Any sports program, regardless of the sport or level of competition, wants to be successful. But how is success truly defined? For some of the elite franchises, the only reasonable expectation is a championship within their league, but that only applies to a very exclusive group. For struggling programs, it might only be to win half of their games.
Where does Virginia Tech football fall on that spectrum? That’s a bit of a loaded question, and varying segments of the fanbase will offer very different responses. Some people will say there’s no reason why Tech can’t be a top 10–15 team in the country on at least a semi-regular basis, while others will (without admitting it) settle for simply not being a middling team within the fairly weak ACC Coastal, especially if that still means they’re better than the school from Charlottesville.
The latter is a low, rather depressing bar for success. However, it’s arguably more realistic than the former.
That’s not what fans want to hear, but it’s true. Not only is Virginia Tech not the national brand that some people want to believe, but much of its success over the last 25 years is both overstated and inimitable.
What is Frank Beamer’s Legacy?
This isn’t meant to diminish Beamer’s accomplishments, but it’s a legitimate question that sets the stage for a larger discussion.
To start with, while the legendary coach turned Virginia Tech football into more than it was when he took it over, the era before him also wasn’t quite as bad as it is often portrayed as.
Bill Dooley went 64–38 (with one tie) over nine seasons at Tech prior to Beamer taking the reigns, and he led the Hokies to a Top 25 finish and Peach Bowl-winning campaign before his departure.
Beamer, on the other hand, went 238–121 (with two ties) over his 29 seasons in charge of the Hokie football program, also leading them to 16 AP Top 25 seasons (including seven top-10 finishes), a National Championship game appearance, and 23 consecutive bowl games — not to mention boosting them from Independent status to the Big East, and later to the ACC.
Beamer’s resume is better; no one will dispute that. However, how much better is it really? It’s certainly longer than Dooley’s, and his “highs” were also higher, but his winning percentage wasn’t overwhelmingly better. So here’s a different form of context.
A Collegiate Comparison
This may seem controversial, but it ultimately isn’t. From 1966–2011, Joe Paterno guided Penn State to a 409–136 record (with three ties), two National Championships (wins, not just appearances), 32 AP Top 25 seasons (including 22 Top 10 finishes), and 37 bowl games. For what it’s worth, he would’ve likely also added one to each of these categories if he hadn’t been fired for “other reasons” — we don’t have to get into that.
There’s no reason to ask which resume is better, because they frankly aren’t close. They also coincided for the most part, leading to silly in-game graphics in which both were top-three winningest active coaches (with Bobby Bowden being the other) but Paterno had almost twice as many wins.
The way I see it, there are two sides to this coin. Either Beamer and Paterno are legends to differing degrees, or Beamer is held on a bit too high of a pedestal. Longevity matters, but so does winning consistently, and Beamer too often fell into the “settle for simply not being a middling team within the fairly weak ACC Coastal” category, winning just enough games to keep the bowl streak alive, particularly at the end of his tenure.
A Professional Comparison
Let’s say we’re taking the “lesser legend” route as it relates to Beamer — which is probably the correct route. What some Hokie fans seem to be leaving out of this discussion is the fact that legends generally do legendary (a.k.a. historic and/or difficult to replicate) things within their environment.
It would be reasonable to assume Justin Fuente won’t have the success Frank Beamer did. After all, Beamer is a legend. Yet that’s not the way fans have chosen to view it. For some reason, Beamer’s heights (on a year-to-year basis) are the bar that Fuente must live up to, or else he simply isn’t good enough. That sounds odd, doesn’t it?
It’s not quite apples to apples, but one of the best NFL comparisons that I can think of is the Steelers’ transition from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher. Noll was one of the better coaches in the history of the league. From 1969–91, he had a 193–148–1 record, which isn’t eye-popping, but his peak was historic.
Noll didn’t have a losing season from 1972–84, and his ’70s Steelers teams alone won 10 or more games seven times and won four Super Bowls during the decade. That’s fairly comparable to Beamer’s win totals and the Hokies’ dominance over the ACC in the early 2000s.
Bill Cowher wasn’t a bad coach. He actually had a higher winning percentage than Noll during his tenure (1992–2006), and he got to two Super Bowls, winning one of them (2005). Consider this similar to what Justin Fuente has done — a comparable winning percentage to Beamer without the high peak, occasionally winning the Coastal (like Cowher occasionally made a deep AFC playoff run).
Not only has Fuente continued Beamer’s beloved bowl streak, but he’s also won the ACC Coastal as many times as he’s finished the regular season worse than 8–4 (once). He has a significantly higher winning percentage in his first four seasons at Tech than Beamer did in his last four seasons, and there have been teams (most notably Baylor) that have tried to pry him away. Yet somehow none of that matters.
If the Steelers had no substantial qualms with Cowher, why should the Hokies with Fuente?
Tech’s Standing Within the Coastal
Before I shift gears to the future outlook, I think it’s important to note that the Hokies don’t own the Coastal division as much as you might think, nor have they ever. It’s easy to point to Tech’s peak and say it was better than anyone in the Coastal has ever had, but it might not be by as wide of a margin as you think.
The easy program to point to is Miami. The Hurricanes have fallen on “hard times” in the last 10–15 years, but they won five National Championships from 1983–2001, and they had 12 AP Top 5 seasons from 1983–2003. “The U” is a huge national brand, and they have a geographic advantage in recruiting. Knock the recent years all you want, but even since Randy Shannon took over in 2007, the Hurricanes have only missed a bowl game once (Shannon’s first season), and they’ve won at least nine games four times (including 2016 and 2017). They’re not where they once were, but don’t wake the beast, because their ceiling is unequivocally higher than Tech’s.
