How Shane Beamer got South Carolina football rolling so quickly

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- As a guest last August at one of South Carolina's football practices, Michael Vick found himself nodding along with nearly every word.

Shane Beamer, the Gamecocks' first-year head coach, was addressing his team, and his message, his mannerisms, his conviction -- really, everything -- took Vick back in time, all the way back to their days as teammates at Virginia Tech more than two decades ago.

"I'm sitting there thinking, 'Yep, I always knew he was going to be doing this one day,'" Vick recounted. "And he still had that young freshness about him, just like he did 20 years ago. Just watching him with his players, the way he directed them, the way he related to them, I was like, 'This is right where he was meant to be.'"

It's the same feeling Vick had when he first met the Hokies' long snapper with the famous last name, textbook football temperament and an insatiable drive matched only by his honest-to-goodness humility.

Sure, Vick was the budding star, a multitalented quarterback who went on to lead Virginia Tech to the Sugar Bowl BCS national championship game during a dazzling redshirt freshman season in 1999. But it was a former walk-on, who just happened to be coach Frank Beamer's son, that made a lasting impression on one of the most dynamic football players of his generation.

"When I got to Virginia Tech, I just kind of gravitated to Shane whenever he was in the room, the way he thought the game and the way he always prepared," said Vick, a four-time NFL Pro Bowler. "I wanted to hear what he had to say because I felt I could hear something or learn something that might help me, on or off the field.

"He was a spitting image of his dad."

Beamer, 45, is entering his second season as South Carolina's coach, and expectations are soaring. The Gamecocks have their quarterback in place -- a motivated Spencer Rattler with plenty to prove after it all fell apart for him at Oklahoma -- more offensive firepower surrounding him thanks to the transfer portal and a deeper team across the board. On the recruiting trail, the Gamecocks are reeling in 4-star recruits from the state of Florida.

So as anticipation builds to the Gamecocks' Sept. 3 opener against Georgia State, Beamer has never been more comfortable walking in the shadow of his dad, a Hall of Famer with 238 wins in 29 years at Virginia Tech and 280 victories overall. That's because the younger Beamer made it a point long ago to create his own shadow.

After finishing up his playing career at Virginia Tech, the easy path into coaching for Beamer would have been to join his dad's staff as a graduate assistant. But Beamer wasn't looking for easy. Sure, his last name would help open doors, but he wanted to earn his way into a profession that has oftentimes been guilty of overt nepotism.

So off he went, first to Georgia Tech to work under George O'Leary as a graduate assistant and then to Tennessee to work under Phillip Fulmer as a graduate assistant. There were also stops at Mississippi State under Sylvester Croom, South Carolina under Steve Spurrier, Georgia under Kirby Smart and Oklahoma under Lincoln Riley.

And, yes, Beamer did spend five years under his dad as Virginia Tech's associate head coach from 2011 to 2015 before the elder Beamer retired.

"He never once asked me to make a call or write a letter for him to any coach," said Frank Beamer, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2018. "He wanted to do it on his own. But he's always been like that, one to take charge, very organized and following a plan that he very carefully laid out. He takes after his mother [Cheryl] that way. It's sort of, 'Hey, I know what I want to do, and I'll get it done.' "

Croom, the SEC's first Black head football coach, gave Beamer his first full-time assistant coaching job in 2004. Beamer was the Bulldogs' cornerbacks coach and recruiting coordinator and later transitioned to running backs coach.

Right away, Croom knew Beamer was going places, and it had nothing to do with his last name.

"His willingness to do whatever he could to help the program, and not necessarily help himself, is what jumped out to me," Croom said. "He was smart and confident, and yet willing to listen and learn from people with more experience. He had a certain maturity about him too. He wasn't one of those guys who just threw things out there. Any ideas or thoughts he had were well thought out. Even at a young age, he commanded respect."

Beamer has made the same impression on his players at South Carolina, where they have embraced the heightened expectations after a 7-6 finish a year ago, a season that saw the Gamecocks close with wins over Florida, Auburn and North Carolina among their last five games. For perspective, South Carolina has won more than eight games in a season only seven times in school history, and four of those came under Spurrier from 2010 to 2013 when Beamer played a key role in putting together recruiting classes that included the likes of Marcus Lattimore, Alshon Jeffery, Stephon Gilmore and D.J. Swearinger.

