Destiny's Doorstep

By Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 11/28/00

What we had here was either a good old-fashioned power struggle, or a near disaster produced by three men who didn't decide to get together and communicate until it was almost too late. Or both.

It is now official: Frank Beamer, a Hokie alumnus, great coach, and legend in the making, turned on a dime at the last instant and decided to stay at Virginia Tech instead of leaving to become the new head coach at the University of North Carolina, replacing the fired Carl Torbush. The move -- or lack thereof -- was officially announced at a press conference on Monday (click here for details).

Beamer's decision followed a last ditch -- and successful -- meeting between Beamer, Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver, school President Charles Steger, Executive Vice President Minnis Ridenour, and (according to Channel 10's Justin Ditmore), former President Paul Torgersen. With all signs pointing towards a Beamer exit to Chapel Hill, the five most powerful men in Virginia Tech athletics entered a room and came out a few hours later with an agreement that would keep Beamer in Blacksburg.

The announcement ended an emotional rollercoaster ride for Hokie fans that started several weeks ago but really picked up steam at the end of last week, when the Tech administration finally stepped up and started make efforts to keep its coach.

Now that the drama is over and Hokie fans and alumni are starting to sort through the rubble, suspicious eyes are being cast towards Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver and the administration in Burruss Hall, and one question is being asked: how did things get this far? How did Virginia Tech come this close to losing its football coaching icon, a man who would rather rip his arm off than leave his alma mater?

The rumblings began months ago, when a source close to Beamer told me not to believe the public displays of affection between Virginia Tech's football coach and athletic director. Despite the positive things the two often said about each other in public, they were not getting along privately, I was told. And certainly, their body language in Monday's press conference wasn't very positive towards each other.

It was not exactly a surprise to me to hear that they might not be getting along. Beamer and Weaver are both powerful, competitive, ambitious men, and men like that often clash. But, though not a surprise, it was disturbing, to say the least. And in the past few weeks, things apparently came to a head.

You have no doubt heard the phrase "it's not about the money" repeatedly in the last couple of weeks, and that statement is true. What it is about is a football coach who wanted respect, stability, and above all, better pay for his assistant coaches, to whom he is fiercely loyal. And it's also about an athletic department that was almost too slow to provide that respect, stability, and better pay.

Trouble Starts

This drama has its origins in the offseason, when Tech's national championship run and Beamer's eight national Coach of the Year awards brought Beamer many handshakes and words of congratulations, but nothing else. That was fine with Beamer. At $800,000 a year total compensation, he wasn't one of the best-paid head coaches in the land, but it was good enough.

What he really wanted, though, was better pay for his assistant coaches. After the 1999 season, many of Beamer's assistants, including the entire defensive staff, were offered jobs at other schools, all for more pay. Defensive backs coach Lorenzo Ward, for example, who makes about $75,000 a year, was offered twice that to go coach at LSU. And he turned it down -- they all turned down their offers -- because they think Frank Beamer is the greatest coach to work for in college football.

Now, stop and put yourself in Beamer's position. One of your underlings has just turned down a 100% increase in pay, just because he likes you. How would that make you feel? The word "guilty" comes to my mind.

This all happened as other universities started offering lucrative pay packages for assistant coaching staffs. North Carolina State's new coach, Chuck Amato, for example, was given over a million dollars to spend on assistant coaches.

This all also happened as Virginia Tech was finally entering the Big East for all sports, and the details of that entry are financially brutal: the Hokies will pay $2.5 million over the next ten years to enter the conference, and will not share basketball revenue until they have been in the conference for five years (see Terms of Tech's Big East Deal Announced from HokieCentral.com, 10/6/1999).

After the 2000 football season started, Beamer's loyalty to his assistants and his concern about their pay increased with every passing victory. In a rebuilding year that saw key injuries abound, the Hokies continued to win anyway, and Beamer felt, rightfully so, that this season was the finest coaching job he and his assistants had ever done. In late October, after a hard-fought road victory at Syracuse, his mind was made up that it was time to take care of the coaches around him.

So finally, knowing that a raise wasn't going to be offered, he asked for one. Not for himself, but for his assistants. A measly $100,000 to spread amongst the 9 men that he feels are a key component to his success.

