Imagine, for a moment, if Frank Beamer had made the move. If he’d decided to leave Virginia Tech 15 years ago to become the head coach at North Carolina.
He almost did, and so it’s conceivable that Beamer could have been on the opposite sideline when the Tar Heels play the Hokies Saturday in Blacksburg, Va. Instead, Beamer, who’s in his 29th season and on the edge of retirement, will be on the Virginia Tech sideline, coaching in his final home game as his team celebrates him.
His final home game at Virginia Tech almost came 15 years ago, after he almost decided to leave the Virginia mountains for the gentle-rolling hills of central North Carolina.
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Gunter Brewer, the UNC wide receivers coach, remembers well those fleeting moments, back when it looked certain that Beamer would leave Virginia Tech to become the head coach at UNC.
Back then, in November 2000, Brewer had just completed his first season as an assistant coach with the Tar Heels. It had been a mediocre season. UNC had finished 6-5 and athletic director Dick Baddour had decided to fire coach Carl Torbush after the end of his third season.
“That was a tough time for our staff (of assistants),” Brewer said earlier this week. “Because we were trying to figure out who was going to be the next guy.”
For a little while it seemed assured that “the next guy” would be Beamer, who, after his humble beginnings at Virginia Tech, had built the Hokies into a national powerhouse. Beamer quickly emerged as the favorite to become UNC’s head coach.
“The rumor was that he flew here, and his agent, and all the things and accepted the deal and was coming back, was going to bring his staff back, so everybody was out,” Brewer said. “And then all of a sudden we hear he’s not (coming).”
It was more than a rumor. It was reality. By now the story is familiar.
Beamer and his wife came to Chapel Hill on a Sunday in late November 2000, and Beamer agreed to a deal to become the Tar Heels’ next head coach. Baddour wanted him to stay the night and have a press conference announcing the news the next day.
Beamer, though, decided to go back to Virginia Tech to tell his team he was leaving. And when he went back to Blacksburg, he changed his mind and decided to stay.
The rumor was that he flew here, and his agent, and all the things and accepted the deal and was coming back, was going to bring his staff back, so everybody was out. And then all of a sudden we hear he’s not (coming).
Gunter Brewer, UNC wide receivers coach
Few things reflect how close Beamer was to becoming UNC’s coach than the news accounts of the time, including ones in The News & Observer. Here are the first few paragraphs of The N&O’s Nov. 27, 2000 story about Beamer and UNC:
North Carolina athletic director Dick Baddour and Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer huddled for two hours early Sunday evening, a meeting that could lead to Beamer’s being named football coach at UNC as early as today.
Beamer and Baddour entered Baddour’s office at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill at about 5:30 Sunday afternoon and emerged just before 7:30, with Beamer smiling.
“Very nice place,” Beamer said quickly. “Very nice place.”
And here’s what The N&O published the next day, on Nov. 28, 2000:
Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer turned down the University of North Carolina on Monday, marking the second time in five months the Tar Heels pursued a high-profile coach only to be forced to turn elsewhere.
“It’s very flattering that they were interested in me,” Beamer said at an afternoon news conference on Virginia Tech’s campus. “But what I really want to do is keep this thing going here. And sometimes, it just takes you a little time to realize what a special thing we have here.”
Beamer turned down UNC months after Roy Williams, then coaching at Kansas, did the same. Four years later Williams agreed to come back to his alma mater. Beamer’s decision to remain at Virginia Tech was final.
Later in that same story is a statement from Baddour, expressing his disappointment but also his confidence that UNC eventually would make an “outstanding” coaching hire. That hire, it turned out, was John Bunting, whom Baddour fired after six seasons before hiring Butch Davis.
Beamer, meanwhile, managed to keep things rolling at Virginia Tech for most of the next 15 years. Imagine how things could have been different if he hadn’t changed his mind and if Beamer had decided to become UNC’s head coach.
Would the Tar Heels have become the same kind of program that Virginia Tech was under Beamer throughout the 1990s and 2000s? Would UNC still be seeking its first ACC championship since 1980? If Beamer had come to UNC, it’s likely that Davis never winds up in Chapel Hill.
And if Davis doesn’t come, that raises an entirely different set of questions. Like: Does UNC ever find itself in trouble with the NCAA? Does the school’s long-running scheme of phony African studies courses ever come to light?
Beamer’s decision to remain in Blacksburg altered the course of two programs for the next 15 years. In their fourth season under coach Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels have finally broken through the eight-win plateau. Now Virginia Tech will be searching for a successor who will be challenged to duplicate Beamer’s overall success.
In his book “Let me be Frank,” Beamer describes accepting the UNC job as “one of the biggest mistakes of my life.” The way he handled it, too, rankled many at UNC.
Many years have passed now, though.
UNC is on its third head coach – fourth, if you count interim head coach Everett Withers – since it thought it had hired Beamer in 2000. And Virginia Tech is about to say goodbye to the only head coach it has known for nearly three decades.
The circumstances easily could have been different on Saturday, with Beamer standing on the UNC sideline, going back to Blacksburg, the place where he’d last coached 15 years ago. It’s easy to wonder what might have been.
“No doubt,” said Brewer, who remained at UNC until 2004 and then came back in 2012 after stops at Oklahoma State and Mississippi. “There’s a lot of them that way – (a lot) of what-ifs.”