Brent Pry's quest to bring Virginia Tech football back to the Beamer-era standard

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Mar 6, 2018

Brent Pry's vision to bring Virginia Tech football back to the Beamer-era standard​


BLACKSBURG, Va. -- It is a point of disagreement among Virginia Tech staffers as to who was responsible for the most egregious mistake of the offseason, but new head coach Brent Pry is going to make sure it doesn't happen again.

"We need a 14-ounce ribeye, man! They kept trying to make it an eight-ounce sirloin," Pry explained.

And don't get him started on dessert:

"High school coaches don't care about carrot cake! We need, you know, the banana pudding with the vanilla wafers that they can fill a bowl with. They want chocolate chip cookies and brownies!"

When Pry says he has a specific vision for how his program is going to operate, he means it. It wasn't enough to revive a Frank Beamer-era spring tradition of grilling steaks for local high school coaches after a clinic -- he needed big steaks and the right desserts, cost be damned. He needed The Masters pulled up on the biggest big-screen TV they could find. And when school was out, he needed a staff retreat to make sure everyone was on the same page.

"I've got a pretty convincing way I want to do this thing," he said, "and to get the narrative out and the messaging out -- when these families come on our campus from a recruiting standpoint, when our players are in our facilities -- I want everybody that touches these guys to have the same narrative and speak the same language and make sure everybody understands what's important to me and how we're going to do this."

A product of Lexington, Virginia, about 80 miles from Tech, Pry played safety at Buffalo, lettering in 1991, before turning to coaching. After his stint as a student coach at UB, he spent two years as a defensive assistant at Division II's East Stroudsburg -- where his father, the offensive coordinator, was coaching a quarterback by the name of James Franklin -- before landing on the Virginia Tech staff as a graduate assistant under legendary coordinator Bud Foster. He spent three seasons in Blacksburg, then embarked on a career that took him to Western Carolina, Louisiana, Memphis and Georgia Southern and connected him with Franklin again at Vanderbilt and Penn State. Over his last five seasons as Franklin's defensive coordinator, PSU averaged a defensive SP+ ranking of 10.2, peaking at sixth in 2021. He believed he was ready for a head-coaching opportunity, but he was willing to accept only certain opportunities.

"I did have a vision, a very clear one, but only for Tech," he said. "This one was really easy for me to see. It allowed an opportunity to be myself, you know, not have to be somebody I'm not. That was important to me. I wouldn't have taken a job that didn't allow for that, and there weren't many places that would."

One thing you notice spending even a brief amount of time in Blacksburg is that Virginia Tech people love being Virginia Tech people. It's evident walking around campus, it's evident watching the student section fill up early and bounce to "Enter Sandman," even for the spring game, and it was most certainly evident watching alumni strutting around the football complex on the night before and day of the spring game, thrilled to be back in their old stomping grounds.

Blacksburg is technically in Virginia, but it's a 3½-hour drive from Richmond, four hours from Washington, D.C., and five hours from the fertile recruiting area of Hampton Roads (Newport News, Virginia Tech, etc.). Hell, Tech's campus is a 45-minute drive from Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport. It's not incredibly easy to get recruits to campus, but it's not hard to see that, if they can get you there, you might want to stay.

Tech enjoyed a smattering of football success through long-ago decades -- an 8-0-1 campaign and No. 16 AP finish in 1954, two bowl appearances under Jerry Claiborne in the 1960s, three under Bill Dooley in the 1980s -- but no one both harnessed and expanded the Hokies' potential until Frank Beamer took over in 1987.

A former Tech cornerback under Claiborne, Beamer helped the Hokies navigate through a series of NCAA sanctions and scholarship reductions, then ignited an unmatched run. In 19 seasons from 1993 to 2011, Tech won double-digit games 13 times, finished in the AP top 10 seven times, averaged an SP+ ranking of 15.0 (with seven top 10s), began a 15-year winning streak against Virginia, won or shared seven Big East and ACC titles and, with Michael Vick behind center, reached the BCS National Championship in 1999.

Beamer crafted a specific brand of football around Foster's hard-nosed and innovative defense, devastating special teams, elite development of often local recruits and maximization of the blue-chip quarterbacks they were able to bring to town -- not only Michael Vick but also other Hampton Roads products, such as Marcus Vick and Tyrod Taylor.

Results eventually trailed off a bit for Beamer. After such a long run of success, his Hokies averaged just 7.3 wins per year and a more mortal average SP+ ranking of 33.3 over his final four seasons (2012-15). Replacement Justin Fuente was able to engineer a brief rebound -- 10-4 in 2016, 9-4 in 2017 -- but was unable to develop a proper quarterback lineage, and defensive output regressed, especially after Foster's retirement in 2019. Fuente went just 25-25 in his last four seasons and failed to sign even a top-40 recruiting class in his last two. As is often the case, especially when you're succeeding a legend, balancing the past and future results in an eroding culture. Pry inherits a program with plenty of bridges to repair.

"It was my understanding that the [former] lettermen didn't feel very special," Pry said, "didn't feel like they were a big part of this thing. So in my very first Zoom, in the first 48 hours I was hired, we may have had 150 lettermen on there. I told them, 'This is more your program than it is mine. You guys built this place. I want you to feel like a rock star every time you come back.' That doesn't matter if you're an NFL guy or you were, you know, a walk-on for four years. It's your blood, sweat and tears that laid the foundation for this thing and then kept it going. We're trying to treat those guys like they deserve, build those relationships with our former players and get them back as often as we can."

