BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Normally, college athletic directors do not hold press conferences when one of their coaches is staying with the school.
And they also don’t have 20-minute opening statements explaining their decision. Whit Babcock did things differently Tuesday.
“I have a tendency to want to explain,” Babcock said during a one hour session with the media. “I thought it might be good for people to hear what I believe.”
What Babcock believes is that Justin Fuente is still the right person to lead the Virginia Tech football program.
Fuente just finished his fifth season with a 5-6 record, not up to Virginia Tech standards which isn’t a secret. Fuente’s job has been under increased scrutiny since last year’s loss to Virginia, which was the first for the Hokies in 15 years. This year’s team began 3-1 but lost four in a row before reclaiming the Commonwealth Cup with a regular season ending 33-15 win over UVA.
Babcock and Fuente met for four hours on Monday. Babcock’s mind had been “pretty much” made up before that meeting began, but the A.D. still wanted to hear a couple of things from his football coach to be reassured the program is in good hands and moving in the right direction.
“What I heard yesterday was very confirming for me about wanting to be at Virginia Tech, about believing this is the place he can do it, that he has the fire and desire to still do it and that this is a place where we expect to win the division, compete for ACC championships and get into the Final Four,” Babcock said.
Babcock denied that the decision to keep Fuente was financially related. Fuente’s contract buyout fell to $10 million dollars on Tuesday, and the athletic department has had to make significant staffing and budget cuts to make up for a huge shortfall due to the COVID pandemic.
There were also rumors that a group of donors had pooled money together to pay off Fuente’s buyout, something Babcock also denied.
Babcock pointed out that, while 5-5 (in conference) is not good, it was also in some ways, Fuente’s first with the program being fully his own. This year’s roster was all players that Fuente and his staff have recruited, and with changes made to the defensive coaching staff last year, Babcock felt there hasn’t been enough time yet to fully evaluate Fuente’s overall leadership of the program.
“He knows we need to be better,” Babcock said. “I know we need to be better. Now it’s time to bounce back and I’m planning on it being sooner rather than later.”
Babcock also noted that making a coaching change at this time, in this climate, would be difficult. Wednesday starts the early signing period for high school athletes, and Tech is expecting to sign a class of 24 incoming freshmen. If a coaching change were made, because of updated NCAA rules, nearly the entire roster would be eligible to enter the transfer portal as of August 1. Tearing down the entire program isn’t what Babcock felt was best to move forward.
"We felt like this is the most likely successful path," Babcock said. "I feel good about it. I'm paid to do what is best, not what is easiest or meant to pacify others."
Those “others” include some former players, notably De’Angelo Hall, who tweeted out his desire to see a change in the position at his alma mater.
“It’s not a positive,” Babcock admitted. “Those guys were amazing players here and I know how much pride they have. They care deeply and are entitled to their opinion. I talked to a few (former players). You listen to it all and hope you make the right decision and hope those guys don’t have any hard feelings. They’re always welcome back as long as I’m here.”
And the best way to remove any question about the stability of the program or of Fuente’s tenure is simple: win more games.
"I believe in Justin," Babcock said. "It's not always the fashionable thing to keep somebody when everybody is yelling, but he's our guy and I believe he gives us the best chance to be successful."