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September 12, 2011

Elmassian hire important in Tech's rise to dominance

By: Jimmy Robertson

This is the second in a series of stories that looks back at head coach Frank Beamer’s 25 years as the head man of Tech’s football program. We continue with arguably Beamer’s best decision at Tech.

Phil Elmassian

When asked by a reporter before the season to name the best decision he’s made in the past 25 years as Tech’s head coach, Frank Beamer cited several but one was of particular importance – hiring Phil Elmassian as the defensive coordinator in 1993.

“If he keeps telling people that, they may start taking those coach of the year awards away,” Elmassian said, laughing.

Elmassian came aboard as part of Beamer’s staff reconstruction following a 1992 season that saw the Hokies go 2-8-1. That season left many fans speculating about Beamer’s job status because, at that time, Beamer had concluded his sixth season, with a less-than-sterling 24-40-2 overall mark.

But the university and the athletics department, led by athletics director Dave Braine, expressed confidence in Beamer, and Tech’s coach knew he needed to make some changes. He jettisoned three coaches – and dear friends – in Mike Clark, Tommy Groom and Keith Jones, and another coach, Steve Marshall, left to go to Tennessee. He hired Elmassian, J.B. Grimes, Rod Sharpless and current offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring to replace the quartet. Stinespring, then a graduate assistant at Tech, became the tight ends coach.

Elmassian, though, was the central and pivotal figure. A former Tech assistant under Bill Dooley, he left when Beamer got the job after Beamer wanted him to coach on the offensive side of the ball. Elmassian went to Virginia for four years and then to Syracuse for two years before agreeing to return to Tech.

Beamer was intrigued with Elmassian on two fronts. For starters, as a coach, Elmassian possessed knowledge of the University of Washington’s attacking and blitzing eight-man front defense. Though Elmassian never actually coached at Washington, he had visited with the Huskies’ staff and studied that defense. At the time, Beamer and his staff ran some eight-man fronts, but the concepts differed.

“They [the Washington Huskies] traded off some underneath coverages,” Beamer said. “Rather than a guy running with a guy, they would just trade him off to the next guy over. He [Elmassian] had some concepts that we had been thinking about, but he knew how to implement them. The eight-man front, to me, was the way to go, and he had the concepts that fit the way I thought we needed to go with our defense. So that was a drawing point.”

The other factor centered on Elmassian’s demanding personality. He brought forth a certain toughness, having played at Ferrum under legendary head coach Hank Norton, and Beamer, who also played for a tough guy in Jerry Claiborne in that same era, respected that.

“He brought a toughness, a no-nonsense, my-way-or-the-highway system of doing things,” Beamer said. “To be honest, the people we had were that way to a certain extent, but sometimes, you need a change. He was so dramatic in his actions and so hard-nosed. I think that spread throughout our defense, and to a certain extent, throughout our team.”

Tech’s team, particularly the defense, needed to get a little tougher. In 1992, the Hokies gave up a school-record 17 touchdown passes and also 2,524 passing yards, the second-highest total in school history. Tech struggled to put teams away, too. The Hokies led or were tied going into the fourth quarter in seven games that season and won just twice and tied once. Of their two wins, one came against Division I-AA James Madison.

But those familiar with Elmassian know that he loves a challenge. He accepted this one with his usual passion and intensity, returning to Southwest Virginia for the second time in his young career.

He established his presence immediately. Practices became more intense. There was more hitting in practice, as the Hokies went full pads just about every day. They became disciplined and tough.

“That preseason was a glimpse of the 1960s,” Elmassian said. “Coach Beamer and I brought the 60s into the 90s. If you did that today, you wouldn’t last a day.

“But I saw a team that had to learn. They had to learn how to win, and it was just a matter of finding the right players who would embrace the process of winning. It was a matter of working hard and being disciplined.

“Virginia Tech already had a tough, hard-nosed disciplined guy in Mike Gentry [Tech’s current assistant AD for athletic performance], and we needed to catch up with what Mike was doing in the weight room. We needed to bring that to the field every day. People underestimate the impact of a great strength coach like Mike Gentry. They [strength coaches] influence the players more than anyone because they’re around them more than anyone. Because of him, I knew we had a chance to turn it around.”

Thanks to Elmassian and young assistants like Bud Foster and Rod Sharpless, Tech’s defense caught up with a dynamic offense led by quarterback Maurice DeShazo. In the second game of the 1993 season, the Hokies traveled to Pittsburgh in what ultimately became a defining game in the Beamer era. They blasted the Panthers 63-21.

That set the stage for a team that got tougher, more disciplined and came together. The position changes made by the staff started working, and guys like George DelRicco, J.C. Price and Cornell Brown bought into the concepts. Tech finished games in the fourth quarter, and the Hokies ended up winning five of their final six regular-season games. Following a 20-17 triumph at Virginia, they received a bowl bid to the Independence Bowl.

“When we got that Independence Bowl bid, if you could have seen the kids’ faces, you’d have thought we were going to the Rose Bowl,” Elmassian said. “That was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had.”

The Hokies ended up bouncing Indiana in the Independence Bowl. Elmassian’s defense held the Hoosiers to less than 300 yards, intercepted two passes and returned a fumble for a touchdown in a 45-20 rout that started Tech’s current bowl streak.

Elmassian stuck around Blacksburg for one more year, helping the Hokies to the Gator Bowl and then departing to become the defensive coordinator at Boston College. He established the foundation, though, for a Tech defense that dominated the 1995 season and in the Sugar Bowl against Texas.

Elmassian’s nomadic career has taken him to 17 different schools over a span of 37 years, and he currently works as the secondary coach at Purdue. Interestingly, he has no regrets, including leaving Virginia Tech.

“If I had stuck around, then Bud Foster wouldn’t be there and I would have screwed the whole thing up anyway,” Elmassian joked. “Thank God, I left. That was the best decision ever made for Coach Beamer.

“I was just in the right place at the right time, and Bud’s done a great job adapting and adjusting. You couldn’t do today what we did back then, but Bud’s been able to take that thing and adjust and be successful. You just can’t say enough about him.”

Elmassian looks back at his Tech tenures with fondness, and he keeps in touch with Tech’s staff. He often sees Beamer at the coaches’ convention held in January, and the two of them reminisce about one of the truly great turnarounds in college football.

“Coach Beamer gives me way too much credit,” Elmassian said. “You just can’t say enough about that guy. He’s loyal, and there are only a handful of guys out there like that. I’m not talking about the fluff. I’m talking the real deal.

“That [the 1993 and 1994 seasons] was a memorable time in my life, and to see the transformation there now is unbelievable. Every university president and every administrator should have to study that program because they’d learn a great lesson. No scandals, no cheating, just winning. That’s a great story right there.”