At 6:59 a.m. on Sept. 12, Virginia Tech Athletic Director Whit Babcock fired off an email to Carla Williams, his counterpart at UVA, and two high-ranking ACC officials. Plainly, it had been a long day for him already.
Just the day before, Babcock, Williams and other leaders at both schools had made a very big decision — they were postponing the Sept. 19 battle for the Commonwealth Cup, due to the spread of the coronavirus within Tech's football program. Now, in the early morning hours of the following Saturday, they had to coordinate how they told the rest of the world the news.
So Babcock got the ball rolling in an email to Williams, Michael Strickland, the ACC's senior associate commissioner for football operations, and Amy Yakola, the ACC's chief of external affairs. The AD had attached a draft of a news release explaining the decision to move the rivalry game, explaining that it had received some edits from VT President Tim Sands himself.
"This is very, very close to final," Babcock wrote in an email released to The Key Play via a Freedom of Information Act request. "Couple minor wording edits and we will go at 8am. Just wanted you both to see it. Our team meeting is then. Thank you."
But the release was far from final — it would require at least seven different rounds of edits in all — with a variety of changes tacked on over the course of what must have been quite the hectic last hour leading up to the official announcement of the cancellation.
Documents released to TKP through a FOIA request hint at exactly how top athletic department officials coordinated the release of this very sensitive news.
However, there are still a variety of details that remain absent in the run-up to the postponement in this very unusual season. Virginia Tech sought fees from TKP in order to release more detailed records, only sending over emails after roughly two months of back-and forth. UVA provided 10 pages of records free of charge.
Establishing a Timeline
Once Babcock sent out the release externally, drafts began to circulate internally as well.
Angie Littlejohn, Tech's senior associate athletic director for internal operations, sent a copy to Justin Fuente at 7:04 a.m., noting that Babcock had provided some edits. The head Hokie did not offer any comment on it: via email, at least.
Tracy Vosburgh, Tech's senior associate vice president for university relations, reached out to Pete Moris, the football team's chief spokesman and an associate athletic director himself. Vosburgh would be coordinating the outreach to some top university officials, and she needed to know the details.
At 7:18 a.m., she wrote Moris, inquiring when she could start sharing the news. Her plan was to inform Horacio Valeiras, the rector of the university's Board of Visitors, at 7:30 a.m. Fifteen minutes later, she hoped to send word to the "President's Council," a collection of deans at Tech's various colleges, the president of the faculty senate, and other top university officials. Blacksburg Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith and Town Manager Marc Verniel would learn the news at the same time.
Moris initially agreed to the timeline. But six minutes later, Littlejohn stepped in to press for a last-minute delay.
"Could we please move our timeline to 7:45 for Horacio and 7:55 for the cabinet?" Littlejohn wrote. "We are trying to keep a closer timeline with this one in sync with a lot of the external players."
Some Last-Minute Edits
So what was the hold-up? The main issue was finalizing the wording of the release that would go out to make the news official.
Most of the changes were merely cosmetic or grammatical, while others reflected more meaningful shifts in the language that would go out to the public.
For instance, the copy of the release Babcock first sent out to Williams and the ACC included not one, but two references to his commitment to playing a full ACC football schedule.
"While we share the disappointment of everyone who hoped to begin the football season against our in-state rival, we remain optimistic that a full ACC football schedule can be played thanks to the flexibility the present format permits," Babcock was quoted as saying in that early version of the news release. "We are still committed to playing a full ACC football schedule and are optimistic about fall Olympic sports playing their schedules."
By the time Littlejohn forwarded a copy of the release to Fuente, the release had been edited. The phrase "we are still committed to playing a full ACC football schedule" had been removed.
That's perhaps no great surprise. In speaking to reporters Monday, Fuente himself said he thought it was "impossible" that the Hokies would only need to go through this hectic process once, given Covid's impact on the team. Yet, in just a few days, the Hokies will finally play UVA and bring this unusual regular season to a close.
"To make it all the way through has been a long, arduous journey to say the least," Fuente said.
Moris circulated several other versions of the release as the team meeting at 8 a.m. neared.
Originally, the second sentence of the release read: "Virginia Tech will pause its football practices for four days, beginning today." At 7:40 a.m., Moris sent around a new version, with the "beginning today" bit excised.
Moris subsequently told TKP via email that the team had actually stopped practicing the previous day, Friday. The Hokies continued to keep all activities on pause through the following Tuesday, meaning a meaningful distinction was caught just a few minutes before the release went out.
In a call with reporters that Saturday, Babcock said the idea behind the four-day pause was to allow for "another two or three rounds of testing."
"If you're able to, to bring the team back together on Tuesday," Babcock said. "And if you can proceed you do, but if you can't, you don't."
The News Breaks
At 8 a.m. sharp, Babcock and Fuente met with the players. "They were very respectful, certainly eye contact, but you could tell they were disappointed, angry," Babcock recalled later.
By 8:12 a.m., Moris had sent out the release to the media. Twenty minutes later, an email went out to a HokieSports mailing list informing subscribers of the postponement.
It was only later that day that Fuente got the chance to tell UVA Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall himself, in a call he described to reporters the next week.
"I just felt like it was the right thing to do," Fuente said. "We've competed so hard against each other for so many years. There's certainly empathy there. We all understand what we're all going through, but I wanted to just make sure he knew what was happening and why it was happening from me and not somebody else."
Of course, Mendenhall's boss (Williams) had known about the cancellation for at least a full day beforehand at that point. It seems likely he did as well.
"Justin called later that day, mid-morning and was really professional and we had a great conversation about the unique challenges we've faced, some things we've anticipated correctly, some things we underestimated, some things we overestimated," Mendenhall told reporters on Sept. 16, per 247Sports. "He was apologetic that they just didn't get it done or couldn't get it done for that time period or that game."