"You see him fighting the same fight that we're fighting," said cornerback Cam Smith, a projected first-round pick in the 2023 NFL draft. "You see him busting his ass at 6 o'clock every morning. He never misses a workout. He's in here working out before meetings, before we're even in the building. He's not one of those coaches who talks it. He does it."

Beamer's energy level is seemingly boundless.

One day, he might be talking about the progress of some of his players and bouncing ideas off strength coaches Luke Day and Chip Morton -- all while wearing a weighted vest and walking the upper deck steps at Williams-Brice Stadium.

The next day, Beamer is driving a golf cart while guiding campus tours with recruits, whisking one over to meet national championship-winning South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley, then maybe later that evening hitting the booster club circuit at a fish camp in Lancaster, South Carolina.

"I like being a part of all of it," Beamer said. "I learned last year how many things come across your desk that don't necessarily involve football, but that doesn't mean those things aren't important. That's one of the things I saw with my dad. The little things matter."

Somewhere in his frantic schedule, Beamer finds time to scour Twitter, send out his own flood of tweets and even answer a few requests. One fan this week asked for Beamer's help in convincing his wife to name their first-born son "Beamer."

Beamer's response was vintage:

"He's never changed, the same guy, same work ethic, same good old-fashioned, genuine guy he was when he first started," said first-year Gamecocks tight ends coach Jody Wright, who was an assistant coach in the NFL and worked with Beamer at Mississippi State before joining the South Carolina staff.

Case in point: Beamer religiously follows up with recruits and their parents with handwritten notes and is insistent that his assistants do the same. Yet, he's engaging, creative and always up to date when it comes to his Twitter game.

"I don't know how he has time to do anything else," Frank Beamer joked of his son's social media presence. "I'm still not sure how it all works."

Just like his dad never forgot his roots in tiny Fancy Gap, Virginia, Beamer has never forgotten those who helped shape his path. He's already lined up travel plans to attend this year's College Football Hall of Fame ceremony in Las Vegas. Croom is a member of the 2022 class. Last month, Beamer, along with South Carolina offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield and senior analyst Freddie Kitchens, flew to Mississippi to attend the funeral of Wright's father, Lynn Wright, a longtime high school coach and state legislator in Mississippi. Beamer, Wright and Kitchens go back to their days on the Mississippi State staff under Croom.

"There's a reason everybody wanted to work forever for Frank Beamer," Wright said. "Shane is the same way, and he's brought old-school values to new-school technology."

Riley marvels at Beamer's ability to effectively blend all his coaching experiences together.

"Shane has seen just about everything when you look at all of the coaches that he's worked for and the systems he's worked in," said Riley, who is entering his first season at USC. "He knows all facets of the game. But even more importantly, he knows how to communicate and coach those facets. His players get better, and he can relate to anyone."

Brad Pendergrass is one of Beamer's closest friends. They met in 2001 when they were graduate assistants at Tennessee. Pendergrass is now a vice president at Wheels Up, a publicly traded private aviation company.

As somebody who is no longer in football, Pendergrass has come to appreciate Beamer even more.

"A lot of times, coaches only see the outcome in everything they do," Pendergrass said. "I don't see that in Shane. He's one of those friends you just don't want to let down because of how genuine he is. He makes everybody around him better, as people. I know he has me."

On any day, take a stroll with Beamer through South Carolina's state-of-the-art Cyndi and Kenneth Long Family Football Operations Center, and he knows everybody in the building by name. It doesn't matter if it's one of the student assistants at the front desk or the lady who's there in the wee hours every morning to prepare and cook breakfast for the players and then break everything down and wash dishes afterward.

In fact, Beamer brought Anita Oneal, the Gamecocks' "chef du jour" and surrogate mother to the players in front of the team earlier this year to thank her for everything she has done for the program, especially her scrumptious pancakes.

One of the things Pendergrass notices, particularly given his football administration background, is all the kids of coaches and staff members who are around the football complex. The family component was also a staple at South Carolina when Beamer worked under Spurrier.

Beamer's own three kids -- daughter Sutton (14 in August), daughter Olivia (12) and son Hunter (9 this month) -- are the biggest South Carolina fans on the planet. After every game, they're the first ones to greet Beamer on the field along with his wife Emily.