That work was evident in the number of former players in and around Blacksburg on the weekend of the spring game. It was also reflected in the steak dinner for high school coaches.

"I believe that at Virginia Tech, you can win an ACC Championship by recruiting the heck out of your footprint," Pry continued.

Any time you take over for a coach who was pushed out, you're probably taking on a situation that has some fires to extinguish. From Fuente, Pry inherited a roster with far too many running backs, far too few receivers and offensive linemen and not nearly enough scholarship spots available for the type of heavy transfer portal usage seen from other first-year coaches.

Tech ranked 85th in offensive SP+ last season, the Hokies' worst ranking since 2014, and 55th in defensive SP+; in the past 18 seasons, only Tech's 2017 defense ranked worse. The roster doesn't appear to have any nightmarish weaknesses, but outside of perhaps the linebacking corps, it doesn't have many strengths either.

Even if one assumes Pry can engineer something decent out of the defense, the offense might struggle to establish its chosen identity. It will be led by a number of coaches with backgrounds in run-heavy, physical play -- offensive coordinator Tyler Bowen (former Penn State tight ends coach), offensive line coach Joe Rudolph (former Wisconsin OC), quarterbacks coach Brad Glenn (former Georgia State OC) -- but the offensive line two-deep will be loaded with freshmen and sophomores, and leading rusher Raheem Blackshear is gone.

"It's challenging," Pry said of building his first Tech roster. "You've gotta live in both worlds. You've gotta get to know your roster as quick as you can. Where aren't you good enough? Who can develop and be good enough? And then secondly, what do you need to be doing in the portal? In the high schools? Where is your focus?"

Pry attempted to immediately address offensive holes by bringing in a quartet of transfers -- quarterbacks Grant Wells (Marshall) and Jason Brown (South Carolina/Saint Francis) and receivers Jadan Blue (Temple) and Stephen Gosnell (North Carolina) -- but the only other transfer he has brought in was Nebraska defensive end Pheldarius Payne, a recent addition. The team finished the spring with more scholarship players than scholarships.

"Post-spring, I mean, nobody wanted to leave. We had to have some hard conversations with some guys," he said.

Now comes the even trickier part: maintaining long-term optimism among fans and boosters while keeping 2022 expectations grounded in reality. With the mediocrity of both last year's squad and the past couple of years of recruiting, Pry's first Hokie team is projected 61st in SP+ this season -- only a slight upgrade from last season's No. 70 final ranking. A schedule with six opponents projected 75th or worse -- including the first four of the season -- could still make a bowl trip reasonably likely, but if neither Wells nor Brown immediately clicks at QB, and the offense remains an inefficient mess, there are only a couple of games Tech can definitely count on winning. SP+ gives Tech similar odds of finishing with a losing record (21%) and winning eight or more games (31%), and that could quickly flip with an early loss or two.

Pry is attempting to manage this balance by focusing only on the here and now.

"We haven't talked about the season with the team or as a staff. We're so invested in the right now," he said. "We break it down into four phases: winter, spring, summer and preseason camp. We've gotta win each phase, and I talk to the team about how we do that."

The Hokies are officially in the summer phase of Pry's game plan.

"Right now it's about winning the summer and strengthening weaknesses," he continued. "We've got to improve in a bunch of areas. We have to be able to end the summer saying we had a great summer and we've made strides. Then we'll worry about preseason camp when the time comes. We don't dive into much more than that."

Nothing can completely prepare you for the shift in responsibility in going from a coordinator to a head coach.

"It's just different," Pry said. "I went down the hallway, and guys are in that defensive staff room doing what I've done for 31 years.

"You're truly an ambassador to your program and to the university. I mean, the president of the university and I traveled to Richmond and spoke to congressmen and senators for a day and a half. I was asked to be the keynote speaker for the Virginia Forestry Association! Monday, I'm at the Board of Visitors meeting, and Tuesday I'm at the Chamber of Commerce. It's those types of things. There's a ton of Hokie Club events, rotary clubs. I enjoy it, and I love talking about Virginia Tech and my path to get here."

Pry has spent only three years -- about 10% of his coaching career -- in Blacksburg, but it's clear the community is embracing him as one of their own, something that might not surprise anyone who understands the area.

"There's a true, genuine sense of community," Pry said. "This Blacksburg community is so close to Virginia Tech and its student body, they mean so much to one another. And we did a really good job of putting together a staff that is relational, approachable, friendly and wants to be that way. They don't have to work to be that way.

"To me, that's what Frank Beamer built. That's the type of program that we're going to have."

Pry is winning his first offseason as well as any debut coach in FBS. Granted, that matters only until the games actually start, but it can buy you time and leeway if there are some rough early moments on the field.

Maybe his choice of a run-heavy, physical offense over a more modern, flavor-of-the-day approach means he struggles to attract the level of quarterback required for elite play and trips him up like so many other defensive coordinators-turned-head coaches through the years. Maybe, like so many first-timers, he takes a while to find just the right staff that he needs. Maybe we find over time that what Beamer created was somewhere between very difficult and impossible to replicate. Or maybe we find that Pry's vision translates perfectly to this place at this time.

Either way, the vision is the first step, from the right style to the right steak.

"This thing is still about growth and development and chemistry and culture," he said. "That's still going to make up your best teams. Even in the NFL, sometimes there's those really talented teams and they just can't put it together, and there's less talented teams that do special things. We're going to do it the right way, and we've got a good vision for it. You hope there will only be some minor curveballs, but there'll be some adjustments, and you just keep rolling with your vision."
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