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With The Way Things Are Going, Do The Hokies Have A Plan B?

Back in 2018, you could see the beginnings of a worst-case nightmare emerging for Virginia Tech athletics.

Whit Babcock had been hailed as some sort of wunderkind athletic director, based mainly on two hires: basketball coach Buzz Williams, and a year later, football coach Justin Fuente. Buzz quickly got to work, winning 20 games in his second season, and Fuente got off to a similar fast start, coaching mostly Frank Beamer’s recruits to a 10-4 record, a division title, and a narrow loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship game.

The future looked bright, and Babcock got a disproportionate share of the credit. “In Whit We Trust” people were saying, and it was because their superstar AD had righted the ship and was going to lead the Hokie athletic program to heights never before seen.

Whit was personable, good behind a mic, and clearly loved the spotlight. He was a spender and a big-picture guy who much preferred talking about building new facilities and hiring new coaches. Rolling up his sleeves and figuring out a way to fix the Hokie Club website to make it more user friendly for people wanting to give money, or increase the strength of the WiFi at Lane Stadium to attract younger fans, were not as interesting to him.

Of course, he didn’t have to do it himself. He just had to make it a priority and assign it to someone else and hold them accountable. And as long as the two pillar sports of fundraising – football and basketball – kept winning, it didn’t matter. Whit hired them and if needed, he’d hire more good coaches. If something went wrong, by God, Whit would figure it out.

In Whit We Trust, after all.

In 2018, however, that trust was starting to be tested. For the third straight season, Buzz Williams won over 20 games, and for the second year in a row, they made the NCAA Tournament. Whispers, however, started to indicate Buzz was looking for a new place to hang his hat. This wasn’t shocking news, as many thought Buzz was going to be an expensive rental. It was sound strategy to hire him any way since James Johnson had driven the program into the ground so deeply. If Buzz could bring it back to respectability in 5 years, it was well worth the money.

Besides, people were saying, we still have Fuente. People raved at the transition from Beamer to Fuente and the way it was handled. He followed up his 10-win season with a 9-win season where at one point the team was 7-1 with that loss being to No. 2 Clemson. They were ranked as high as 12th in the country and stayed in the top 25 just about every week of the season.

But the team lost 3 of its final 5 games that season. The next season started well with a win over Florida State on national television, then they put up 62 the next week on William and Mary and were ranked 12th.

Then the wheels came off.

The team was humiliated in Norfolk by an 0-3 Old Dominion team. They won 2 out of their next 3, then lost 4 straight. The team showed little emotion and some suspected maybe the team had quit on Fuente. Warning lights were flashing as they would finish the season with the first losing record for the Hokies since 1992.

What if, some started to worry, Fuente wasn’t the hire everyone thought. And what if, to add further concern, Buzz Williams doesn’t stay in Blacksburg? Facilities were being built. Money was being spent. There’s no big rainy day savings account. This has to work, doesn’t it?

Most businesses have a plan B for such scenarios. They hope for the best but plan for a disaster. It is specifically the AD’s job to try to foresee the future and plan for such things.

Fast forward to spring of 2019 and the sum of all fears happens. Buzz gets his team ranked in the top 10 during the season, makes his third trip to the NCAA Tournament and advances to the Sweet 16. Then he leaves, as expected.

It shouldn’t have been a huge disaster as Whit had an entire season to scout other coaches, develop a short list, flirt with a few young up and comers, and could be ready to move on a new coach quickly.

But when Buzz left, it appeared there was no short list. Whit even said he thought he could talk Buzz into staying, something that seemed foolhardy since Texas A&M has vastly larger financial resources and Buzz is from Texas. No reasonable person would think he would turn that down to stay in Blacksburg, VA. After a rather lengthy amount of time, Virginia Tech ended up hiring 56-year-old Mike Young, a decision not met by fans with a lot of enthusiasm.

Young had a remarkable first season and looks like he’ll turn out to be a good hire. But at the time, it looked like the Hokies had been turned down multiple times and reached out to someone who was clearly not their first choice.

Meanwhile, football continued to look like it seriously needed a Plan B. They lost their opener to BC as Fuente stubbornly stayed with Ryan Willis at QB. They beat ODU and Furman, then got blown out on a Friday night by a Duke team that would finish the season 5-7.  They change QBs, bring in Jerry Kill as a consultant, and win 6 of their next 7. But they then lose to Virginia, snapping a 15-game winning streak to their in-state rivals. It’s the first time since joining the ACC VT has ever lost to the Cavaliers.

Fans start getting a little more vocal about the direction of the program. Back in Beamer’s sixth season, Athletic Director Dave Braine faced a similar situation. He called in Frank in the midst of a 2-8-1 season and laid it out for him. Hire better assistants or you’re gone, Braine told him. We’re going in the wrong direction.

Frank did. He went 9-3 the next season and the rest is history.

That didn’t seem to happen with Babcock. There was video showing Whit at a basketball game talking tough about how they were going to “fix” football. But there didn’t seem to be any big structural changes. Kill was an excellent hire and a key to the 2019 turnaround after the embarrassing loss to Duke. But the Hokies didn’t come up with the money to keep him. He left.

They did replace some assistants, including legendary Bud Foster retiring. But it also didn’t appear any money/pressure was offered to make sure his replacement was a home run hire. Instead of getting an experienced DC that was sorely needed, the Hokies promoted young Justin Hamilton. This was the exact opposite of what Braine forced Beamer to do in 1992.

Not surprisingly, defense has been the thorniest problem for the Hokies and is responsible for much of the downward trajectory of the team this season. Hamilton will be a fine DC one day, but the results on the field seem to indicate more experience would help. The team struggles on basics like tackling, and the winning field goal today by Liberty was set up by Hamilton calling a defense that left the sidelines unguarded, allowing a quick pass to move the ball up 10 yards in the final seconds. That turned a hope and a prayer of a FG attempt into a makeable one.

A more experienced DC might have done it differently. Not to mention running tackling drills until 2 AM every day until the basics were covered. You can accept players being confused by a new scheme, or not being as talented as the opposition due to poor recruiting in previous years. But to struggle with basic fundamentals like tackling?

So here we are. The program has lost to Old Dominion, saw it’s 15-game winning streak against UVA, and now lost to Liberty in the last 3 years. The fan base seems to have lost confidence in Fuente. Recruiting will probably suffer because of it, and because of a dwindling revenue stream due to COVID in 2020, the program couldn’t afford to make a change for the better right now even if it wanted to.

On social media, people are howling for Fuente’s scalp. They’re all directing this at Whit, expecting he will hear their cries and make an immediate change before midnight.

Nothing’s going to happen immediately. But since this situation has been in the works for several years, I’d say to the good people on social media that there may be hope. Those years should have allowed any forward-thinking executive time to ponder what’s going on and come up with a few Plan Bs in case the sum of all fears ever came to pass.

The question, however, is on this 7th day of November in the year 2020.....does such a plan exist?



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