The head coach of the Virginia Tech football team almost departed for greener pastures.
His potential suitor had recently lost the best coach in their program's history, and looked for extended success by hiring a veteran with a proven track record. They offered him the world. Not just money, but security — the new school's fans didn't have the same bloodthirsty expectations as those clad in maroon and orange.
They had better facilities, better resources, a more reliable donor base, and a more winnable conference. And for a coach who had flirted with — but ultimately rejected — other high profile openings, this one seemed to make too much sense.
And for a few days, Hokie Nation waited with bated breath, anxious to see if Frank Beamer would leave Blacksburg to become the new head coach at North Carolina.
This isn't new. And when Justin Fuente held the attention of Tech fans hostage last week, it played out similarly to Beamer's decision in late-2000. Their potential new gigs had more money, more help, and lower expectations. Moreover, from the outside looking in seemed like too good of a deal to pass up. Yet whether it was a sense of duty, commitment, guilt — or in Fuente's case, maybe the lack of an actual offer — they both remained at their posts.
Fuente's timing was no doubt curious. The rumors of his interest in the Baylor job leaked to Yahoo's Pete Thamel just after the overhaul of Tech's defensive staff had been completed. And had he actually left with a Todd Graham-esq stench in his wake, he would have lost some credibility in the coaching world. Would it have been foolish for him to leave? Maybe. But considering who he is and where he's from, it would have been as silly to ignore what the Bears had to offer.
And a listen was reportedly all it was. A man from Oklahoma with extensive experience coaching and recruiting in Texas considered a raise to move closer to home. It's understandable to be tempted by the offer, though it came with some serious tradeoffs. Even with Matt Rhule at the helm, Baylor couldn't pull in the same kind of talent the Tech staff had in 2017, '18, or '19. They're a second-rate team in their own state, not only fighting the big dogs (Texas, Oklahoma, LSU, Alabama) for players, but also all of the other schools in their tier (Texas A&M, Texas Tech, TCU, Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Missouri). It's a tough place to stand out, even with the resources available.
But if Fuente was okay with the trade, he was well within his right to leave. Hell, when Beamer flirted with Carolina the Merryman Center was a state-of-the-art facility built just two years prior. He had just come off a run to the national championship with the most exciting player in program history, and was in the process of compiling a 31-4 record over three seasons.
Things were at their absolute best, and yet the face of the university saw the benefits of leaving. So why are we crucifying Fuente for contemplating a similar decision in a comparatively worse situation? Why do we demand an apology, or at least an explanation, when it's clear that the best we're going to get is one curt tweet?
The answers to those questions, and some of the underlying problems that cause us to ask them in the first place, highlight the number of issues standing between Virginia Tech and legitimate growth.
To many Tech fans, this was unacceptable. The man at the center of hours of online sleuthing, message boarding, flight tracking, and rumor mongering, tried to put this story to bed with one reticent post. And to make matters worse, he hid behind his boss to answer questions from a "select group of media" about the situation.
It wasn't a great look from a man paid four million dollars to be the face of a major college football team. But for those craving transparency, or the fans with white-hot Twitter fingers demanding some sort of groveling press conference, what do you really want to hear? Do you want a Tiger Woods-esq apology for having the gall to talk to another school, or do you want the truth? Because the truth will make you take a long, hard look in the mirror.
Let's play this out. Let's say Fuente prepared a statement on Friday, went out behind a podium and faced the press. Before anyone could ask questions, his honest, truth-serum-induced account of why he met with administrators from Baylor would probably go something like this:
"Well, it would be nice to get paid more money to move closer to home. And, to be honest, this situation wasn't exactly what I signed up for. Our 20-year-old facilities sure as shit don't help things recruiting. I have two bosses who seem more invested in non-revenue sports to help Tech's standing in something called the Directors' Cup than they do in helping this program win. And to top it all off, I have to deal with a fan base who thinks their social media megaphones gives them the right to act like T. Boone Pickens. If you want to see some real change in this program, donate some damn money."
Sometimes honesty hurts. And reading between the lines, that's probably close to the truth. The Fuente-to-Baylor story has shown the Hokies to be a program at a crossroads. And it's about time everyone (Fuente, Whit Babcock, Tim Sands, whoever runs the Hokie Club, every fan complaining online) look at themselves and ask if they're doing their part to make Virginia Tech football as successful as possible. Because today the answer is overwhelmingly no.
