Interview With Chris Colston
TSL Extra, Issue #1

Chris Colston grew up in Roanoke and graduated from Virginia Tech in 1980 with a Marketing degree. After trying his hand at a few Marketing jobs and not having much success ("I realized my error," he says), Chris got into journalism in 1983 as the editor of the New Castle Record.

In 1985, in the second year of existence of the Hokie Huddler, Colston was offered a job as editor of the Huddler. He held that position for 11 years, eventually leaving in 1996 to go to work at Baseball Weekly as a copy editor. He became the assistant operations editor but eventually returned to writing. He is now currently working full time as a baseball writer for Baseball Weekly, where a story he wrote titled "Revisiting Roto's Roots" made the list of Notable Sports Writing of 1999, compiled by Glenn Stout.

Colston is the writer of Turn up the Wick!, Frank Beamer's autobiography. Recently, TechSideline.com had the opportunity to interview Colston about the book, how he became involved in it, and the process he went through to write it. A review of the book will be posted soon on the main TechSideline.com web site, and we wanted to present the full text of the interview here in the TSL Extra.


TSL: How did it come about that you were the one picked to write the book about Coach Beamer?

CC: It's kind of interesting how it happened. The way I remember it, after the Syracuse game in 1999, I called Coach the next Monday and asked him if he would be interested in doing some kind of book. Because I knew Tech was going to have a great year. I mean, after seeing the way they beat Syracuse 62-0, I knew this was something special.

He said he had been approached by several people about doing books, and he wasn't sure what he wanted to do, and he wasn't going to make any decisions until the season was over. He basically said he didn't want it to jinx anything. I said that's fine, and he said call me at the end of the season.

In the meantime, Lindy's came out with their Sugar Time magazine and asked me to do a piece on Coach and also to recap each game. So I called Coach Beamer up about that, and we talked a little bit more about doing a book. He said, "Well, there's still this guy that wants to do my book…"

And I told him I was looking more to do a coffee table kind of thing, and I just wanted to touch base with him on it. And he said, "Yeah, it could be."

So, my name was out there, and then, when Tech went to the Sugar Bowl, a company came to the university and said they were going to do a coffee table book on the Hokies … if they won the Sugar Bowl. If they didn't win, they still might do the book, but they were wondering if I would write the copy. I said, of course, I'll do that, and that's how I got my press pass to the Sugar Bowl.

Well, Tech lost, so that fell through. But then this guy Mike Bynum, the publisher of Turn up the Wick!, had apparently approached Frank about the book. I had been talking to Frank, and I still have a lot of friends in the athletic department, and I think Coach talked to some people. Frank tells me that I was the first person he thought of. I don’t know why --- maybe because I had been talking about it with him, and we were there together at Tech for about 10 years, when I was working on the Huddler. So we knew each other pretty well.

So I got a call from him, and he asked me, would you be interested in doing this? So I said, "Well, I would love to do it."

I asked him when the thing was due, and it was just about the same time as our first baby. And I was just starting this new full-time writing gig, but I was still juggling the operations editor job and the writing, until they found a replacement for me. So I'm working two jobs, taking a Lamaze class, going on the road, I had a pregnant wife, and now this comes up. I really didn't know how I was going to pull it off.

We came to an agreement, and I thought, maybe if I worked really hard, I could pull it off.

So basically, it came about because of me talking to Frank during Sugar Time, and talking about the coffee table book, and then he thought of me after talking to Mike Bynum.

TSL: Would you consider Coach Beamer to be a friend, or did you have strictly a working relationship with him when you were at Tech?

CC: I'm not a golfing buddy with Coach, or anything like that. He wouldn’t want to play golf with me, because I'm awful. I would say it was always professional between me and him. I'd never even been at his house until I did the book. I wasn't picked because I was a guy who hung out with him. But we always got along well. We always had a mutual respect.

TSL: So when you set out to start writing this book, what were the goals? Did you want it to be a comprehensive autobiography?

CC: The book could have been subtitled, "How Frank Beamer Built Virginia Tech Into a National Football Power." That was my take on it. We could have spent a lot more time on his childhood and his youth, and it could have been more purely autobiographical, but I don’t think, and I don't think Frank thought, that that was what we wanted to do.

He's got very little ego. He didn't want it so much about him, as he wanted it to be about him in relationship to the program, now -- the building of the program. So really, we touched on some things that were about him -- his youth, the burns, high school football, how he got into Tech, and his Murray years and Citadel years -- but the majority of it is how he built the program up. The tough early years, and the turnaround.

TSL: Did you learn a lot writing the book, or was it mostly stuff you knew before, from when you worked at the Huddler?

CC: Let me tell you, I mean, I learned so much. That's the thing I'm really proud of where the book is concerned. It's got basically 90% new material. I was there in the beginning of his career, and I read everything about Frank, so I'd done my research. I had about 22 pages of questions for Frank, typed out.

I was trying to get fresh stuff, or if we were covering ground that had already been covered, I was trying to get new information on top of what had already been said. So, yeah, I would say that a good 90% of it was stuff that I had never known about him before.

TSL: What was the biggest surprise in writing the book?

CC: I think without question it is how close Bobby Ross came to being the coach at Virginia Tech (instead of Beamer back in 1987). People knew Ross's name was out there, but they never realized how close he came. Frank almost didn't want to tell me that story. He said, "You know, people might not .. they might go, 'Wait a minute'…"

TSL: Any Hokie fan with a brain is glad that Ross didn't get the job.

