If you're happy, I don't think you necessarily need to move. Money has never been the biggest issue with me.''

He paused for a second.

''But it's only great if you can win. In this business, the only thing that matters in the end is: Can you win enough games to keep everyone happy.''

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