According to my sources, he was told by Jim Weaver that no, the money wasn't there. Roanoke Times columnist Jack Bogaczyk characterized it as Beamer receiving "a reaction that was somewhere between rebuffed and ignored." (see Future of program rides on decision, November 27, 2000).

The idea that the money wasn't there is, of course, preposterous. Virginia Tech had just gone to a $12 million bowl (from which the Hokies reaped approximately a $4 million take, maybe more), had just sold 32,000 season tickets, and was in the middle of seeing more than $1.4 million dollars poured into the football coffers from television appearances.

Virginia Tech is not a rich school when it comes to the athletic budget, but the thought that $100,000 could not be invested to ensure that the program would continue on the right track isn't reasonable, and that's putting it mildly. It's hard to figure out what Jim Weaver was thinking, because he's not that dumb. But after Monday's press conference, he likened the negotiations to a game of poker, and talked about not playing your hand until you had to.

If that was Weaver's approach -- to play poker and not put his cards on the table until he had to -- then he almost made a mistake, because it obviously hit Beamer the wrong way. Beamer wasn't interested in playing cards, and he took it personally. He felt insulted and angry, and he started wondering if the university was committed to backing his quest for a national championship.

The Rumors Start

Right about that time, Beamer's name started being linked with the (soon to be open) coaching job at Alabama. And once again, Frank Beamer's hand was forced, and he had to publicly start flirting with other schools in order to get the money he wanted for his assistants.

But this time, it was different. This time, Beamer was truly angry. A man with his tenure and status shouldn't have to play games like this, so this time, he was serious.

When the Beamer-to-Bama rumors started, Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver stated on the November 13th Hokie Hotline radio show that he had been working on an enhanced pay package for Beamer for about two weeks, in conjunction with Tech President Charles Steger.

My sources tell me that at the very least, any negotiations that were occurring were not very energetic. In Bogaczyk's column linked above, he supports that, saying that after Beamer asked for $100,000, "Weaver came back with a $40,000 offer later."

The Alabama rumors never really picked up steam. But then UNC coach Carl Torbush was fired, and the rumors of Beamer-to-UNC started. The emails coming into my in-box got serious Ö and worried. This one wasn't just a rumor. It was perceived as a real threat, and when the rumors started, they all said the same thing: "It (Beamer to UNC) is basically a done deal."

The Tech football community started wringing its hands. But still, Tech officials, led by Weaver, did not get serious about negotiating with Beamer, and President Steger and the Board of Visitors, by all accounts, did not step up either, perhaps leaving it to Weaver or simply not understanding the seriousness of the situation.

Alumni and Donors Crank Up the Heat

As the UNC rumors became stronger, Tech's big-time athletic donors started to step up. I received reports that large sums of money were offered to the Hokie Club by well-heeled (pardon the expression) donors in an effort to keep Frank Beamer in Blacksburg.

But more interesting than that was that sources told me that big money donors on the academic side of the house had started to lean on Steger and the Board of Visitors, telling them, "This isn't the way a university of Tech's stature goes about its business." In other words, strong academic and athletic programs go hand in hand, and Virginia Tech's new president would be wise to remember that.

That was Wednesday, November 22nd, the day before Thanksgiving, and sure enough, on Friday, November 24th, the Virginia Tech athletic department issued a press release saying that "university council had been authorized to reopen compensation talks with Beamer." Beamer was reportedly offered more than a million dollars, which he never even wanted or asked for, and the contract also included an improved offer of about $59,000 for his assistants, still short of the $100,000 that Beamer sought.

At first blush, it appears that at that point, Beamer's dalliance with Alabama and UNC (he never did say he wasn't interested in either one) appeared to have produced the desired result. His assistants weren't getting as much as he wanted them to get, but knowing Coach Beamer, he could just funnel his own extra pay over to them.

Problem solved, right? A few hurt feelings, maybe, and the rumored rift between Beamer and Weaver had grown, but all parties would sign on the line, and life would go on, correct?

Well, there's more to a contract than the money.

My sources tell me that although the money in the new contract was good, the contract contained clauses that Beamer objected to. Noted by Bogaczyk in his column were two clauses related to graduation rates and stadium attendance, clauses that Bogaczyk says Weaver later told Beamer were removable.

The Powers Meet

All appeared lost for the Hokies. After the UVa game on Saturday, UNC Athletic Director Dick Baddour jumped quickly, calling Weaver Sunday morning at 8:30 and requesting a meeting with Beamer. Weaver granted it, and Beamer wasted no time jetting to Chapel Hill to take the tour and speak with Baddour.

