Whit Babcock and Justin Fuente: Ride or die

UVa at Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente celebrates the win over UVA with players. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

Yeah, it’s been a week for Whit Babcock and Justin Fuente, whose futures are joined at the hip as Virginia Tech football hurtles into the offseason.

The week started with Babcock, whose first big hire as AD back in 2015 was tapping Fuente to replace the legendary Frank Beamer, announcing that Fuente would stay on for a sixth season in 2021, despite the Hokies posting a 5-6 record in 2020 – the program’s second losing season in three years.

It had 26 years prior, dating back to 1992, when Tech had last posted a losing season.

That 1992 season was also the last, until this year, that ended with the Hokies not getting a bowl bid, though technically, there could and almost certainly would have been a bowl bid in the offing for even a 5-6 team, considering how many programs are forgoing the idea of taking on a bowl invite given the lengthy quarantining that teams had to do to get through the regular season this year.

So, losing record, no bowl.

And then Wednesday was early national signing day, and Tech’s showing there – Rivals, 247Sports and ESPN all had the Hokies Class of 2021 in the low to mid-40s nationally, and 10th or 11th in the 14-member ACC – nope, nothing to write home about.

And this is the second straight year that Fuente came up a big loser on signing day. His 2020 class actually ranked dead last in the conference, after ranking in the top four in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Success or failure in recruiting often lags success or failure on the field by a year, which you saw up the road in Charlottesville this week – with Bronco Mendenhall landing his first Top 30 class a year after taking the Cavaliers to the program’s first-ever ACC Coastal Division title.

That Fuente has struggled mightily on the recruiting trail the past couple of years portends more of the same in terms of what we’ve been seeing on the field, compounded by the run of high-profile departures that got added to this week when Hendon Hooker, who had started 15 games at quarterback the past two years, announced that he will enter the transfer portal at the end of the fall semester.

It kind of feels like starting over, which isn’t a good place to be when you have a coach entering his sixth year – but the foundation is two not good recruiting classes, plus what’s left of the three strong ones preceding them, and a backdrop that has Tech Athletics fighting a $15 million budget shortfall due to the impact of COVID-19.

It would be easy to point to the money issues as the reason Babcock is sticking with Fuente, but, no.

Sure, Fuente’s buyout – $10 million – isn’t pocket change even when times are flush, but the way these kinds of situations play out, it’s not like you’re cutting a single $10 million check and moving on.

Fuente, you might remember, was the splash hire back in 2015.

I was in the press box at Scott Stadium for the regular-season finale between Virginia Tech and Virginia the day the word leaked that Fuente, then at Memphis, was going to be named the successor to Beamer – and the buzz among the assembled sports cognoscenti was palpable.

The postgame scrum arranged by the UVA sports media relations crew that normally would put the visiting coach in a tiny side room to meet with reporters was altered to give Beamer, just having coached his last regular-season game at Tech, the big room reserved for London, who as it turned out had also just coached his last game – regular season or otherwise – at Virginia.

But Beamer, his wife, Cheryl, at his side, had to wait to take questions, as Babcock took control of the room to inform the ink-stained wretches that he would not be taking questions addressing rumors about a new coach, so as not to upstage Beamer – in the process upstaging Beamer.

It was, in effect, a victory lap – Babcock had his new coach all lined up, couldn’t wait to tell everybody about it, and got to break the news in the big room of the rival that would be firing its failed coach the next day.

Babcock has made great hires since Fuente – Buzz Williams took Tech basketball to a Sweet Sixteen, and Mike Young might actually be better; I wanted, for years, for Virginia to be the school to lure Kenny Brooks from JMU, and he’s doing a great job with Tech women’s hoops; Tech practically stole John Szefc from Maryland to get Tech baseball to respectability.

ADs at schools like Tech aren’t judged on how men’s or women’s basketball or baseball are going; it’s football or bust.

That’s where Whit Babcock is at this stage with Justin Fuente.

Ride or die.

Story by Chris Graham


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