The seamless transition between Frank Beamer and Justin Fuente belongs in a textbook for future athletic directors and coaches to study. In recent years, nobody has done it better.
There is a reason for that. Parting ways with a long-time coach is a gut-wrenching process, often turning into a tug-of-war between the program builder and the program itself. Messy exits have followed, from Joe Paterno to Bobby Bowden to Mack Brown, each for their own separate and very distinctive reasons.
Beamer observed each one, and vowed he would be different. While questions circled around his fate in his last several years as coach, Virginia Tech allowed Beamer the time to make the call on his own retirement. Athletic director Whit Babcock felt he owed that much to the man who built something at Virginia Tech from nothing.
So on the first day of November 2015, Beamer called it a career. He did it with the class and dignity that have become his hallmark. When Babcock decided on Fuente, he felt he found a kindred spirit to Beamer, a coach with a similar work ethic, values and goals. Fuente had no interest in running from the past. He wanted Beamer right alongside him, a proud reminder of all that is possible in Blacksburg.
“It just speaks to the kind of people that Coach Beamer and Coach Fuente are,” fullback Sam Rogers said. “It’s not like we were going for two drastically different types of people. You go from a blue collar coach in Coach Beamer to another blue collar coach in Coach Fuente. You have the same foundation there, so it makes the transition easier.”
Fuente has proven that just about every day. The locker room has been renamed in Beamer’s honor. Fuente decided to choose one special teams player every week to wear Beamer’s No. 25 as a tribute to him. Beamer has been visible at home games this season, and has an open invitation to attend practice.
Just last week, Beamer addressed the team before its regular-season finale against rival Virginia. When he walked in the room, he got a standing ovation.
“I didn't think there was anybody on the planet that knew more about beating Virginia than he did, so I felt like we needed all the resources possible,” Fuente said. “I felt like the kids would enjoy it. You know, they miss him, and they have a tremendous amount of respect for him, as I do, and when he walked in the room and they all gave him a standing ovation, I got a little glimpse of the respect they have for him.”
Fuente and Beamer had no relationship before Fuente came to Blacksburg, other than a tangential one: Fuente attended Murray State, where Beamer coached before he arrived at Virginia Tech. But they hit it off from the moment they met. To further add to the good will and bridge the eras, Fuente decided to retain longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who worked alongside Beamer for 29 seasons.
That decision is a big reason why Virginia Tech is back in the ACC championship game for the first time since 2011, a game that came to symbolize the Hokies’ dominance in the Coastal Division. Since Virginia Tech joined the ACC in 2004, no coach has won more division titles than Beamer (five).
But to get there, Fuente also needed buy-in from his players. When he addressed his team for the first time, he spoke to an entire room full of players who committed to play for Beamer.
“All the players, we all bought in to what Coach Fuente brought to the table,” linebacker Tremaine Edmunds said. “From Day 1, we’ve been working hard, coming out each and every day with the same mind-set to get better. I feel like all the players bought in, listened to what he had to say and worked hard every day.”
Edmunds and his older brothers all signed under Beamer, one of 25 sets of brothers to play for the coach. When he sees Beamer around, Edmunds said, “It’s definitely still nice. Whenever he’s around, he gets his respect from the players, all the coaches and all the fans. Coach Beamer is always at home here.”
For Beamer, that means more than anything.
“I was just pleased Justin wanted to include me,” Beamer said. “My thoughts would be to stay away and get out of your way but he said the kids want to see you and to come on back. I don’t think when you make a change like this it ever goes as smoothly as this one went it. I appreciate Whit Babcock and Justin.”
The appreciation is mutual.