As with nearly everyone else in the orbit of Virginia Tech football, I was preparing for the Hokies to move on from Justin Fuente this week. I had a fun column planned about the coaching search and what parameters are needed to course-correct back into ACC Coastal contention (at the very least).
And, like everyone, I was caught off guard when word leaked out on Monday evening that we were all wrong. The whole athletic department is operating under business as usual, and Fuente is keeping his job:
Justin Fuente is likely returning next season at Virginia Tech, industry sources told @Stadium. The school announced a Tuesday news conference regarding football topics— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) December 14, 2020
If this was indeed Whit Babcock's decision (we'll get to that), I respect the hell out of him for it. Do you know how hard it is to look out your window, see an angry mob rabidly calling for heads to roll, look them in the face and tell them no? It's the decision of someone who has accepted the difficulty of leadership, which is quite an unappreciated burden.
But wooooo buddy did Babcock make a lot of people mad. I feel like in the message board community, we tend to see our little world of intense fandom as the overall opinion of tens of thousands of people who follow Tech football. It's not, and it's not particularly close. There are plenty of Hokies online (and even some on this fine website) who don't mind Whit's decision to retain Fuente one bit. Many of them see the decision similarly to Dave Braine's choice to ride it out with Frank Beamer when things got tough.
But when Babcock took to the podium to "discuss all things related to the Virginia Tech football program" he infuriated more than 400-500 angry Twitter accounts.
#Hokies AD Whit Babcock implores fans not to "tear it down," meaning turn negative toward the football program if they wanted a coaching change. But also notes, "Most that threaten to pull their money don't donate that much."— Mike Barber (@RTD_MikeBarber) December 15, 2020
If you're trying to avoid negativity heading into 2021, I'd recommend not reading the replies there. But let's just say people did not respond well to that pull quote in the moment. Looking back with the proper perspective, a bit of time to cool tensions down and reading his actual quote from the press conference, Whit got a bit of a raw deal:
"If you can be involved, please do. It hurts us when you pull your support. You are really hurting all 22 sports, scholarships, all of that. If you are able to participate, we now need you more than ever. We have 20,000 donors strong and working our way up. Those that threaten publicly usually don't give that much, but we do know some of you feel that you can't invest in us. It is a gift, we will receive it when you are ready to give it.
That's not nearly as bad as it was made out to be, and he almost said the opposite of what was conveyed to the masses online. But this isn't Mike Barber's fault, he's a reporter trying to quickly transcribe bits of pertinent information from a press conference that wasn't wholly accessible to the public. Fans were online constantly refreshing their feeds for updates from the collective beat because it was the only way they could stay informed.
And that, my friends, is really the root of the problem.
The Virginia Tech athletic department announced a press conference, and speculation ensued. Word leaked that Fuente would be retained, speculation intensified. And by the time the actual press conference arrived, after weeks of rumors, fans were desperate for real information, not message board gossip or third-hand chatter. Real insight, directly from the source.
And instead of making that press conference live for the public to watch, the Hokie brass treated it like any ole Tuesday afternoon forum. They adjourn the meeting, and find their feeds basically like this:
Social media is not the place that waits for a multi-thousand word transcription of a mostly eloquent, insightful look into the state of Hokie athletics. It reacts in the moment, as soon as something becomes news. It's an instantaneous medium. But instead of understanding that maybe, just maybe, they didn't play this right, they blame the reporters for trying to report on it.
David. It's just Mike Barber being Mike Barber. Stirring it up. Those two quotes are combined and taken out of context. Any other member of our media state same? Just listen to the whole thing and then make up your own mind ok? Thanks!— Whit Babcock (@WhitBabcock) December 15, 2020
This is not a platform to bash Whit Babcock. The man is only human, I would've probably said something similar and he did great things with his mea culpa-fundraise for the Hokie Club the next day. He seems like a truly genuine person who loves Virginia Tech and is trying his best.
But what this does bring to light, is a problem that has been lurking in the corners of Hokie athletics for nearly a decade. Virginia Tech, as an entity (from administrators to coaches to fans), has not proven itself equipped to be a modern, successful Power Five football program.
