A good time to join the Hokie Club

Chris Coleman, TechSideline.com, on March 20, 2014
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If you are on the fence about joining the Hokie Club, now is the time to make the move.  Virginia Tech faces a rising tide of increasing scholarship costs, big coaching salaries, huge buyouts, and possibly even a required stipend for players in the future.  Now more than ever, Tech needs their loyal fans to step up to the plate.

This article probably should have been written months ago, but I’m hoping it has more of an effect now that the Hokies have a new athletic director and everybody is looking forward to the future.  For Virginia Tech to compete in the brave new world of collegiate athletics, it’s up to all of us to help.

I went over to the Hokie Club offices a couple of weeks ago, had lunch with Scott “Scooter” Davis (Associate Director of Development for the Hokie Club), and met folks like David Everett, Terry Bolt and Ben Hill.  Scott and I talked about his playing days with the basketball team, as well as his coaching career under Bill Foster and Bobby Hussey. He later sat down with me and answered any questions I had regarding the Hokie Club, which included questions on endowments, numbers of student-athletes, etc.

Let’s start with a few basic questions and answers before we get to the main points of the article.  From reading our message boards, I realize that some of you don’t know exactly what the Hokie Club is, what that money is used for and how it benefits Virginia Tech athletics.  That’s okay.  It’s never too late to learn.

Question #1: What is the Hokie Club?

Answer: The Hokie Club, or Virginia Tech Athletic Fund, raises money for important things such as athletic scholarships, program needs, and capital improvement.  Scholarship student-athletes go to school for free, but that bill still has to be paid to the university by the athletic department, and the Hokie Club pays it.  They also oversee fundraising for things like the new Indoor Practice Facility.

Question #2: What is the Hokie Club’s total bill for athletic scholarships?

Answer: $11.8 million this year, and that number has dramatically increased over the last few years because of the rapid increase of the cost of education.  It will continue to go up.  Meanwhile, the number of Hokie Club members has decreased in recent years.

Question #3: What is Virginia Tech’s athletic endowment?

Answer: Approximately $50 million.

Question #4: So if they’ve got $50 million already, and scholarships only come out to $11.8 million, then why do they need more?

Answer: I don’t know a lot about financing, but an endowment is basically an investment fund.  The interest earned each year goes towards the scholarship fund.  Generally that interest comes out to between 4% and 5%.  So of Tech’s approximately $50 million fund, only about $2-2.5 million actually goes towards scholarships.  The rest of the scholarship money is paid from annual donations to the Hokie Club. So this year, $9.3-$9.8 million of the money donated to the Hokie Club went directly to paying the scholarship bill. And that happens every year.

Some of you might be snickering that some people might not know what an endowment is.  In that case, you are laughing at me.  I had heard of endowments.  And I always knew that they were very important.  However, I didn’t know exactly how they worked, and I didn’t know that they were basically an investment fund.  My whole meeting with Scott was educational, but that was the #1 thing I learned.

So, why should you join the Hokie Club?  I’ve got two good reasons: to help Virginia Tech be competitive, and to help the student athletes.

Scholarships, Support Staff, and Being Competitive

There’s a lot Virginia Tech needs to do right now.  They need to hire more support personnel for football, for one.

“We have the smallest football staff in the ACC,” John Ballein told David Teel back in January, “and not many people know that.”

Obviously the NCAA only allows nine assistant position coaches, but they don’t have a limit for support staff such as player development, a scouting/recruiting staff, etc.  For example, when Virginia Tech hired Aaron Moorehead from Stanford, he wasn’t officially one of the nine assistant coaches at Stanford.  He was an “offensive assistant,” which meant that he watched film and helped the coaches gameplan, but he wasn’t officially a position coach.   I suppose he was for Stanford what the NFL calls a “Quality Control Coach.”

Virginia Tech has no such coaches.  100% of the burden is on Tech’s regular assistants, including analyzing data of opponents and the Hokies, scouting opponents, scouting potential recruits, etc.  There’s a reason why Scot Loeffler slept in his office sometimes last season.  Sometimes there aren’t enough hours in the day for what Tech’s coaching staff wants to accomplish.  Not only is Tech behind the other ACC schools in that regard, but they are also behind the SEC as well.

Some of you wonder why it seems like the Hokies are behind other schools for the services of some of their top targets early in the recruiting process.  Well, this could certainly be a reason.  If those other schools have more staff members and more resources for recruiting, then it makes complete sense.  Tech’s coaches are good, but they aren’t super human, except for perhaps Bud Foster when it comes to X’s and O’s.  At some point, numbers start to count.  Tech’s staff can outwork one staff at one school, but they can’t outwork a school that has both a support staff and a regular staff. The Hokies will need more money to hire such support staff in the future if they want to remain competitive.

Virginia Tech is also paying close to $2.5 million over the next three years to three guys who don’t even work for Tech anymore: Seth Greenberg, Jim Weaver and James Johnson, so that wipes out some of the available funding for support staff.

