BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer had just finished speaking at a Hokie Club meeting this spring when one fan stood up and caught him by surprise.
"He said, 'Please, please don't ever take us through another season like that,'" Beamer said, shaking his head with a laugh. "I said, 'What?! You should've been here with us when we first got here.' That guy would've been a wreck."
Beamer's son, Shane, will remind you. As he sits in his office in the Merryman Center, he points out the window at Lane Stadium, where he recalls a mere 20,000 fans showing up in 1987 to watch the Hokies cap an ugly 2-9 season with a 21-20 win over Cincinnati. He remembers when the program won just two games again in 1992 -- the last losing season in Blacksburg.
"To be honest," he said, "fans are spoiled."
It's Beamer's fault.
He made them that way with eight straight seasons of at least 10 wins, four ACC titles and 20 straight bowl games. He's the one who led the program to its first back-to-back 11-win seasons and to its first national title game appearance in school history. Frank Beamer is the one who, over a span of two decades, made anyone outside of Blacksburg care about Virginia Tech football. Yet with one seven-win season last fall, many fans gave a swift Beamerball kick to the very pedestal they once put him on.
It wasn't even a losing season -- they won their bowl game.
Not in Texas, not in Iowa, not in Blacksburg. Not today, when the perception of success is so skewed that even the most established veteran coaches -- men such as Beamer who played and now coach for their alma maters -- can't even get a hall pass on a mediocre winning season. Not when some of the nation's winningest coaches set the standard so high that even they have struggled to match it. Not when there's a newer, younger generation of fans that doesn't even remember that before Mack Brown came to Texas in 1998, the Longhorns hadn't finished in the top 10 since 1983. Many Iowa fans also seem to have a short-term memory, forgetting it was only 2009 that the Hawkeyes finished 11-2 with a win in the Orange Bowl -- quite a climb from the 1-10 start under Kirk Ferentz in his first season as head coach in 1999.
"You create a monster, and then the monster eats you," said former Arizona coach Dick Tomey, who resigned in 2000 after mounting pressure with three years still remaining on his contract.
These aren't hot-shot coaches of the Lane Kiffin era, who have flopped and fallen squarely on the hot seat entering this season. These are embattled winners, some Hall of Fame-bound, who were once lauded for their accomplishments, but as their records took a dip, so did some loyalties. At Texas, Brown has gone 22-16 since 2009, the last time the program was a national title contender. At Iowa, Ferentz finished 4-8 last fall, losing his final six games. And Beamer? Well, he just won seven games last year instead of 10.
These guys didn't forget how to coach. Their fan bases forgot what it means to be patient.
College football, though, has its own meaning of the word patience, and it's been redefined since the days when Beamer won just two games without so much of a thought of being fired. The gurus of the game know what they're up against, that their margin for error has shrunk and that they are not immune to the new realities of the industry.
So then, there's only one thing left to do -- embrace them, and win.
"Losing bothers me more today than it did back when we started," Beamer said. "Back then, we weren't very good and the kids went out and played hard, and we gave it our best shot and if we couldn't win, you could live with that. Now, every loss if you've got high hopes -- and we've had high hopes here for several years -- you don't want to disappoint the fans, and you feel like you've only got so many shots at having a great season. Losses are more devastating, but I'd rather it be that way. We've created and our expectations are high, but at the same time, I know how fortunate and how hard it is to win at least 10 games for eight straight years. There's quite an accomplishment in being consistent, but the other part of it is, all of us -- Tech fans and myself -- we'd like to take it all the way."
In their unforgiving business, though, not even a national title guarantees job security.
Look at what happened to Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee ("And he won a national title," Beamer says.).
Fulmer had been at Tennessee for almost 40 years as a player, assistant coach and head coach. He brought Tennessee its first national championship in 47 years in 1998, but that didn't save him from being fired in 2008 after he finished 5-7.
"It particularly is tough when it's your school," Fulmer said. "That kind of complicates things because it gets beyond just the business part of it. Most of the time you live it as a family lifestyle. It's not just a coach doing a job. We had created a culture there that was really good and really healthy for our kids and had lots of success. It was really disappointing that you're not given the opportunity and you have one bad year that you didn't have a chance to fix it.
"New is always better in their minds," he said, "and it turns out that's not always the case."
Just ask Tennessee fans, who have since suffered through one 7-6 season with Kiffin and watched Derek Dooley get fired after posting Tennessee's longest run of consecutive losing seasons in over a century. Dooley had a 15-21 record that included an 0-15 mark against Top 25 teams. Even worse, he was 4-19 against the rest of the SEC and had lost 14 of his past 15 league games.
He finished with a career record of 152-52 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame last year.
"Coaches don't get stupid all of a sudden," said R.C. Slocum, who never once had a losing season, but he lost three straight to Texas, and was fired in 2002. "If you have reasonable intelligence, over time you learn from your mistakes and you get better doing what you do, like in any business. It's always interesting how guys can go along, guys who have proven they can coach and won championships, and then they get stupid all of a sudden and everyone says, 'Oh, he can't coach.' That doesn't happen."
