The Independence Bowl has a 39 year history with such title sponsors over the years as Poulan, (and Poulan Weedeater; my personal favorite), Mainstay Suites, AdvoCare, Duck Commander and the current one, Camping World. This year though, the more fitting name would be the Frank Beamer Bowl. Beamer leads his Virginia Tech Hokies, (6-6 overall and 4-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference), into Saturday’s game against Tulsa for the last time before he retires and is replaced by Justin Fuentes from Memphis.
The Independence Bowl: Frank Beamer’s Farewell
The game certainly is worthy of its own storylines. Tulsa, (6-6 overall and 3-5 in the American Athletic Conference) has an explosive offense that finished third in the AAC with 503 yards per game. The Golden Hurricane (always a curious name for a landlocked school) are led by quarterback Dane Evans who led the AAC with just under 4,000 yards passing with 22 touchdown passes and a 63% completion level.
He is going to be facing a Virginia Tech defense that gave up only 174 yards passing per game. Bud Foster’s defenses have been a mainstay of the Virginia Tech gameplan for the last 20 years. Defensive tackle Luther Maddy has bounced back from multiple knee surgeries in 2014 that cost him eight games. Foster cut down on Maddy’s workload during the week this season to keep him game ready and Maddy responded with an All-ACC 1st team defense performance this year. Saturday, the 6-2, 285 pound defensive lineman will become Virginia Tech’s all-time leader in games played with 56. Still, Evans and the Tulsa offense represent the biggest challenge Maddy and his teammates have faced all season.
Virginia Tech’s offense has been sluggish much of the season, to put it kindly. Quarterback Michael Brewer was 11 of 16 passing with two touchdowns in the season opener against Ohio State before breaking his collarbone in the second half and missing the next five weeks. He returned to limited action against Miami halfway through the season, but has thrown for only ten touchdowns and six interceptions since his return. The Hokies will likely go early and often to freshman running back Travon McMillian who finished second among ACC freshmen in rushing with 961 yards. Even with McMillian’s obvious skills, Brewer is going to need to throw the ball well. Fortunately he will be facing a Tulsa pass defense that is fifth worst in the FBS, allowing 293 yards per game in the air.
But even with all the breakdowns and analysis and looks at both sides of the ball, there is no way to avoid that this bowl is Frank Beamer’s bowl game. 28 years as the head coach of any school is a professional lifetime. In the current environment of college football it is virtually unheard of. Beamer was 24-40 in his first six years as head coach at VA Tech. Do we really think that in this day of college coaches being the highest paid state employees Beamer would have survived those first six years if he were starting now? Do we really believe that in the age of booster money and television contracts owning the sport, Beamer wouldn’t be shown the door after year four of that kind of record now?
Maybe it was the fact that it was a different era when he was hired. Maybe it was that Frank Beamer was being asked to build something from virtually nothing. Maybe it was that the school and the administration and the fans and boosters realized that no one can just flip a switch and have high level talent want to go play college football in Blacksburg, Virginia….that recruiting competitive talent was going to take time. Maybe people were patient because when Beamer took over at his alma mater in 1987, the school had just been hit with NCAA sanctions. Whatever the reasons were to allow Beamer to stay beyond those tough first six years, Virginia Tech is better off for it, as a football program and as a university, and frankly, college football is better off for it as well.
Once Beamer got past those first six seasons, it has been all gravy for the Hokies. They went 9-3 in 1993, made it to a bowl game and have been to one every year since…a run of 23 consecutive bowl games is the reward Virginia Tech and its fans get for not bailing out on Frank Beamer all those years ago. A winning percentage of 66% is what they get for allowing the man to turn Blacksburg, Virginia from a little known place on a map to a college football destination.
Virginia Tech has had “only” one national championship run in Beamer’s tenure. How do you think that would play out at certain SEC schools today? But VA Tech has had plenty of significant regular seasons and plenty of major bowl victories and they have done so without having to stare at major media publications questioning the legitimacy of the program or the ethics with which Beamer was leading his program. The fact that he is getting such lofty praise from fellow coaches across the country tells you what you need to know about how he has comported himself the last two decades. He has lost and won in the same fashion; as a gentleman.
So yes, there are loftier bowl games this season. And yes, the players on the field will be the ones to win or lose this game. And yes, the television producers will call for way too many sideline shots of Beamer throughout the game. My suggestion? Embrace it. Save but for a very small handful of coaches across the country, there really aren’t people who have been afforded the time and support to become the face and tenor of a major college football program and we will be witnessing both history and the end of an era at the same time. Soak in the moment, for you are not likely to see it in major college football too many times ever again. And if you are looking to tie the knot on the Frank Beamer era at Virginia Tech, consider this; when he started his unheard of run of 23 consecutive bowl appearances in 1993, it was with a 45-20 win over Indiana….in Shreveport, Louisiana…at the Independence Bowl.
Logo photo courtesy of Independence Bowl.