From a facilities standpoint, things are progressing well with the Indoor Practice Facility for football.  After that, the baseball team badly needs a clubhouse.  Right now, all the baseball players dress in the Merryman Center and walk all the way to English Field for practice and games.  That’s not pleasant in February and March.  Also, technically speaking, one of our players could get run over by a car on his walk from his locker to the dugout!  That’s not likely to happen of course, but you get the point: it’s unacceptable for an ACC program.  More on the baseball program later in the article.

Once the baseball clubhouse is built, the softball team will need a clubhouse as well so Virginia Tech can remain Title IX compliant.

So Virginia Tech is going to be spending some money soon.  What’s the big deal?  This:

“We’re at a crossroads right now financially with our scholarships,” Ballein told Teel. “We’re at a point right now where our scholarship funding may have to be taken out of our operating funds, and you’re not going to be successful with that.”

In other words, a portion of Virginia Tech’s athletic scholarship may have to be paid directly from the operating budget of the athletic department in the future.  What does that mean?  That means it’s going to be harder to make room in the budget to hire extra support staff for the football program, which means Virginia Tech would fall behind in the school’s #1 sport.  I think it’s safe to say that’s something that none of us want to see happen.

I asked Scott Davis if he thought Ballein was accurate.

“I guess if the cost of tuition keeps going up, and if we don’t keep pace with that growing cost of tuition, obviously it’s a possibility,” Davis said.

If the Hokie Club can’t get all the scholarships funded, that means Virginia Tech will be less competitive.  One day Frank Beamer will retire from coaching, and he’ll have to be replaced.  Coordinator salaries are shooting through the roof.  To stay relevant, Tech will have to open up the check book.  To climb out of the cellar in basketball, Tech will have to open up the check book.  In other words, this is a bad time for Hokie Club membership to be going down.

If Tech’s scholarship requirements eventually climb above the Hokie Club money reserved for scholarships, then some of that scholarship money is going to have to come out of the operating budget.  That’s not a good thing, obviously.  That money needs to be reserved for hiring coaches, academic advisors, support staff, etc.

In plain English, without increased Hokie Club support from you and me, it’s going to be harder for Virginia Tech to hire the coaches and support staff they need to be competitive going forward.  That’s why it’s important for those Hokie Club numbers to start going back up beginning this year.

Supporting the Student Athletes

Whit Babcock has been preaching the student athlete experience since he first arrived at Virginia Tech.  In the past, the Hokie Club message always seemed to be “increase your donation to get better seats in Lane Stadium.”  Now the message seems to be “increase your donation or join the Hokie Club to support the players and put them in a better position to be competitive.”

I’m a much bigger fan of the second message than the first.  Getting football tickets was never important to me.  Even when Tech was in the top 10, tickets were readily available outside of Lane Stadium for face value or less.  I’ve sat anywhere from the first row on the 45 to the upper section of the South end zone, and I have an equally good time at each game.  To me, it’s not about where I sit.  It’s about who I sit with.  It’s about the game day experience, hanging out with friends at tailgates, etc.

That second message reaches me, though.  As fans, we all expect a lot of our players these days.  We expect them to be competitive in everything.  That’s just where things have been driven, partly by the times we live in, partly by social media, etc.  But, are we giving them the resources to be competitive in everything?  Are we giving the coaches the resources to be competitive on the recruiting trail?

“I also know that in academics, our ratio for student-athletes in Olympic sports (to academic support personnel) is 130-to-1, and that’s 14th in our league,” John Ballein told David Teel.  “That’s not good enough. I know we’re one of three schools in the ACC that doesn’t have a tutor coordinator.”

The Hokies generally fare very well in the APR each year, but as you can see, there is plenty of room for growth.  Virginia Tech recently lost VT grad and former football player Jermaine Holmes to a bigger position at NC State.  He was the Director of Student-Athlete Academic Support Services at Virginia Tech.  At NC State, he is Associate Athletic Director for Academics/Director of Academic Support Program for Student Athletes.

It sounds like sort of the same job, except it’s bigger at NC State.  At NC State, he’ll preside over a department of 15 people.  At Tech, the department has 10 employees (according to the 2013 Media Guide).

More support lessens the academic burden on student athletes.  That improves graduation rates, and gives athletes more time to focus on athletics, which improves performance on the field/court.  Greater academic support and better play on the field/court improves recruiting.  It all goes hand in hand.

From a facilities perspective, once the Indoor Practice facility is built, the football program will have just about all they need.  However, a clubhouse next to English Field is badly needed for the baseball program, and it would be nice if softball had one as well.  Imagine recruiting a baseball player who was trying to decide between Virginia Tech and North Carolina.  Here’s what North Carolina has for a clubhouse, per their school website:

“… a 2,450-square foot clubhouse complete with a sparkling locker room dressing area, equipment room, meeting rooms, a study hall area and a players’ lounge that features two 52-inch flat screen televisions, pool and ping pong tables and an Xbox video game system. There are 35 flat screen TVs throughout the facility.”

