To say that Whit Babcock had a lot to get off his chest Tuesday would be an understatement.
The usually talkative Hokies' athletic director had gone quiet recently, but he broke his self-imposed silence for a very unusual purpose: to explain, in detail, why he wouldn't be firing Justin Fuente.
As Babcock himself observed, that sort of news normally only draws a press release, or perhaps a short vote of confidence in an interview. Instead, he convened a very well-attended (virtual) press conference, highlighted by a roughly 20-minute long opening statement.
He pledged that he wasn't willing to fire a coach "just because it's easier to pacify the social media mob" or because "some fans just simply want someone to pay for their pain." He refuted any reports that his relationship with Fuente was souring, calling any disagreements with the head Hokie "greatly, greatly exaggerated." And he insisted that his decision was not in any way tied to Fuente's $10 million buyout, arguing that "I can not imagine a working relationship where you keep someone around just because of money."
"Upheaval is a dangerous strategy if you miss," Babcock said, warning that half the team could've transferred if he'd made a coaching change this time of year. "I know we have the right coach. But if you make a change and miss, it can get you into a spiral that you don't want."
It was a highly unusual, oddly confessional look into an AD's thinking about such a momentous decision — Babcock himself even wondered aloud several times whether this level of honesty was the right move. It felt at times as if Babcock was running down a list of all the message board topics, all the angry tweets that most disturbed him as he was deciding Fuente's fate.
"Most of the people that threaten to pull their money publicly, don't invest too much," Babcock said, in one of his harshest shots at his critics.
The offense, and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen, was clearly another sore subject.
Babcock said he met with Fuente for several hours Monday to discuss the state of the program. And in that time, he did not deliver any ultimatum to Fuente that he'd need to change his coaching staff on offense if he wanted to stay in Blacksburg, reasoning that "you sink or swim with your own people" on staff. And he spoke very much like Cornelsen's job was safe, though he deferred to Fuente to address the question himself.
In fact, Babcock said he spoke with a variety of coaches and scouts who have prepared to face Cornelsen's offense to get a flavor of how the program is perceived from the outside. Though fans have howled about the offense's lack of creativity, Babcock insisted all that feedback (given anonymously, of course) was positive.
"Our offense, from people you would know, is very well thought of," Babcock said. "We have a quarterback you can win with, we've regained some of our identity on offense...what we've not done a good job of is dehumanizing Brad Cornelsen."
Indeed, Babcock quipped that "maybe we'll start a talk show," and did seem to hint that he wants both Cornelsen and Fuente to show a bit more of their personalities publicly. But, that being said, he rejected the notion that the program is too closed off to the public, another frequent complaint from the fanbase.
"Coaches have to be true to themselves and Justin is pretty private, that's fine," Babcock said. "When he's talking to the media, he's not talking to you guys or the fans, he's talking to the opposing team...there's a method to his madness sometimes, and I know how it can come across, especially when you're losing, but he's a good guy."
Over and over again, Babcock also returned to the idea advanced frequently in online circles that the decision to retain Fuente was purely a financial one. The athletic department has already made cuts due to the pandemic-induced strain on its budget, and, the thinking goes, this is no time to pay a guy to go away.
But Babcock was clear: "If Justin was not the right coach, we would've found a way to do that."
"Football is too important," Babcock said, though he did note that he never called around to donors taking temperatures on whether they'd chip in to fund Fuente's exit. Similarly, he said there was no truth to any rumors that a group of donors approached Babcock with contributions to steer toward a buyout.
Instead, Babcock would say that "15 to 20" donors have agreed to chip in $12.5 million over the next five years for a "football infrastructure fund," covering additional staff positions or even just items like "the recruiting budget, recruiting staff, video analysts." Babcock hopes that is the sort of investment that will help Fuente elevate the program's recruiting, though he expressed broad confidence that Fuente has a vision on that front that can be fueled with more resources.
"We have not given this staff a fair shake, in my opinion," Babcock said. "You're not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and lose a promising young defensive coordinator and many of our former players who are also on staff."
Babcock believes it was difficult to get a "true evaluation" of the defense's performance, in particular, in its first year under Justin Hamilton in these very unusual circumstances. And he believes Fuente's program as a whole needs more time, saying that this season was essentially "year one" for Fuente after losing Bud Foster and putting his stamp entirely on the program.
It might've been Fuente's fifth year at the helm, in actuality, but Babcock clearly believes he should be afforded more time to fill Frank Beamer's very large shoes.
"I believe the transition from Coach Foster and Coach Beamer has been harder than anticipated, though that is no knock on the two of them," Babcock said.
Babcock said he was not sure when Fuente's squad might take the field once again — he has not ruled out the possibility of accepting a bowl bid, and has been consulting with coaches and players on the issue, with a decision expected within the next day or two.
But even if the fanbase has to wait a bit to see more Hokie football, he urged the Hokies' faithful to not grow disengaged with the program.
"The seeds that have been planted in the past few years will pay off soon," Babcock said. "If you can be involved, please do. It hurts us when you pull your support. We need you to participate now more than ever."