CC: That's what I told Coach Beamer!

TSL: Bobby Ross is a job-hopper. He was on his way to the NFL. He's a great guy and a great coach, but he's not a guy who's going to stay at Virginia Tech.

CC: Well, it's like Fate. It worked out for the best. I just never knew he was that close to taking the job, and that he and Coach Beamer had such a great relationship and such mutual respect that Bobby backed out so Frank could have the job. Frank was willing to back out, Bobby was willing to back out … finally, Bobby backed out, and Frank got the job.

TSL: What do you think are the best parts of the book?

CC: The parts that I enjoyed the most were about the way he is off the field, outside football. The stories about him playing golf, showing his competitive nature, and how he is just as a person. And I thought the recruiting stories were really fun.

I spent basically two weeks with Coach. One day I was with him virtually all day. I showed up at his office at 10 or 11 in the morning and didn't leave his house until after midnight. One night I spent the night over there, I was there so late.

I spent a lot of time with him, and it was going better than I thought, and one time, he had a trip set up to Norfolk, to give a speech, on a Thursday. I was going to fly with him in a private plane and get a lot of interviewing done. But by that point, I had gotten so much done that there wasn't much point in doing that, and there wasn't really a need.

He said, "You know what you ought to do, is talk to some of my coaches." In one day's notice, he was able to get his whole staff over to John Ballein's house. And John brought a bunch of beer, and Boomer's sandwiches from Greg Roberts, and Greg came up. We went over there, and for over two hours, those guys just sat in a circle and drank beer and ate sandwiches and chicken wings, and told one great story about Frank Beamer after another. There's where I really got a lot of great material for the book, particularly the recruiting stories.

We had two sessions like that, and I don't know how many staffs would do something like that. On one day's notice, come over and spend that kind of time.

They could have sold tickets to any Hokie fan or sportswriter in the state. It was worth a thousand dollars. It was so priceless. We obviously couldn’t use everything that was said, but it was magical, just hearing those guys talk about him. And it's so clear, the love they have for him, and the respect they have for him. And they razz him -- he's one of the guys. It’s not like he's this god. But you can tell, there's so much respect for him. It's genuine. You can't fake that.

TSL: Who else did you talk to?

CC: I tracked down Dave Braine on his cell phone one day. I caught him on his way out west to do his annual fly-fishing trip. I talked to Bobby Ross, and this was the Friday before the NFL draft! He was a little bit busy, but you can tell, he's got so much respect for Frank that he was willing to take so much time out right before the draft.

I tracked down (former Tech athletic director) Dutch Baughman and talked to him. I couldn’t use a lot of what he said. You know, he hired Frank. He loves Frank. He's very pleased that it worked out for Frank. He's sad that it didn't work out for him (Dutch).

And I talked to Coach's family. His brother Barnett in particular was a great guy. He's a genuine good ole boy, and very in awe of what his little brother has done.

We talked to a lot of people, and you learn the most about someone by the way other people talk about him, not by what he says himself, but by what other people say.

TSL: How long would you say it took you to write the book?

CC: It was one of the most incredible things. I started this thing in March of 2000. It took me two weeks, working almost every day, to do the research. I went through every Huddler, Roanoke Times, all that stuff. Background information can take forever.

It took three weeks of doing nonstop interviews. I had 14 mini-cassette tapes, two hours each. I just had a ton of stuff. Then, transcribing it … that just took forever.

It took two and a half months, non-stop. That's working all weekend, and when I went home it was all I would do. My people at work were very understanding about the project. When we got the proofs, I was talking to Frank every day, on corrections and tweaks. That was a lot of hard work.

I was amazed at how open and honest he was. Some of these questions were tough questions. And I didn't want to pull any punches. He didn't want to talk about the arrests (1996) that much, or firing the assistant coaches (1993). I was really surprised that he was that open about things.

He was really open about his burn accident as a kid, and to this day, that's tough for him to talk about. In the book, he says that he had thought about getting the scars fixed, but he's okay with it now. It's part of who he is. But that was a tough thing for him. He's badly scarred. It's not just his face and neck.

But he answered every question, and it was hard, because I would have to ask him things like, "Well, what exactly …. ?"

The funny thing was, he saw it (the burn accident) one way, and Barnett saw it another way. Barnett was there. So once Barnett gave me his version, I had to go back to Frank and ask him things like, "Did you actually kick the gas can, or was it rolling, or what?" You know, I hated to do that, but I wanted to get the details right.

But he was fine, he was cool with it. He was wonderful throughout the whole thing. It really could have been a pain in the butt, but he was a first-class guy about it.

TSL: What would you change about the book if you could do it over again?

CC: The only thing, if I could do it over, would be that I would add more to it. I wish I had had the time to go into more detail. So much of it is interesting. We had a limit of 60,000 words, and it ended up being 62,000 words. We had a May 1st deadline, and I was under pressure to get it done. If I could do it over again, I just wish I had the time to write more.

TSL: How many copies were presented, and where were they distributed?

CC: The deal was, I think there were 20,000 printed and the Tech Bookstore got exclusive rights to this. You can get it in the Richmond area at the VCU bookstore, the Northern Virginia area at the Maryland bookstore, and in the Virginia Beach area at the Old Dominion bookstore. You can also get it at TechBookstore.com, as well as at the actual Tech Bookstore.

TSL: Thanks, Chris.

CC: Thank you. I enjoyed writing the book, and I hope Hokie fans enjoy reading it!

 

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