Whit Babcock came in with a plan. It became clear the moment he replaced Jim Weaver, and he's acted on it ever since. He's completed major facilities renovations for softball, baseball, and track & field. He spent on new coaches to turn around women's basketball and baseball, and he hired Buzz Williams.
Whit has spent a lot of money on things other than football, many of which were in desperate need of improvement long before he took the job. But for every dollar he spends on Rector Field House, he doesn't spend upgrading football facilities. If he's happy with where the money's going, that's his prerogative, but it highlights a massive gap between his vision of the future of Hokie athletics and most fans'. Whit may be comfortable taking resources from the football program in the name of making all other sports above average, but he's in the minority.
And if Tech's athletic director wants to spread the funding around, maybe there should be more funds. The popular narrative amongst Hokie Nation is if you don't donate, you can't complain, which is inherently ridiculous. Fans are, by definition, fanatical. Saying Tech fans are only allowed to voice their gripes if they're members of the Hokie Club is like telling fans of Star Wars they can only slam Rise of Skywalker if they own Disney stock. A monetary investment does not make anyone's passion more or less important.
But they don't get a pass. According to the Hokie Club, a whopping 5.6 percent of the 245,000 living Virginia Tech alumni donate to the athletic fund. For a group of people who want their team to compete with the likes of Clemson and Penn State (both on the field and on the trail), they need to catch up with those opposing fan bases in terms of support. Like it or not, college football is a big business, and it's a big business which requires oodles of cash to operate. If you don't agree with the way things work in 2020, and are willing to sacrifice the performance of the football team for monetary reasons, that's your prerogative.
But the dichotomy between people's expectations for what Virginia Tech football should achieve, and their willingness to take legitimate steps towards reaching those goals are completely at odds. Hokies like to think of themselves as one of the premier football institutions in the country, but those expectations are based on nothing but outdated bluster.
The glory years Tech fans cling to are now over a decade old. And those great, title-contending seasons were built with the same tried-and-true model we see today — they signed top talent with a highly paid staff, brought them back to some of the newest facilities in the country and got to work. And though Beamer and Bud Foster sold the tough, blue-collar mentality, they didn't just win with guts. They won because there was a serious investment in their program. In the '90s Hokie football was like a truck, pulling themselves out of the mud with a few bowl trips. But in the '00s it was a Mazerati screaming down the highway at full throttle.
The most galling thing is it should be better. University enrollment has steadily risen for two decades, most fans under the age of 50 know nothing but success, and recent Hokies earn over 10 thousand dollars more than the average recent graduate. Young people with no families and extra cash in their pockets seem like the ideal target to form a sizeable donor base. Hell, it's what Clemson's famed IPTAY was founded on.
Yet, the money still isn't there. At least not compared to the competition. If we're talking about both the fans and the athletic director needing to do their part, it's hard not to take a look at the Hokie Club, too. In an age where it's easier to send money than ever, someone needs to take a long hard look at creating creative ways for younger alums to get involved, and smoothing out any technical impediments.
Justin Fuente was not wrong in expecting more from his employer, and was not wrong in allegedly asking for it either. And if he wanted to leverage a good situation to try and improve the one he's already in, good for him. He doesn't owe an explanation to anyone other than his staff and his players. If everyone in the locker room understands and accepts his commitment to them, nothing else matters.
People didn't forgive Beamer's dalliance with Carolina because he had a teary-eyed press conference reaffirming his love for the school. They forgave him because six months later he went out and signed Kevin Jones. No one thought about the time he almost left when his squad consistently found themselves ranked in the top five. It didn't matter. They forgave him because he kept winning.
Fuente has played all of his cards. There's not a single member of his staff who wasn't his hire. He's had an opportunity to recruit his players. He understands what's coming with regards to upgrades and resource allocation. And by litigating the case of Baylor v. Virginia Tech in the court of social media, he painfully unearthed many of the shortcomings holding the Hokies back — and fans' expectations in the face of them.
But now, he's officially out of excuses. He's burned through whatever support he had left, and after his now-infamous two-word tweet there are only two ways to move past this.
He either wins, or takes the next bus out of town.