It has been a bumpy couple of days for Virginia Tech football fans. Word came out late Tuesday that head coach Justin Fuente was interviewing for the open position at Baylor. All was supposedly well Thursday morning, when Fuente posted a photo on Twitter of the coaching staff cramped into a conference room. The photo, clearly intended to calm the nerves of anxious Tech fans, did little to smooth over the intense divisions created days earlier.
Since arriving in Blacksburg, Fuente has struggled to connect with a fan base that had long been conditioned to a folksy and more transparent culture under Frank Beamer. Limiting press availability, closing off practices and choosing not to televise the spring game (among others) was a dramatic shift for many fans. Whereas Beamer was endearing in all settings, Fuente is guarded in public and reportedly down-to-earth in private. Fans' inability to truly see or know the "real" Justin Fuente makes it all the more difficult for portions of the fan base to connect with him.
When Buzz Williams interviewed and ultimately took the head coaching position at Texas A&M last spring, Hokies were equal parts sad and compassionate. Sure, there was a bit of saltiness at first, but it was no secret that Buzz dreamt of one day returning to his home state of Texas. And while Hokies everywhere had hoped Buzz was a basketball version of Beamer, the truth was that most fans knew his tenure would always be limited.
Fast forward to this week and Justin Fuente was in a similar situation, interviewing for a position close to his native Oklahoma. Why hasn't Fuente experienced the same empathetic response as Williams? The answer to that question probably depends on whom you ask.
Some would argue it is because he has failed to connect with the fan base, largely due to the aforementioned lack of transparency. Others would argue that results on the field and on the recruiting trail have led fans to sour on Fuente. Regardless, Fuente's flirtations with Baylor have revealed the deep divide within the fan base that had largely concealed itself following the Hokies' post-Duke win streak. While many fans have been quick to move on, others appear tired of Fuente's shtick.
In the aftermath of Fuente's morning twitter post, social media has been filled with hot takes that extend across the spectrum of reactions. Personally, I understand where everyone is coming from and appreciate many fans' willingness to move forward in support of the program. There is plenty to debate when it comes to how Fuente went about his tryst, an argument probably best left to the message boards. I want to move on and support the program — I love the Hokies, I am excited about the prospects of a wildly successful 2020, and I'm intrigued by a potentially transformative 2021 recruiting class.
Whether we like it or not — assuming you don't have a significant chunk of change to contribute to a buyout campaign — Fuente will continue to be the head coach at Virginia Tech. But there's one thing I'm struggling to get past: I can't get over Fuente's actions, on a human level.
Justin Fuente recently convinced multiple coaches (and their families) to leave their jobs and come work with him in Blacksburg. Tech literally announced the hiring of new cornerbacks coach Ryan Smith the day before Fuente met with Baylor. Imagine being Smith, who recently left the FCS runners-up for the next big step in his coaching career, or Bill Teerlinck, who left an AFC Wild Card team for the same position in Blacksburg. Better yet, imagine being their family, already subject to the turbulent lifestyle that is coaching high-level athletics. What would you think? Despite the hashtags, it sure doesn't feel like home to me.
I keep reading analogies to how people interview for jobs all the time, but what they're omitting is how different a college football head coaching position is from their jobs as an assistant to the regional manager of a mid-size paper company. I agree that everyone is entitled to entertain offers to better their career or their financial situation or their work-life balance (I know I have in the past). But to compare most jobs to a college football head coaching job is flawed. Few positions have so many others tied directly to theirs. If that assistant to the regional manager left for another paper company, chances are no one would lose their jobs as a result of their departure. And short of a Jerry Maguire moment, it's unlikely anyone is following them out the door.
By becoming an assistant coach or staff member, one gives up a certain amount of agency. They become tied to the successes and failures of their boss, for better or for worse. When Justin Fuente — and, by association, Brad Cornelsen, Justin Hamilton and Whit Babcock — recruited new staff members during the past month, they surely made a pitch to those individuals to come help build Virginia Tech back into a perennial contender. Those people, in turn, made a commitment to Fuente. Families are reliant on his word and the security that comes with it, however limited it may be. So for Fuente to explore an opportunity that potentially only benefits him and his family is extremely bothersome. I don't think I would work for a guy like that — would you?
I'm under no illusions that Fuente will be a Virginia Tech lifer, regardless of what he says to the media. College football is a business, plain and simple, and the loyalty that universities used to afford coaches is a thing of the past. In that sense, it's not too dissimilar from the current business climate. But that does not excuse the timing of this entire soap opera. I don't expect Fuente — or anyone else, for that matter — to be some virtuous ambassador for the university; I'm simply asking him to show some decency to the people he asks to go to battle with him every week.
Justin Fuente is still the head football coach at Virginia Tech. He will continue to hit the recruiting trail, making pitches to prospects and parents that Blacksburg is the best place for them and that he and his staff are the best group to help them meet or exceed their potential. The VT Football twitter account will continue to tell recruits #ThisIsHome. And we, as fans, are all expected to forget about this whole saga like it never happened. All is well.
Many will say that this is part of the business and coaches do this all the time, omitting the context of this particular situation. I can accept that coaches have a right to explore other opportunities, but that doesn't mean I have to condone what transpired.