Virginia Tech doesn’t even have a baseball clubhouse.  Period.  Much less a clubhouse with 35 flat screens, an Xbox, pool tables, etc.  The UNC baseball team has it almost as good as the Virginia Tech football team.  Think about that for a second.  If a baseball player is choosing between the Hokies and the Tar Heels, where is he going to go?  He’s going to go to UNC every single time because their facilities are better, their support is better, and his chances to win and go pro increase.

Everybody blamed Jim Weaver for Pete Hughes leaving for Oklahoma.  I don’t care if Weaver had matched the salary offer from Oklahoma, I still think Hughes would have been out the door, because the opportunity to recruit and win at Oklahoma is much better.  They have a much better stadium, a clubhouse that is connected to the dugout, a video board, and they even have a practice infield.  Don’t believe me?  Take the tour.

I’m just using baseball as an example, but it’s a good example.  Tech’s baseball players and coaches aren’t given the same resources as players and coaches of much of the competition.  Last year’s NCAA-caliber VT baseball team was an exception rather than the rule.  There’s a reason the Hokies finish near the bottom of the Coastal Division each year, and that’s because the facilities and the support aren’t nearly as good as they are at the competition.  Coaches at other sports at Tech might tell you the same thing, and others wouldn’t.  It varies by sport, I suppose.

There is no reason to expand English Field until people actually start attending games, but the baseball program badly needs a real clubhouse that can compete with clubhouses at other schools, and they also need a video board.  A video board should even be able to pay for itself in time because of the advertising space.  As far as I know, Virginia Tech is the only ACC program without a video board, except for perhaps Pitt and BC.

How do we expect our players – in any sport – to compete if we aren’t giving them the proper tools?

“Ultimately, it’s about the student-athletes that represent Virginia Tech,” Scott Davis said.  “We need to find the necessary resources for our coaches and our programs to go out and get the best student-athlete they can get, both academically and athletically.  That takes support and that why it’s imperative that we don’t lose sight of those student-athletes.  Without them, we don’t have anything to cheer about.”

In my opinion, if we expect our players to win a lot of games, then we need to give them the resources with which to win.  There are currently 505 student athletes at Virginia Tech who are trying hard to win, and they deserve the best resources we can give them.  To me, that’s 505 good reasons to join the Hokie Club.

Joining the Hokie Club

If you aren’t in the Hokie Club, I completely understand.  You’ve been marketed to in a different way over the past years.  It’s really easy to get tickets to football and basketball games, even good tickets, so you didn’t join.  I get that.  Neither did I, until this year.  I never really stopped to put it in the right perspective, I suppose, and that’s this: the real reason you should join the Hokie Club is to help Virginia Tech be competitive, and to help the players win.  It’s as simple as that.

If you want to join, you have a couple of options.  You can make a one-time donation (minimum $100) online here.  That is the simplest and easiest way to join.

Don’t have the spare change to make a one-time donation?  For what I wanted to donate, I didn’t either.  Instead, I went the Hokie Matic route.  The Hokie Matic program draws a specific amount of money from your bank account every month.  Your basic monthly payment for the four lowest levels of the Hokie Club would look like this, using the minimum giving amount at each level:

Hokie ($100): $8.33 per month
Orange and Maroon ($250): $20.83 per month
Bronze ($500): $41.67 per month
Silver ($1000): $83.33 per month

That’s really not all that expensive, especially at the two lowest levels.  Almost everybody could join at the lowest level of giving.  Big gifts are nice, but a large number of small gifts are really helpful as well.  Also, remember that the Hokie Club is a non-profit organization, which means your gifts are tax deductible.

It’s a very important time at Virginia Tech.  Costs are going up.  Not just scholarships, but coaching salaries, buyouts, creating new positions within the athletic department, facilities, etc.  And I didn’t even talk about the possible $2,000 stipend that schools might be forced to pay athletes in the future.  Now isn’t the time to start falling behind from a monetary standpoint.

It’s not my intention to paint the situation in a bad light.  Virginia Tech is still in good shape.  I think Whit Babcock is the man for the job, and I think he’ll do a great job of leading Tech into the future.  However, I do think we all need to be made aware of the coming challenges we’ll face in the next few years across the athletic department as a whole.  To meet those challenges successfully, we’ll need our fan base to step to the plate.  We can’t just stand by and expect Babcock to do it all himself.  We have to give them the support he needs.

Athletic directors, administrators, coaches, coordinators and players all come and go.  Even Frank Beamer will be gone one day.  We’ll still be here, however.  The foundation of every program is the fan base and the support that fan base gives.  The fan base is more important than any coach, player, AD, or athletic facility.  No program can succeed without good fans.  Virginia Tech can’t succeed without you and me.  If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll join me and become a member of the Hokie Club.  Virginia Tech’s future success in athletics will taste a lot sweeter if we all take some ownership in it.

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