BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Their team lost, and no one left.
More than 65,000 fans had come here to say goodbye to Frank Beamer, and how the game ended was less important than the fact that his career was ending. So 10 minutes after a miracle comeback was undermined by a heartbreaking overtime loss, they stood in the stands, waiting to hear from the coach who’d owned this field for nearly three decades.
In the far corner of the south end zone, North Carolina’s players celebrated a division-clinching win with the swath of blue-clad fans, but lineman Landon Turner and quarterback Marquise Williams had stayed behind to pay their respects. They’d both been recruited by Beamer, too, and after spoiling his farewell with a 30-27 win in overtime that kept their own slim playoff hopes alive, they wanted to say thanks to the coach they’d chosen not to play for.
This was loss No. 6 for Virginia Tech, and for the second year in a row, the Hokies will limp into the regular-season finale needing a win over rival Virginia to clinch bowl eligibility. Beamer has always said he’d know when it was time to step aside, and the losses of the past few years had made it clear that time had come.
“He knows how to weather the storms,” Corey Marshall said of his coach after the game when asked how Beamer handled the loss in his last appearance on home turf.
And this was true. After compiling double-digit wins in 11 of 13 seasons from 1999 to 2011, these last few years have been rough. But when Beamer announced his retirement three weeks ago, the clouds parted for a restless fan base. Beamer said he wasn’t sad about his last game because he could so easily focus on everything that came before. The fans were here to do that, too.
Still, when Beamer finally bellowed into the microphone at midfield, his voice echoing throughout the stadium, he wanted to look ahead.
“We’ve got one more chance next week,” he said.
Maybe today would’ve been more emotional, he said, but he wanted to beat North Carolina too badly to let the emotions cloud his focus. Now that it was over, the best way to keep those feelings at bay was to turn his attention to next week in hopes of one more win, one more bowl berth, one more chance to enjoy this job he’s had for 29 years.
His team had retired to the locker room, but as Beamer wrapped up his speech to the fans, his players stormed the field and surrounded him, lifting him onto their shoulders and carrying him off the field as the crowd cheered. It wasn’t planned, quarterback Michael Brewer said afterward, but it felt like the right thing to do for the man who’d carried the program on his shoulders for so long.
The game began with a videotaped message from the band Metallica, wishing Beamer well. Their song “Enter Sandman” has become the signature moment to kick off every game at Lane Stadium. It was released four years after Beamer became coach.
Michael Vick, who helmed Beamer’s finest Virginia Tech team, was on the sideline for Saturday’s game. In the stands, children who weren’t alive when Vick led that 1999 team to within one win of a national championship held signs saying “Thank you, Coach Beamer.”
After the game, Beamer was asked if he was still at peace with his decision to step down.
“I don’t think so much about something being the last time,” Beamer said. There was still another game to coach, and after that, a life and a family to enjoy. His wife and daughter sat in the crowd in front of him crying.
Beamer raved about the game plan his longtime defensive coordinator, Bud Foster, put together to slow North Carolina, and he gushed over the guts shown by quarterback Brewer, who completed two touchdown throws on fourth down late in the fourth quarter. Those guys were to be celebrated, too, Beamer thought. And then Foster stepped to the podium and worried he’d let Beamer down, and offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler choked back tears talking about everything Beamer had meant to him.
“This was bittersweet,” receiver Isaiah Ford said afterward. He’d caught the touchdown that tied the game with 1:07 to play in the fourth quarter, but it wasn’t enough to guarantee a win.
The Hokies have spent a long time waiting for the storybook ending that’s never completely materialized. In 1998, an empty trophy case was added to the school’s hall of memorabilia, and Beamer was never able to fill it with a national title trophy. And maybe that is bittersweet.
But for the past 29 years, even if he hasn't always delivered the storybook ending, Beamer has provided a sense that anything is possible at a place that hadn't known it should expect wins and championships and magic. The fans came Saturday for one last taste of that Beamer Ball magic, and even without a win, that's what they got.
“I think more about how fortunate I am,” Beamer said. “I don’t really think about it being the last game here in Lane Stadium, even though it makes you sad. I really think about the 29 years I’ve been able to coach and the others that I played here. I’ve been a lucky guy.”