More chilling is that Beamer took his agent and attorney with him, and after Beamer left, his legal right arm stayed deep into the night, presumably hammering out the details of the contract that he had no doubt already been working on with UNC's counsel.

As Monday dawned, the Charlotte Observer, among other North Carolina media outlets, reported the Beamer-to-UNC move as all but a done deal.

But fortunately for Hokie fans, Beamer, Weaver, Steger, et al got together one last time. And it must have been one hell of a meeting, because when it was over, the news came out that Beamer was staying.

What changed? For one, Beamer got the $100,000 that he wanted for his assistants. They now make just over $960,000 in combined salaries, an average of over $100,000 per man, and the new contract also contains significant bonuses if Tech goes to bowl games, and even more if they win the bowl games (see News and Notes for details). The deal makes Beamer's assistants the third highest-paid coaching staff in the nation, behind Texas and North Carolina State.

And another thing changed from Friday to Monday: those performance clauses were removed.

What Went on in That Room?

I think I would shave three years off my life for the privilege of being the proverbial fly on the wall during that meeting Monday afternoon. We may never know what was said in that room, because it was a lightly attended meeting, and all those who were there know how to keep their mouths shut.

Paul Torgersen, who was always a friend to Virginia Tech football during his tenure as school president, was no doubt a calming influence. I would guess that if there was a gap (or gaps) between Beamer, Weaver, and Steger, Torgersen served the purpose of bridging those gaps and getting all parties working on the same page.

I had the pleasure of going to lunch with Dr. Torgersen a few weeks ago, and I can tell you that he is one of the kindest, most genuine, and most intelligent men you could ever hope to meet. There is not a shred of ego in his entire body, and his focus is on being relaxed, having fun, and getting the job done.

How much of an effect did his presence have? Sources tell me it was invaluable. It's hard to say exactly what Dr. Torgersen said or did, but if one man could meet with that many powerful men all coming from different directions with different agendas, and yet get them to meet on common ground and resolve their differences, it is Torgersen. He did it for years as Virginia Tech's president.

He stepped into the room and saw Frank Beamer, who wanted commitment from the athletic department and the university administration, plus more money for his assistants; Jim Weaver, who wants to be a successful athletic director and build Virginia Tech into a national power; and Charles Steger, who wants to do what is best for the university that he has been given the responsibility of piloting through "The New Millenium."

Was it Torgersen who finally got them all together? Perhaps. Even if it was, he would never take the credit for it. That's the kind of person he is.

In any event, allowing Beamer to leave would have been a huge mistake for all parties involved. But now that they have an agreement, what residue will be left over from this high-stakes drama?

You could argue that Jim Weaver, who likened the negotiations to a game of poker, has been put in his place. If he truly was just playing cards, then he needs to re-evaluate his approach and take into consideration the human elements involved. Most people donít want to play games with their futures, and they take it personally if others do.

In Weaver's defense, in poker all that matters is who takes home the pot. In this case, Beamer took it home, and that's the best outcome. The one mystery in all this is where President Steger and the Board of Visitors landed. What pressure were they applying, or not applying to Weaver, and did that change when the donors and fans started rattling cages? I donít know the answer to that one, so unfortunately, I don't know all of the internal and external factors that were pulling Weaver in different directions.

You could argue that Beamer, by nearly leaving just two years after saying that Virginia Tech would be his last college coaching job, has lost some of his luster with Tech fans, who still love him anyway. They now know, however, that nothing is guaranteed where Beamer is concerned, and for the time being, things must be taken on a year-by-year basis.

You could argue that Charles Steger needs to keep a closer eye on what's going on in his athletic department, and to take a more proactive -- and pro-athletics -- role when trouble arises. Strong academics and strong athletics go hand in hand to make a strong university, and if President Steger didn't think that before, hopefully he does now. Dr. Torgersen certainly believes it.

You could argue all of that. But for now, it appears that the time for arguing has passed. Frank Beamer is staying.

Now, about Michael Vick Ö

Will Stewart is the founder and General Manager of TechSideline.com.  He writes the News and Notes section, game previews, and game reports for TSL, and generally runs the place with his prodigious and productive brain.

          

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