Like almost anyone else in the orbit of Virginia Tech football, I was preparing this week for the Hokies to move on from Justin Fuente. I had planned a funny column about finding the coach and what parameters are needed to correct the course back in the ACC Coastal dispute (at least).
And, like everyone else, I was surprised to find out on Monday night that we were all wrong. The entire athletics department is operating as usual, and Fuente is keeping his job:
Justin Fuente is likely to return to Virginia Tech next season, industry sources said @Stage. The school announced a press conference on football topics on Tuesday – Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) December 14, 2020
If this was really Whit Babcock’s decision (we’ll get to that), I respect the hell out of it. Do you know how hard it is to look out the window, to see an angry mob calling angrily to roll over, to look them in the face and tell them no? It is the decision of someone who has accepted the difficulty of leadership, which is an undue burden.
But wooooo buddy, Babcock drove a lot of people crazy. I feel like in the forum community, we tend to see our little world of intense fandom as the general opinion of tens of thousands of people watching Tech football. It is not and is not particularly close. There are a lot of Hokies online (and even some on this great website) who don’t mind Whit’s decision to keep Fuente a bit. Many see the decision similarly to Dave Braine’s choice to go with Frank Beamer when things got worse.
But when Babcock took to the podium to “discuss all the things about the Virginia Tech football program,” he angered more than 400-500 angry Twitter accounts.
#Hokies AD Whit Babcock begs the fans not to “tear him down”, that is, to become negative towards the football program if they want a change of coach. But he also notes: “Most people who threaten to withdraw their money don’t donate that much.” – Mike Barber (@RTD_MikeBarber) December 15, 2020
If you are trying to avoid negativity in 2021, I recommend that you do not read the answers there. But let’s just say that people haven’t responded well to that pull rating at the moment. Looking back with the right perspective, a little time to cool the tensions and reading his real quote from the press conference, Whit got a little gross business:
“If you can be involved, please do it. It hurts when you get your support. You really suffer from all 22 sports, scholarships, all that. If you can participate, we need you more now than ever. 20,000 donors are strong and are moving towards us. Those who threaten the public usually do not give so much, but we know that some of you feel that you can not invest in us. It is a gift, we will receive it when you are ready to give it.
This is not as bad as it was done and said almost the opposite of what was transmitted to the masses online. But this is not Mike Barber’s fault, he is a reporter trying to quickly transcribe relevant pieces of information from a press conference that was not fully accessible to the public. Fans are constantly refreshing their feeds for updates from the collective pace, because it was the only way they could stay informed.
And that, my friends, is really the root of the problem.
The Virginia Tech athletics department announced a press conference and speculation followed. It was revealed that Fuente will be detained, speculation has intensified. And when the real press conference arrived, after weeks of rumors, fans were desperate real information, not gossip or third-hand conversations. A real perspective, straight from the source.
And instead of making the press conference live for the public to watch, Hokie Brass treated it like any forum on a Tuesday afternoon. They postpone the meeting and find their feeds practically like this:
Social media is not the place to wait for a multi-thousand-word transcript of a largely eloquent and insightful look at the state of Hokie athletics. React at this moment, as soon as something becomes news. It is an instantaneous environment. But instead of understanding that maybe, just maybe, they didn’t play this right, I blame the reporters for trying to report on it.
David. It’s just that Mike Barber is Mike Barber. Mixing it. These two quotes are combined and taken out of context. Is every other member of our media the same? Do you listen to everything and then decide for yourself? Thanks! – Whit Babcock (@WhitBabcock) December 15, 2020
This is not a platform to beat Whit Babcock. The man is just a man, I probably would have said something similar and he did great things with his own my fault-raising funds for the Hokie Club the next day. She looks like a truly authentic person, who loves Virginia Tech and tries her best.
But what this reveals is a problem that has been lurking in the corners of Hokie athletics for almost a decade. Virginia Tech, as an entity (from administrators to coaches and fans), has not proven to be equipped to be a modern, successful Power Five football program.
As I prepared for my column on replacing Fuente, I focused on one single box that I would check to see if I was running: the Power Five experience. Last winter, I was stunned to hear exactly how much Fuente’s flirtation with Baylor opened Tech’s eyes. Of course, you need more money, of course, you need more employees in recruitment and brilliant graphics and football-centric facilities. This is the norm and, every year, you don’t realize it, I push your football program more and more backwards.
