In his onfield interview immediately after the ECU game, Frank Beamer said he had to go into the locker room and apologize to his players for not having them prepared to play. It was an incredible moment: the man with the second most coaching wins in Bowl Subdivision football, who has been atop his program for 25 years in the era of drive-by coaching, felt he had to apologize to his players. He didn't pass the buck. He took the blame.
Then we came out cold against Wake Forest. And then against Duke. The reason given by the coaching staff both times? Not being ready to play. Stiney stood up and took the heat for the first quarter at Wake Forest. This week it was again Frank Beamer who said the team just didn't quite show up in Durham.
How many times can you apologize for not being ready to play before the apology rings empty?
It's a classic criticism of the Virginia Tech football program: we "play down" to our opponent. We squeak by teams that - simply judging from a talent and quality of coaching staff level - we should roll. That is one problem area that has not improved with the adjustments to play calling made after the Orange Bowl.
The possible culprit at I see it? Frank Beamer's favorite word. "Consistency."
"We practice the same way every week, win or lose," Frank told a reporter in an interview earlier this season. The game prep never changes in Blacksburg. We prepared for Duke the same way we prepared for Miami. Not in the technical aspects, of course. We game plan on both sides of the ball based on what scheme the opponent is going to be using against. But in regards how the offense and defense practices, how reps get assigned, how much time goes to film study, it all stays the same week to week. In other words, we treat every opponent the same on paper.
The problem is that the players don't treat the opponents the same. We naturally don't get as "up" for Duke as we do for Miami. A noon kickoff on the ACC network doesn't keep the adrenaline levels as high as a primetime game on ESPN. In practice it's the same. In the minds of the players, it's two completely different animals.
To a certain extent it's the job of a head coach to manufacture excitement when it's lacking. We don't really like to think about these players needing a little extra "rah rah" to get their motors revved up, but it's the truth. Barry Switzer once said it shouldn't matter who the opponent is, great teams go out onto the field to play against themselves. To be elite you have to relish every opportunity to play a down of football and make the most of it, regardless of what team is lined up against you. And instilling that mindset into a program is the job of the head coach. Beamer tries to do it through preaching consistency, but the message is falling just a little short. The players obviously understand that we are not a program that panics, and that consistency is what has allowed us to be one of the best rebounding teams in college football. Heartbreaking losses like BC '07 and JMU '10 did not derail our seasons the way you see gut wrenching losses derail the seasons of other teams. We have the mindset of always getting back up when we've been knocked down. What we are lacking is the iron-jawed determination to pay no attention to what the jerseys lined up against us say.
Putting it another way, you have to actively find a reason to bring your best effort onto the field for every game. This is David Wilson's epic locker room speech before the 2009 International Federation of American Football Junior World Championship:
It's fair to say Mr. Wilson was ready to play. He also got his team ready to play. He found his motivation in something as simple as which locker room his team was assigned. But David Wilson is a special player. You're always going to get his best effort every week. And, unfortunately, he's also the exception. There's a reason why momentum is such a crucial factor in college football, and the higher the level of college football the more crucial it is. The BCS conferences are stocked with the most talented players coming out of high school year after year, and quite often these players were so far above their peers in talent level that all they had to do was show up every Friday night and go through the motions and they'd be pretty much unstoppable. But when you make the transition from high school football to BCS-level college football you're suddenly on a much more level playing field, even when you're facing the Dukes and Wake Forests of your conference. That transition requires a lot more attention to detail and development of sound mechanics, but it also requires the ability to put your entire focus on the game at hand regardless of your opponent. It's the coaching staff's job to help their players make that transition. Our coaching staff does a fantastic job of coaching up the fundamentals and the techniques that are needed to compete at this level. But they don't seem to be so good at keeping the fires stoked under the player's asses.
There's another potential downfall to Frank Beamer's complete devotion to consistency: lack of accountability. After they enjoy their much needed and much deserved days off during this bye week, the players will begin to practice in preparation for Georgia Tech just like they did after beating Miami, just like they did after beating ECU, just like they did after losing to Clemson. The approach and the mindset will be essentially the same as it would have been had we dropped half a hundred on Duke and been playing our fourth string by halftime. The particulars of the last game will have no bearing on the preparations for the next. There were some players who barely brought their D+ game to Durham, let alone their A game, but this will be a week like any other for them. So, really, what's the incentive to show up every week?
Don't get me wrong. A win is a win. And not every loss should be punished. But there should be consequences and rewards for performance. Perhaps there are, and it happens behind closed doors and well away from the media and the public (as it should), but based on everything we've heard about the mindset of practice inside the Virginia Tech football program, there's nothing to indicate that it is. But if, say, someone were to have to run steps or do a hundred up-downs or get up in front of the team during film study and explain why he consistently gave up on his routes and gave minimal effort on his blocks for the entire Duke game, then perhaps we would see an improvement in fundamentals.
I often shy away from being critical of the players, and in general I think it's a good policy. But we also must remember that these are in fact men, not boys, who are playing this game. They are representatives of our university and their effort, or lack thereof, is a reflection on Virginia Tech. They are also learning, as I learned in college, what it really means to be a man and how to live your life when the person you are ultimately most accountable to is yourself. That was a difficult lesson for me to learn. I can't imagine doing it while the eyes of so many people are on you every Saturday. But Virginia Tech and its football program have an obligation to these players to help them learn that lesson. Not holding them accountable when they fail to meet expectations of effort and focus would be a disservice to them and a failure of our coaching staff.
I was at the Appalachian State game this season. It's a heck of a drive but I always try to make it down for one game each season. I always stop by Volume Two Bookstore and among the other overpriced items I walk out with I always buy this year's team bracelet. Yes, they're exceptionally lame in general, but I've bought one every year since 2007 and in its own weird way it helps me feel a little more connected with my alma mater and its football program now that I've moved so far away from it. Instead of the more familiar "Team United" slogan, this year's bracelet has this season's motto: "Every day in every way." That, of course, is the foundation of Virginia Tech football: 100% effort in all phases of the game. But it's not enough just to tell these young men that's what you expect from them. You have to show them what it means. And in this case I think Frank Beamer is missing the forest for the trees.
FBS Mission Statement:
We at FBS believe that offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring bears the largest share of the blame for years of sub-par output from some of the most talented players ever to set foot on Worsham Field. We believe the main objective of the VT football program - a national championship - will escape us as long as Stinespring is making the calls. We therefore advocate the improvement of our football program through the replacement of our offensive coordinator.