As I prepared for my column covering Fuente's replacement, I focused on one singular box I'd check if I were running the search: Power Five experience. Last winter it was baffling 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 recruiting staffing and glitzy graphics and football-centric facilities. That's the norm, and every year you don't figure that out, you push your football program more-and-more behind.
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 really needed modernizing. But a set of fresh eyes and different experiences can do wonders when it comes to refurbishment. Take the basketball team as an example. When he was hired, Buzz Williams brought his whole damn team to Blacksburg, from assistants to secretaries. It rubbed some people the wrong way, but it also thrust Hokie hoops into the 21st century.
Williams brought his own graphic designer and turned the social media accounts into borderline works of art. He got more private jet use for recruiting, and quickly signed guys from across the country. He might have won a lot of games, but the most important thing Buzz did was create an infrastructure for success moving forward. He's part of the reason Mike Young can hire someone to make this:
Isn't that just f-ing excellent? Timely, smart, funny. It's a 10 out of 10, and why more and more fans are drawn to the basketball team. They engage their fans as they're already scrolling.
Justin Fuente was a lot of things coming into 2016. He was considered an excellent offensive mind, a "cultural fit" and a borderline miracle worker for what he did at Memphis. But one thing he never had was Power Five experience at any level of coaching. He went from six years at Illinois State (FCS) to four years at TCU (all of them in the Mountain West) to four years at Memphis (AAC).
Fuente was used to doing more with less, and continued to try and do the same when he started his run in Blacksburg. But those issues go well beyond funding. Time and time again, Fuente has stubbed his toe when running into people problems, the soft skills of communicating to just about everyone.
I see him similarly to the way I see a brilliant engineer or mathematician. Like someone who can solve equations with lethal proficiency (I know I'm oversimplifying, but go with me), Fuente believes in the gospel of football. The black and white, inarguable, numbers-don't-lie reliance on the idea that you can always gameplan your way to success. He's good at it, and based his entire career on his ability to do it. But at a certain point in your career, you need to be able to do more than solve a problem on a chalkboard. You need to get to know people and form teams and show an ability to lead through adversity. And at some point, it doesn't matter how good you are at your base skill. The halls of NASA and Lockheed Martin are filled with people who are really good at their jobs, but can't get promoted because they can't handle the soft skills. And when they're put in the position to use them, they often fail.
"Justin has values," Babcock said on Tuesday. "He's a good man. He's very private. He's very family orientated, often misunderstood."
He's not wrong. And I empathize with the fact that not everyone is comfortable becoming the face of the program and being super famous to a small, vocal sect of people. But he got the job, and sometimes the demands of a role push a person outside their comfort zone.
Justin Fuente is not a bad person, at all. But he's pretty damn bad at just about everything that a modern top-25 Power Five program needs from their head coach off the field. 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 talk shop with a high school coach in the evening.
It's unfair — and again, I empathize with that — but it's the reality. This isn't Memphis. It's not a Mountain West program. It's a place with real-yet-achievable expectations. But as the years push on, Fuente faces the same problems, and they keep getting bigger. Recruiting has plummeted. Transfers continue their mass exodus out of Blacksburg. Recent former players routinely torch the program on Twitter — and regardless of how much of their complaints are real vs sour grapes, it's a terrible look. Big name alums swing between detachment and hostility. And to top it all off, Fuente's most often-used explanation for failure has become variations of 'the players failed to execute'.
This is not how a successful football team operates at any level, but it's especially not the way one of the best 30 programs in the country do business.
And the problems extend beyond Fuente. Though Babcock should be praised for his push to get an influx of donor money into the program, you have to question why it took so long in the first place (looking at both the organization of the Hokie Club and the donors themselves). And it really doesn't matter who made the decision to keep Fuente. If it was Whit, Tim Sands or anyone else, it's the admission that 19-18 over three years is acceptable in Blacksburg.
Do you think that'd be the case at Clemson? Ohio State? Alabama? Shit, forget the big dogs, would it be acceptable at Louisville? NC State? Literally anywhere in the SEC?
No matter who's calling the shots, no matter who runs the football program, the biggest issue Virginia Tech athletics face moving forward is making sure they're prepared to compete with some of the best programs in the country, on and off the field.
And as it currently sits, they're not doing either. Here's to hoping that changes.