Virginia Tech wanted to have its cake.
Without a doubt in their minds (or at least in their press releases) one of the biggest schools in the Commonwealth brought as many students back to Blacksburg as possible. In a pandemic. In a town without the capacity to adequately treat over 34,000 new faces.
How could it possibly go wrong. It's a statement so rhetorical, it's punctuated with a period because it's not a question. The answer is obvious — college students aren't adults in anything other than the legal sense. They're not particularly responsible, they feel invincible and most of their day revolves around the best time to start drinking.
This is not a piece preparing to slander college kids, because we already know who they are. They're people whose entire social schedule is already based on breaking the rules. Whether that's purchasing alcohol while under 21, providing said booze to someone else who's underage or just simply being out a little too late and getting into something they probably shouldn't. It's a tale as old as TOTS.
So when these 20-year-old "adults" marched into Blacksburg and doubled its population, things went wrong immediately (a result predicted by just about everyone except those in charge.) While the university clings to their flimsy on-campus numbers, a tidal wave of off campus COVID cases decimates the surrounding area.
MedExpress in Cburg this morning before opening. Was over 60 people long by the time they opened (only about 30 at time of pic). Many not wearing masks, keeping distance, or reading the sign that told them to check in from their cars and wait to be called. Mostly college kids. pic.twitter.com/Y3F6wZrr3H— Ryan McCoy (@RMcCoy30) August 28, 2020
This was just seven days after arrival, an anecdotal point to score a larger issue: Tim Sands and his merry band of decision makers helped unleash an absolute mess on their community.
But Virginia Tech didn't just want to have its cake. They wanted to eat it, too.
So when the football team came back to town to begin preparation for an unprecedented conference-plus-one schedule, the message was clear. Though fans may not be in the stands, Hokie football would press along just like their counterparts across the ACC. And while the idea of playing a contact sport in the midst of pandemic primarily spread by close proximity to the infected seems risky (to say the least), the Hokies looked like they were managing risk. The squad practiced, announced its quarterback and published a number of hype videos featuring clips from the closed door sessions. They went through a relatively normal pre-season process, until the student athletes had to interact with the student body at-large.
The rumors started to leak out of the facility the moment the student body descended into Southwest Virginia. When NC State had to postpone their opener against Tech, Justin Fuente breathed a candid sigh of relief. When word of a Commonwealth Clash postponement began circulating before the season ever kicked off, fans were taken aback. But it brought attention to something Fuente had been trying to tell anyone who would listen — there's a COVID problem at Virginia Tech.
It seems pretty clear what the issue is. In a community overwhelmed by virus numbers, it's borderline impossible to go about your day-to-day without risking exposure to someone who's tested positive. Sure, maybe the players could order Chipotle delivery and lock down their social schedules for safety — here's to hoping they're already doing both — but they can't control how their fellow students live. They can't control who comes in the athletic facilities, and they sure as hell can't build their own academic bubble.
Anyone who blames the UVA postponement on Tech's players "lacking the commitment to play football" is either an idiot or an idiot who happens to root/coach/play for a rival team with an inferiority complex. There are people to blame for this situation, but it's certainly not the athletes risking their lives to make sure their athletic department remains financially viable.
And though he may not be to blame, one man has been left to bear the brunt of the mess.
Like many people around the world, Justin Fuente's plans were dramatically altered by COVID-19. In a tenure mostly defined by what has gone wrong, things seemed to finally take a turn for the better heading into this season. His squad ranked sixth in returning production, had stability at quarterback and finally seemed to be past the turbulence of transfer portals and obscenely young starters.
Combine his experienced group with a very manageable schedule — Liberty, Middle Tennessee State and North Alabama in the non-conference, avoiding both Clemson and Florida State from the Atlantic — and everything was set up perfectly. Tech could have a nice 11-3 bounce-back campaign and prove to both fans and recruits that the Hokies are back.
But now, his path to success has become significantly more difficult. Not only does Clemson, NC State and Wake Forest replace MTSU, North Alabama and a rebuilding Georgia Tech, but Fuente has to worry about having enough players to put a healthy, non-quarantined team on the field every week.
There seems to be a theme of cruel irony throughout the head Hokie's tenure. His most talented group (the 2017 squad, with Bud Foster's last great defense and enough of an offense to make a difference) was derailed by the unexpected departure of Jerod Evans. He recruited some of the best classes in recent memory (go look at the signees from 17-19) yet had to play many of them as underclassmen and carried the consequences. Now, at the end of what seemed to be the longest two years in modern program history, Fuente isn't sprinting towards ACC Coastal contention, but rather to a podium answering for decisions above his pay grade.
This is not a place to absolve his sins or relitigate his mistakes (of which there have been many), but instead recognize the impossible situation he's currently in. Justin Fuente does not control what the ACC requires in terms of COVID-19 testing or contract tracing, nor can he make them pony up the money for daily rapid testing like the Big Ten. Yet he does have to be the bearer of bad news when his squad can't field enough people to hold practice.
He can't control that they don't have a football-only facility like Clemson and Florida State, and he doesn't have a say in how the athletic department interprets FERPA. Yet he's the one who gets bashed for the lack of COVID-related transparency throughout the program. He can't form his own bubble by sending the regular student body home, like UNC did over a month ago. But he will have to answer to fans when a much more seasoned Tar Heels team (theoretically) hosts the Hokies in early October.
In just a few weeks we've seen why Fuente is paid nearly four million dollars, and why he almost left to take the Baylor job. It's his duty to step to the microphone and sometimes tell fans what they don't want to hear. But a near lack of institutional support has hung him out to dry.
Will the Hokies play football?
In the wake of Virginia Tech's, the university's, flawed return to campus, that million dollar question remains. But it's not clear anyone in Blacksburg has a definitive answer.
But with so many other people calling the shots, Fuente shouldn't be held accountable for it.