Last night, I posted something about the state of the Virginia Tech athletics program after yet another depressing loss by the football team, and in doing so, committed a sin I have often scolded others for doing.
I identified a problem, but I didn’t offer any solutions. And as even Maggie The WonderBeagle knows, anyone can complain. But it’s all just mindless noise if you don’t talk about how you’re going to fix it.
I’ve never been an athletic director, but I’ve been a businessman for many decades and the challenges the Hokies are facing right now aren’t that different. You have a product that was once thought of to be in high demand and of great value, but now the product is faltering. The lack of enthusiasm and the eroding perceived value of ticket price to experience are serious trends that can throw many a company up on the rocks.
Which is why you always have a Plan B. It happens eventually to everyone.
So what would I do if I were AD? I can tell you one thing you should not do: Change coaches. That’s admitting defeat as well as signaling to everyone that rebuilding is coming and people need to be patient. People are tired of being shut in their houses during this pandemic, they’re cynical and they are in no mood for a “be patient and one day all will be well” speech.
I mean, look at the Washington whatever they’re called in the NFL. They’re on year 37 of their rebuilding. Big chunks of their fans are no longer being patient. They’re also no longer being fans of the team.
What you should do, however, is recognize there is a problem and come up with short-term moves to try to shore up confidence the athletic department at least knows what it’s doing. They cannot afford to be as tone deaf as they were yesterday, as after the crushing defeat, season ticket holders and Hokie Club members got a renewal email asking that fans pay up for 2021 season tickets BEFORE CHRISTMAS.
That’s rubbing salt in the wound, as well as making people think “do these people even have a clue?”
So if I were back in corporate America, I’d first trot out Athletic Director Whit Babcock with an attempt to connect with fans. Not to say “we know our football team is underperforming and we’ll be including a pitch fork with all season ticket renewals.” But a conversation trying to keep Hokie fans engaged and showing things are being done to improve the situation.
People are mad. They need to vent. And if you’ve ever been a parent, you know when things get tense between you and your child, the most important thing to do is to keep talking. It works a lot better than sending them an email saying “give me your money. Before Christmas.”
Next, I’d work on trying to fix the football program without changing the head coach. They say the players love him, and that’s all well and good. But there’s no place in a box score where they measure “loved by players.” Fuente has become, in my mind, the classic good No. 2 manager who just isn’t well-suited to be a No. 1. He’s a good offensive mind, but the nuances of being a head coach seem to escape him.
He’s stubborn, for one, as we’ve seen in his slowness to make QB changes. Or put his starting running back as the kickoff returner, risking injury to one of your more valuable assets. Or totally forgetting about him and make the entire offense about one player – the quarterback.
At the end of the first half yesterday, the offense had run 28 plays. 12 were passes, with most were the same predictable short passes the offense runs week in and week out. The other 16 were runs, and the runner on 12 of them was QB Hendon Hooker. So Hooker either ran with or threw the ball on 24 of the 28 plays. That’s hardly a balanced offense, and it became even more maddening in the game’s final minutes. When they needed to move the ball, they ran a mixed offense complete with downfield passing, options and the kind of creative things Fuente is supposedly known for.
Had he run that offense all game, he may not have found himself in a position to get beaten by a field goal.
He’s also prideful, as you saw in his tap-dancing around the criticism of his calling the timeout on a 59-yard field goal attempt. Or when he was being questioned for not using Khalil Herbert in the first quarter of an earlier game. He gets defensive, and his answers start sounding like something you’d find on a farm after a herd of bovine just finished breakfast.
So you have to get Fuente help to protect him from himself. That’s really what happened with the hiring last year of Jerry Kill, as he was a consultant, but he had the gravitas to be able to tell Fuente he was becoming predictable. I will always remember a game last season where a Virginia Tech running back – after a couple of successful runs – came to the sideline and hugged Kill with a big smile on his face. He didn’t hug his position coach. He hugged Kill as if to acknowledge that he understood football and made him a better player.
Kill, I’ve heard anecdotally, was the reason the team got off the turf after that embarrassing loss to Duke last year and started playing well, loudly complaining about good players not being utilized or play calls becoming so predictable, you could see in the body language of the troops they didn’t believe they could win. Kill, I also heard, got into it with several coaches in the process. He didn’t care if they didn’t like him; he cared about making young athletes better and winning football games.
Kill is an experienced head coach with the skills Fuente has yet to acquire, so they need to call Kill today, ask what it would take to buy out his current agreement and get him back in the program. I don’t care if Fuente doesn’t like it. They figured out how to work together before, and now more than ever, they need to figure out how to work together again.
Less anybody on staff think he’s just a consultant and they don’t need to listen to Kill, they also need to give him a strong title. Like assistant head coach.
Why such a lofty title? Because his wisdom is needed on the defensive side too. What is being done to Justin Hamilton right now is sad, because it appears in this first season as a defensive coordinator, he’s a bit overwhelmed. He will be a good defensive coordinator in time, but when your defense can’t seem to tackle, misses far too many assignments, and at the most crucial point of a game he forgets there’s still time for a quick sideline pass to get in field goal range, the DC justifiably gets a target painted on his back.
Since they had just called a timeout that nullified a potential game-winning touchdown, I can’t imagine a veteran like Kill would have heard a defense being called that had everyone back at the goal line during the timeout and not said “hey, you know they still have time for another play, don’t you?” Many times in high pressure situations, that’s all you need. A level head pointing out that you may have overlooked an obvious option.
Bringing back someone like Kill to help a high profile executive is a very common method used in the corporate world. You have a company president who represents the company well, excels at certain things, and seems to be liked for the most part. But he struggles when it comes to being the tough guy that does the things no one else wants to do that increase profits. Firing that president would mean chaos to customers and the business community, so they bring in a consultant or hire a No. 2 executive who will do the dirty work.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes that No. 2 guy becomes the No. 1 guy.
But what they don’t do is just ignore the problem and hope it gets better. Or every time there is a surprising win, pronounce the problem fixed.
Now in his fifth year in Blacksburg, Fuente is who he is, and is not going to change, good or bad. Much like when Dave Braine told Frank Beamer in 1992 that he had a few blind sports and needed to hire better coaches, Fuente is in the same boat. Frank back then had to choose between being a great coach with assistants he didn’t necessarily want, or a prideful coach who stood up for his friends and watched college football at home on television.
28 years ago, Frank made the right choice.
After yesterday’s miserable loss to Liberty, Virginia Tech now needs to do the same.