After Friday night’s Virginia Tech loss to Boston College, fellow writer Ricky LaBlue sent me a story early Saturday morning, detailing another defeat of the Hokie football team. After posting it, I texted him that maybe we should stop writing about the downward direction of the program for the rest of the season.
Why, he asked.
Because, I replied, it’s all been said. To continue to point out how Justin Fuente has lost control of the program would be like beating a dead horse. There’s an old saying in sales that says you should stop selling once you’ve made the sale. To continue talking can only end up hurting you.
I think that’s the case now with Fuente and Virginia Tech. It’s over. There’s a divorce coming and I don’t believe anyone thinks otherwise. I have in my circle of friends the most positive “the glass is half full” Hokie fans that walk this planet, and during Friday’s game I was getting texts saying “you were right, we need to make a change.”
To continue talking can only end up hurting people, including assistant coaches, players and families.
I have been through the firing of a Virginia Tech football coach as a media member before, specifically when Jimmy Sharpe was fired after the 1977 season. At the ripe old age of 21, I learned that day that there are two standards for a person: One for how you do your job, and one for who you are as a person. The two often are not the same.
In the case of Sharpe, no one contested the decision as football coach. He had won only 3 games in his 4th season, the program had loads of issues, including a player passing away in the athletic dorm after being forced to run punishment drills, and the final three weeks of the season felt like it feels now: the end was coming. It was only a matter of when.
But I also sat in Sharpe’s office the day after as he was packing up, and saw a man who seemed to be relieved. For all the issues on the football field, he was a good man who was kind to me and many of the other younger writers covering the beat. His players liked him, and he was the kind of person you’d want to be friends with. He had the knowledge and personality to get the job done, you realized, but it just didn’t work out here.
The same is probably true for Fuente, and I only say “probably” because I’ve never met him. There have been times over the last six years I’ve watched interviews of him and been duly impressed with how he presented himself. By all accounts, he seems to be a good man, good father, and a person who would be a loyal friend, much like Sharpe was.
But also like Sharpe, it hasn’t worked out.
I think some of it is the stubbornness of youth, as Fuente hadn’t yet turned 40 when he took the job. I can only relate to my own career at that age, when there was a “my way or the highway” ambitiousness that meant drawing a line in the sand on just about everything to prove who was really in charge. It’s not until a few years later you realize no one is good at everything and to be a good leader, you’ve got to delegate and surround yourself with people who aren’t your friends and don’t think the same way you do if you want to be successful.
Since Fuente was born as I was starting my junior year at Virginia Tech in the fall of 1976, he’s only 45. Perhaps this experience will help him understand that. I definitely believe he will get other coaching opportunities, and I definitely believe he will at some point be successful.
It just won’t be in Blacksburg.
When the final decision is made, people are going to lose their jobs. Some people are going to get hurt. Some players are going to leave. There will be a period of time – barring a situation where a new coach is named at the same time Fuente is fired – where no one is going to know what’s going on. Every day there will be a new rumor about who the new coach will be, and for 10 or 12 hours, everyone will believe it’s going to happen. Until it doesn’t.
It won’t be fun. And while I know there will be many who celebrate the change, I’d just ask them to remember all this. Yeah, we’re football fans who love to win, but we’re also Hokies who believe in the concept of Ut Prosim. You can love to win and still be respectful of what those caught up in the transition are going through.
So as this soap opera plays down to its final episode, I just don’t see the need to continue to pile on. As Sharpe reminded me one afternoon 44 years ago, during those final weeks of the season he was being called just about every name in the book, and he heard them all. But so too, did his children, his wife, his friends, his assistant coaches and his players.
As far as I’m concerned, they’ve heard enough.
I recall how it hurt to see our beloved Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr failing in his venture to coach his Green Bay Packers. If decency, kindness and modesty could win football games Bart would have been undefeated. Everyone could see where it was headed. There was no need to pile on.