The ideal time for this line of thinking to take over the football program should have been during the transition from Beamer to Fuente. Frank had been at Tech for so long, it was hard to see what modernization needed. But a set of fresh eyes and different experiences can work wonders when it comes to renovation. Take the basketball team as an example. When he was hired, Buzz Williams brought his own whole Cursed team in Blacksburg, from assistants to secretaries. He rubbed some people in the wrong way, but he also pushed Hokie circles into the 21st century.
Williams brought his own graphic designer and turned social media accounts into cutting-edge artwork. He obtained several private jets for recruitment and quickly signed boys from all over the country. You may have won a lot of games, but the most important thing Buzz did was create an infrastructure for success that goes further. He’s part of why Mike Young can hire someone to do this:
Isn’t it just great? Timely, smart, funny. It’s a 10 out of 10 and why more and more fans are attracted to the basketball team. He hires his fans as he goes.
Justin Fuente was a lot of things that came in 2016. He was considered an excellent offensive mind, a “cultural fit” and a miracle worker for what he did in Memphis. But one thing he never had was the Power Five experience at any level of coaching. He went from six years at Illinois State (FCS) to four years at TCU (all in West Mountain) to four years at Memphis (AAC).
Fuente was used to doing more with less and continued to try to do the same when he started his career in Blacksburg. But these problems far outweigh the funding. Repeatedly, Fuente has hindered his toes when faced with people’s problems, his easy ability to communicate with almost everyone.
I see it similarly to how I see a brilliant engineer or mathematician. As someone who can solve equations with a lethal skill (I know I’m too simplified, but I go with it), Fuente believes in the gospel of football. The undisputed black and white number is not based on the idea that you can always plan your game for success. He is good at this and has based his entire career on his ability to do so. But at some point in your career, you need to be able to do more than just solve a problem on a blackboard. You need to know people and form teams and show the ability to lead through adversity. And at some point, it doesn’t matter how good you are at your basic skills. NASA and Lockheed Martin rooms are full of people who are very good at their jobs, but can’t be promoted because they can’t handle light skills. And when they are put in a position to use them, they often fail.
“Justin has values,” Babcock said Tuesday. “He’s a good man. He’s very private. He’s very family-oriented, often misunderstood.”
Make no mistake. And I’m empathetic with the fact that not everyone feels comfortable becoming the face of the program and being super-famous for a small, vocal sect of people. But he got the job and sometimes the requirements of a role push a person out of their comfort zone.
Justin Fuente is not a bad person at all. But it’s pretty damn close to everything a modern top 25 Power Five program needs from their off-field coach. You need someone who can build and then maintain hundreds of relationships at a time. Someone who can make donors feel special on the golf course in the morning, can FaceTime with a 16-year-old in the afternoon and then fly to the store to talk to a high school coach in the evening.
It’s unfair – and again, I empathize with that – but it’s the reality. This is not Memphis. It’s not a Mountain West program. It is a place with real but achievable expectations. But as the years go by, Fuente faces the same problems and continues to grow. Recruitment has declined. Transfers continue their mass exodus from Blacksburg. Former recent players routinely throw the show on Twitter – and no matter how real their complaints about sour grapes are, it’s a terrible thing. The big alumni sway with each other detachment and hostility. And to top it all off, the explanation most often used by Fuente for failure became variations of “players who failed to execute.”
That’s not how a successful football team works at any level, but it is especially not the way one of the top 30 programs in the country does business.
And the problems extend beyond Fuente. Although Babcock should be praised for his effort to get an influx of donor money into the program, you have to wonder why it lasted so long in the first place (analyzing both the Hokie Club organization and the donors themselves). And it really doesn’t matter who made the decision to keep Fuente. Whether it was Whit, Tim Sands or anyone else, the admission that 19-18 in three years is acceptable in Blacksburg.
Do you think that would be the case with Clemson? The state of Ohio? Alabama? Hell, forget the big dogs, would it be acceptable in Louisville? NC state? Literally, anywhere in the SEC?
No matter who plays, no matter who runs the football program, the biggest problem Virginia Tech athletics faces is making sure they are ready to compete with some of the best programs in the country, on and off the field.
And as it stands today, they don’t do that either. Let’s hope it changes.