Georgia Tech hasn’t been much of a factor recently, but they also have (to a lesser extent) some notable history. The Yellow Jackets won the Coastal four times from 2006–14, winning 11 games twice in that span, and they have coveted National Championships (1952 and 1990) on their resume, which the Hokies do not. Similarly to Miami, Georgia Tech is also ideally placed geographically, and Geoff Collins seems to have them trending in the right direction entering his second season at the helm.
Then there’s a program like Pittsburgh. The Panthers seem to be an easy team to pick on, but they at least made an appearance in the AP Top 25 in seven seasons from 2002–10, and much like Tech, the bottom never really falls out. Pitt’s last season with fewer than five wins was 1998, and they won the Coastal as recently as 2018.
I won’t bore you about Virginia, North Carolina, and Duke because there isn’t a whole lot to hype up. However, UVA has boosted its win total in each of the last three seasons (culminating with a Coastal championship last season), and you can bet that Mack Brown and Sam Howell will keep the Tar Heels in the thick of the race at the top of the division.
If everything revolved around the history books, Virginia Tech and Miami would consistently be the top two teams in the Coastal. But recent years have shown us that the Coastal race doesn’t play out that way, and there are factors that make other programs more equipped to lure top talent than a school in southwest Virginia. That’s something that Hokie fans should come to accept. Maybe Frank Beamer’s run from 1995–2011 or so truly was an anomaly.
It also used to be much easier to win the ACC Championship out of the Coastal, but Clemson has been a top four team in the country every season since 2015, which has hurt the entire conference’s chances, including Fuente’s.
The Dematrius Davis Debacle
I’ll be honest; I don’t care much about recruiting. Addressing positions of need is important, but ultimately all of the teams ranked in the middle 50 percent of the Power 5 are in the same position. Nitpicking within that group tends to be pointless. Unless the talent you bring in is either elite or unequivocally not good enough, development and coaching will determine how good the players will become.
Last week, Dematrius Davis decommitted from Virginia Tech, and if you didn’t know any better, you may have thought a meteor was crashing towards Earth. Depending on what site you look at, he’s either just inside or just outside of the top 100 nationally in the class of 2021. In other words, he’s a great player to have, but he’s not so good that he’ll likely carry a program to places it hasn’t been in awhile.
Once upon a time, Josh Jackson was a top 200 prospect. In 2017, he had a supporting cast of Cam Phillips and Travon McMillan (who was coming off a 1,000-yard season on limited carries) on offense. His defense included five players who would later be drafted into the NFL, and that doesn’t include Brandon Facyson (who was undrafted but has become a key contributor for the Chargers) nor guys like Ricky Walker, Vinny Mihota, Trevon Hill, Andrew Motuapuaka, Mook Reynolds, or Reggie Floyd. Still, that 2017 team “only” went 9–4 that season, with No. 22 West Virginia as its only ranked win.
Call me crazy, but I don’t see a reason to believe Davis would’ve topped that season even if he had stuck firm to his commitment to the Hokies. The projected rosters in the coming seasons appear to be no stronger than it was in 2017, and it’s hard to even say with any certainty that Davis would’ve played any sooner than 2023. Hendon Hooker still has two more years of eligibility, Quincy Patterson (a somewhat highly-heralded recruit in his own right) has three years left, and I doubt either of them will enter the draft before their collegiate eligibility runs out. And honestly, if Hooker were to enter the draft after the 2020 season, it would keep Patterson around and remove that question mark from the equation.
There’s always the possibility that one of them transfers, but consider me optimistic that they won’t, especially if Hooker remains the starter going forward. I get the impression that Patterson is very much a team player and more amicable with his teammates than many other players are.
In my eyes, the worst-case scenario is that there’d be a QB1 opening in 2022. There’s still plenty of time to find someone who could fill that potential void, even if it has to be a Junior College transfer — don’t forget about how successful Jerod Evans was when Tech went that route in 2016.
Also, while Davis has re-opened his recruitment, he hasn’t eliminated Tech from his top six, nor has he included Auburn (the presumptive favorites to land him since he decommitted).
I understand Tech is ranked much lower in this recruiting class than people think they should be, but these things also balance themselves out to some degree. Maybe Davis will recommit, or maybe another player desperately searching for a school with a path to playing time will join the Hokies. But even if that doesn’t happen, it’s safe to bet on teams with solid infrastructures to not implode. Tech will be fine.
Tying This Together
Hopefully this served two purposes. First, it’s possible that we’re all just too high on Tech’s history and what it means the program should be going forward. Second, the sky is not falling. Justin Fuente can be good (as an on-field coach and as a recruiter) without reaching Frank Beamer’s heights, and one player committing or decommitting from the program does not make or break it.
Until further notice, the bar for the Virginia Tech football program (assuming a schedule similar to the ones it’s recently been handed) should be generally winning eight regular season games (although seven wins from time to time is reasonable) and competing for the Coastal title, likely winning it about once every four years. Anything above that is a bonus, and anything below that could be a reason for some alarms to go off, depending upon the larger context of the team itself and the conference as a whole.
Let’s also not forget that the Hokies have been built upon development, a “lunch pail” mentality, and a strong overall culture. As long as those characteristics remain present, there’s nothing to worry about; they’ll recruit well enough by their standards, players will frequently stack up better against their recruiting class once they leave school than they did when they showed up, and the team will perform up to at least an acceptable level. However, that’s only true if we all can acknowledge that the legendary Beamer years are a thing of the past and likely won’t be repeated.
So with that, I have a question for the fanbase. Can Hokie nation accept Tech being a competitive team (somewhere between No. 20–35 nationally) instead of a consistent top 20 juggernaut?