But that doesn't mean the Beamer kids are quick to give their dad a pass. If Beamer is home from the office a little early one evening, Olivia has been known to ask him, "Shouldn't you be at work?" and suggest that rival coaches might be outworking him.

In reality, the ribbing is all in fun and helps keep everybody level-headed in a pressure-packed world that only a coach and his family can truly know.

"I certainly don't have to worry about what the outside world and the message boards are saying because I come into my house, and they're keeping me humble and honest," Beamer joked.

Sometimes, the heat is real. Beamer's offensive staff was a frequent target by some in the South Carolina fan base and media last season, and there were the inevitable calls for coaching changes. Beamer never wavered in his support of his coaches, and he was also careful not to diminish the Gamecocks' talent level or harp on the fact that they entered the season without a single healthy quarterback who had started an SEC game.

Instead, Beamer views it this way: The Gamecocks found a way to win seven games with four different starting quarterbacks, including the Duke's Mayo Bowl win over North Carolina, when a receiver, Dakereon Joyner, played quarterback and won MVP honors in a package that Satterfield put in just for that game.

"I will always do what's best for the South Carolina football program, and if I felt like making changes was the best thing for us last year, I certainly would have done it," Beamer said. "But I didn't. I wasn't going to be swayed by public opinion. I'm in the foxhole with those guys each day, in the building with them day in and day out, and I know what's being said in those meetings and know what's being taught on the football field.

"Now, don't get me wrong. We've got to be better this season in all three phases, head coaching included. But I was confident then and confident now that we have the staff in place to get where we want to go."

The way Beamer stood up to some of the criticism early on a year ago, when the Gamecocks started out 1-4 in the SEC, with that lone win being a 21-20 escape against Vanderbilt in the final seconds, didn't go unnoticed by the players.

"Guys want to be here. Everybody in the building is more positive. We didn't have that before Coach Beamer got here, and that's why we're ready to take that next step," said tight end/H-back Jaheim Bell, who is poised to be one of the SEC's top breakout players this season on offense.

That step will come with its own set of new challenges, starting with a grueling first half of the schedule. The Gamecocks' first four SEC games -- at Arkansas, Georgia at home, at Kentucky and Texas A&M at home -- are all against teams ranked in ESPN's latest Way-Too-Early Top 25.

But Beamer has never been one to shy away from a challenge, be it taking his shot at leading the Gamecocks back to heights they've enjoyed only once in school history (during Spurrier's run) or answering a challenge from one of his players.

Last month amid the sweltering heat of the South Carolina Midlands, some of the team's linemen were doing conditioning drills, running sprints while carrying weighted sandbags.

Senior defensive tackle Zacch Pickens saw Beamer standing off to the side and playfully called out for Beamer to join them. What none of the players knew was that their coach had already done a similar workout on his own earlier that morning.

Beamer, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, casually placed his phone on the ground and joined in the sweat-soaked fun.

"I've got to admit, it was sort of a mic-drop moment because frankly, I smoked him," chirped Beamer, the competitive juices still racing two weeks later. "I walked off and said, 'Don't ever call me out again.'"

The players love that bravado from their coach, but they already knew after going through last season's rough spots that Beamer isn't one to go quietly.

"Coach Beamer cares, man, and cares about everything we do," Pickens said. "You're not going to get too many coaches who care as passionately about their players as he does."

Vick was quick to pick up on that connection last year when he spoke to the South Carolina team. From 2007 to 2009, he spent 19 months in federal prison for his role in a dogfighting ring while playing for the Atlanta Falcons. Forever grateful to the Beamer family for their support during such a dark time, Vick stressed to the South Carolina players the importance of self-belief and being accountable for your actions.

Vick hopes to visit with the South Carolina team again this year.

"I look at my own experience, and coaches have to be able to relate to kids from all walks of life," said Vick, who's now an NFL analyst for Fox. "You lead by example. You want to be connected to your players, really connected, and that's what I saw with Shane. I think players learn quicker that way. It's different than when they're just trying to drill you all the time, which is what coaches are probably going to do 90 percent of the time. It's a different dynamic when they see you're involved in every aspect.

"And knowing Shane Beamer as I do, I can promise you he's going to be involved."

Even to the point of carrying sandbags.