Coaches don't get stupid all of a sudden. If you have reasonable intelligence, over time you learn from your mistakes and you get better doing what you do, like in any business. It's always interesting how guys can go along, guys who have proven they can coach and won championships, and then they get stupid all of a sudden and everyone says, 'Oh, he can't coach.' That doesn't happen.
--Former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum
Beamer knows exactly what went wrong with his 7-6 team last fall, most notably myriad issues on offense many fans are too impatient to acknowledge. Quite simply, the players around quarterback Logan Thomas were young, inexperienced, and not as good as the former starters they had to replace. The Hokies missed running back David Wilson, who left early for the NFL, and dependable receivers like Danny Coale. In order to give the offense a spark, Beamer made sweeping changes to his staff this offseason, hiring a new offensive coordinator, offensive line coach and receivers coach.
It was an overhaul that paled in comparison to the staff changes at Texas after the Longhorns sunk to 5-7 in 2010. Brown called it "an upheaval about everything," from hiring new, young coaches to implementing a new strength program.
"We were in a tough spot at 5-7," Brown said. "When you're there, you have to have some really hard self-evaluations of you, your program, your players. I did a lot of that myself. I trusted friends to be very critical as well. We put things in place that take some time. … And we've made progress each year, and now we are back to a point where I feel like we can compete each week and have a chance to win. People ask, 'Do you have a chance to win all the games?' We do. That doesn't mean we're going to. We've got to shut up and play, shut up and coach. But we're at least at a point now where every week we line up, I think as the head coach, we've got a good chance to win."
Ferentz, a three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year who is entering his 15th season at Iowa, said there are "traceable reasons" teams experience declines, including injuries to key players, and inexperience.
The challenge is to survive the scrutiny through those setbacks.
"It's football at all levels," said Ferentz, whose lucrative contract will likely buy him more time. "The New York Giants won the Super Bowl a year ago and sat home last year. And they've got good players and an excellent coaching staff. So that's football. If you look at Iowa historically, the years I've been associated with it, 23 years going into 24, that's kind of been the history of our program, too. Not every year's going to be a Rose Bowl or an Orange Bowl season. You sure as heck don't want to be involved in a non-bowl season. But there's going to be those peaks and valleys. You can pretty much say that about every program if you look at the last 20 years."
What happened to Bobby Bowden showed that any coach -- no matter how interwoven he becomes into the fabric of the university -- can be torn down by the very expectations he created. At Florida State, Bowden was forced out after two national championships, 12 ACC titles, 33 straight winning seasons and two Heisman Trophy winners.
After the Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl became the standard, the Emerald Bowl and Music City Bowl became disappointments.
"No matter what happens, you don't win all of your games," Bowden said. "You have great years, you have a run of good years, and most people, eventually, it catches them. I've always said the success to coaching -- because I coached 57 years before they got me -- is getting by the bad years, because you're going to have 'em, I don't care how good you are. You're going to have 'em. Mack has done such a great job at Texas, then he sets the standard so high, they expect that every year. If you don't match it, they're mad at him. Same thing with Beamer, where he is. The Georgia coach [Mark Richt] went through it a couple of years ago. There's only one answer, and that's to win 'em."
That's exactly what Beamer, Brown and Ferentz are scrambling to do.
"It's been a fun challenge for me to fight to get us back to where we're competitive," Brown said. "I've really enjoyed this. You'd rather win all the games, but you'd rather win it because you earned the right to get there. We've been fighting really hard day and night to do it, from the recruiting hires, the analyst hires, to our coaches fighting so hard in recruiting. We had our first 2016 commitment the other day, so that's new for us. We're so far ahead with 2015 recruits. Our guys are fighting hard with 2014 recruits. I think everything is at a better place right now than it was three years ago, and I'm proud of that."
At 66 years old, Beamer said he has no intentions of retiring anytime soon, and Virginia Tech fans would be wise to weather any storms with him. History shows that change isn't always the answer. After Texas A&M fired Slocum, Dennis Franchione went 4-8, 7-5, and 5-6 in his first three seasons. After Lloyd Carr left Michigan, Rich Rodriguez went 15-22 in three years with two losing seasons. Tennessee fans have arguably suffered through the worst transition.
Meanwhile, Virginia Tech, Iowa and Texas have still spent more time winning than losing.
"I hope I'll be smart enough to know when the right time to get out is," Beamer said. "There have been a couple sad stories here lately, people hanging around. It's not going to be my decision who the next coach is at Virginia Tech. It's going to be someone else's."
For now, that decision can wait.
The Hokies have spent this offseason motivated by last season's finish and criticism -- and of course the goal of winning that elusive national title.
"It's the goal, it's what you go for, that's it," Beamer said. "But it's not like if we don't make it my time here has been a failure as far as I look at it. If your kids come out of here and they're good people, and you've affected people's lives and won your share of games, you've got to be appreciative of what you've got."
These veteran coaches haven't regressed. It's just that they were once so good they made you forget the days their programs weren't. Their challenge is remind people again.