John Ballein: From Mohawk to Main Man
by Neal Williams
TSL Extra, Issue #1

To look at John Ballein now it is almost impossible to imagine.

He's a handsome man who, at 39, is pushing into middle age nicely. He's got a head of salt and pepper hair, not enough gray to take completely away his youthful look and not enough dark to make him look quite like a kid.

And you think, this man once had a Mohawk haircut?

"My mom actually gave it to me," Ballein said with a laugh, "the day before I went to football camp my junior year. I just wanted to do something crazy and that's about as crazy as I could do. I loved it. It felt good."

That Mohawk was one of the first things Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer saw when he was looking at a videotape from some youngster who wanted a job on his then-new staff. Beamer is the exact opposite of Mohawk and his first through was, "No way."

Fortunately, his defensive coordinator at the time convinced Beamer to look past the 'do and more closely at the main underneath. Beamer listened to Ron Zook and, to this day, calls it one of the best decisions he's made at Tech.

"Ron said there's something I like about this guy and I said, 'Ok, let's go on to the next step,'" Beamer said. "I'm glad I took that next step. You talk about a guy who is important to this program. If it had been just me, I would have probably walked away from one of the best recruits we've ever had here."

These days, Ballein is indeed central to the success of the Hokies' football program. He was recently promoted to Associate Athletics Director for Football Operations, a title upgrade from Assistant Athletics Director for Football Operations.

"Either way," he said in his self-depreciating way, "I've got 'ass' after my name."

Ballein is nobody's ass. To fully describe all he does would take a full season. Cory Bird, a senior rover for the Hokies, came up with the best description.

"Coach Ballein," Bird said, "is basically a liaison between the world and the football team."

But before we examine Ballein's duties, let's go back to that videotape - yep, the one with the Mohawk - for a moment. That tape and the story behind it speaks volumes about Ballein and his determination, his work ethic.

From Bentleyville, Pa., Ballein played linebacker at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He earned a degree in health and physical education from there. He received a master's degree in physical education from Old Dominion University in 1985.

While at ODU, he was working as a teacher and a coach at two Tidewater-area high schools. He spent time at Woodrow Wilson and Western Branch.

He wanted to try his luck in Division I football and realized he had a major strike against him.

"In this business, you have to know somebody. It's a good ol' boy network," Ballein said. "I had ties nowhere. I played Division II football. I had to do something to separate myself from everybody else."

These days, video resumes are routine. Back in 1986, when Ballein was angling for a collegiate job, they were not. He decided to make a tape telling the college football world about himself. He sent one to every Division I school.

"I spent the greater part of my salary on postage," he said.

Nibbles? None. Beamer, who didn't know Ballein at all, was the only coach who called and said, "No thanks." That stuck with Ballein. He was prepared to take his videotape down a level to Division II when Zook called. He wanted to talk to Ballein. No jobs were available, but Zook suggested Ballein come to Blacksburg anyway, help out, find a regular job and see what develops. Two weeks later, a graduate assistant's job opened and Ballein was on the way.

He got rerouted into his current job almost by accident. He envisioned himself being an on-field coach forever. After a year at Tech, Beamer helped him get an assistant's job at another school. Two months into that job, Ballein realized he didn't approve of the way things were run at his new school. He didn't like the way the players were being treated.

He called Beamer, who told him to come back to Tech. They'd find something. Ballein came back and helped with recruiting. Eventually, his job evolved into what he's doing now. And these days, he can't imagine himself being an X and O coach again.

"Not in any way," Ballein said. "I think if a person in this position has a desire to coach, you've got the wrong person. A lot of things would get left out because they wouldn't be concentrating on this job."

Bird's description - a liaison to the world - is about perfect.

College football is an all-consuming thing, particularly in season, for coaches and players. They can easily lose contact with the outside.

Coaches not only have their players to deal with and games to prepare for, they have recruiting responsibilities.

Players have practice, film study, class -- it's a full-time job and then some.

That's where Ballein comes into play.

If a player has a problem, any kind of problem, Ballein tries to help. Who should I call about this parking situation? Where do I go to switch this class from Tuesday night to Monday night? My girlfriend doesn't love me anymore.

"They know," Ballein said, "that door is always open."

There's so much more. Ever try to move a football team - players, coaches, support staff, equipment - from one location to another? Try it just once for a full appreciation of what Ballein does all year. Plane schedules, buses, hotels, meals - all have to be arranged well in advance.

Who makes all the arrangements for visiting recruits?

You guessed it, Ballein.

Players call him coach, even though he isn't. It's a sign of their respect for Ballein, who is married to former Tech basketball player Stephanie Green. They have two daughters.

"He's always trying to help us out, anything at all," linebacker Ben Taylor said. "You go to him, he'll fix it right up."

Said Bird, "It adds something special to a program to have someone like that. He's always around, always accessible."

Ballein has been described a variety of times as Beamer's right-hand man and that's true, though it is only a part of his job. He's is Beamer's frequent golf and racquetball partner and he doesn't exclude the big guy from his practical jokes. The brain that thought of Mohawk is still active and crazy. Everybody in the office is fair game, until it is time to get down to business.

Ballein takes particular pride in being "Radar" to Beamer's "Colonel Potter." For example, Tech has 16 players who can't eat in the dining hall on Monday nights. They have a class and there isn't enough time after practice to get over there. So the meals are delivered. One recent week, the Hokies changed their practice schedule and Beamer mentioned in a staff meeting that the dining hall needed to be notified.

Already done.

"I'm kind of like the batteries in the back of the clock," Ballein said. "You never see them, never notice them when the clock is working."

It's clear he loves his job, as hectic as it can be at times. The phone is always ringing. One of the two doors in his office leads directly to Beamer's office. The other leads to a lobby. Somebody on either side is likely to need Ballein's help at most any hour.

"When you're dealing with good kids, and I look at them as kids and not players, it's great," Ballein said. "The best thing about the kids is they know they can come to me about anything, anything at all. A girl, parents, personal things, school. There is such a wide variety of things.

"I'm fortunate I'm in a position where they feel comfortable coming in here."


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