The Best in the Business

Talk to any Hokie fan, or any knowledgeable follower of college football, and they know that Bud Foster is one of the best defensive coordinators in the business. Is he the best? We dug into the numbers and now have statistical proof: In the last decade, Bud Foster is the best defensive coordinator in college football. And it’s not close.

While conversation about Virginia Tech’s offense has been heated in recent years, Bud Foster’s Virginia Tech defenses have been rock solid, the backbone of Frank Beamer’s Virginia Tech teams. The Hokies have ridden Foster’s talents to 16 straight bowl games and five straight ten-win seasons. Without Bud Foster’s defenses, which have been ranked in the top ten nationally in total defense for the last five years, those streaks don’t happen.

In 1979, Frank Beamer was the defensive coordinator at Murray State, and Bud Foster played strong safety and defensive end for the Racers (no joke, that’s what Foster’s entry in VT’s football media guide says: strong safety / defensive end). When Beamer took over the Murray State head coaching job in 1981, Foster became a graduate assistant coach, and that was the beginning of a coaching relationship between the two men that now spans close to 30 years.

Foster came to Tech with Beamer in 1987, and along with running backs coach Billy Hite, Bud is the only remaining member of Frank’s original VT coaching staff. Foster became co-defensive coordinator for the Hokies in the 1995 season, along with Rod Sharpless. Sharpless committed career suicide by leaving for Rutgers in 1996 (hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time!), and the Hokie defense has been all Bud’s since 1996.

The results have been phenomenal and unparalleled in college football. In 1995, Foster and Sharpless reaped the benefits of a defense that Phil Elmassian began building in 1993. The 1995 Hokies finished 1st in rushing defense, 5th in scoring defense, and 10th in total defense, and that defense led the way to Big East and Sugar Bowl titles.

In 1996, despite losing five starters and returning just three of their top eight defensive linemen, the Hokies had another good year, finishing 9th in scoring defense and 24th in total defense. The Hokies won ten regular season games and lost the Orange Bowl to a Nebraska team that was national championship caliber.

In 1997, the defense started out strong but took a dip, and then it regrouped in 1998 and 1999 for an impressive run. With a whole new set of players, headlined by national defensive player of the year Corey Moore, the 1998 and 1999 Hokie defenses set the standard for Bud Foster defenses, finishing 7th in total defense in 1998 and 3rd in 1999. More importantly, the 1999 defense finished first in scoring defense, giving up a meager 10.5 points per game.

Much like 1997, the 2000 Hokie defense lost a huge chunk of its defensive stars, and just like before, a rebuilding year was followed by a great year. The 2000 Hokies, despite returning just three starters and losing its starting defensive line, finished 27th in total defense and 3rd in interceptions.

The 2001 defense heralded a return to greatness and achieved Tech’s highest total defense ranking under Foster to that point. The Hokies spent much of the season ranked #1 in total defense but were edged out of that spot in the last game of the season by Texas. On December 1st, the last day of the season, the Hokies gave up 384 yards to the #1-ranked (and eventual national champion) Miami Hurricanes in Lane Stadium, and in the Big 12 Championship game on the same day, Texas gave up 334 yards to Colorado to steal the total defense ranking from the Hokies by a meager 1.74 yards per game. Bowl games didn’t count in NCAA statistics back then, so the battle was over.

The 2002 season dawned with seven defensive starters returning, but injuries decimated the defensive tackle and middle linebacker spots, and the Hokie defense struggled, finishing 32nd in total defense. 2003 was even worse, as a talented but undisciplined set of Hokie defenders crashed to the worst total defense ranking in Foster’s tenure, 51st. By the end of the season, the defense was worse than its ranking and was nose diving.

The VT coaching staff took measures to clean up the discipline of the program after the 2003 season, and Foster also tweaked his defense to a more traditional 4-3-4 alignment. Opposing offenses had learned to exploit matchup problems with Foster’s scheme, which dated back to 1993, so he made adjustments.

The program changes and defensive scheme changes hooked a rocket booster to Foster’s defenses, and they went on a five-year run of success that rivals any defense in college football history. In 2004, Foster’s troops returned to glory, finishing 4th in total defense, and in 2005, Foster finally achieved what had been eluding him: a #1 defensive ranking. As if that weren’t enough, the Hokies repeated the feat in 2006, then finished 4th again in 2007.

Now in the prime of his career, Foster turned in perhaps his best coaching job in 2008. The Hokies entered 2008 with just four starters returning, with only two — DE Orion Martin and whip LB Cam Martin — playing the same positions. Tech had lost the interior of its 2007 defense with the departure of DTs Carlton Powell and Barry Booker, plus stalwart linebackers Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi.

The 2008 defense was as thin as tracing paper at some positions, and injuries dogged key players (Jason Worilds is the biggest example). The defense struggled early, starting out ranked in the 40s and 50s in total defense, but slowly improved and crawled up the rankings, finishing an improbable 7th in total defense.

VT Total Defense Rankings, 1999-2008
Season Rank
1999 3
2000 27
2001 2
2002 32
2003 51
2004 4
2005 1
2006 1
2007 4
2008 7
10-Year Average 13.2

In the last five years, VT has an average defensive ranking of 3.4, first in the nation by a wide margin. LSU is second over that five-year span with an 8.8, and Penn State is third with an 11.2.

That five-year run has launched Virginia Tech into first place in average total defense rankings over the last decade. The NCAA archives on the Internet go back to 1999, giving us the capability to crunch the numbers for the last ten seasons, and over that decade, the Hokie defense has averaged a national rank of 13.2 in total defense, clearly the best in the nation. Here’s the top ten.

10-year Average, Total Defense Ranking
(top ten defensive programs)
Pos. Avg. Rank Team Defensive Coordinators
1 13.2 Virginia Tech 1: Bud Foster
2 16.5 Miami (Fla.) 3
3 20.0 Oklahoma 1 (plus at least 2 co-DCs)
4 20.2 Alabama 4
5 20.5 Ohio St. 5 (estimate)
6 21.1 TCU 3
7 21.3 Texas 5 (plus 2 co-DCs)
8 21.6 LSU 5 (plus 1 co-DC)
9 21.7 Auburn 5
10 23.0 Georgia 3
Note: Brent Venables has been OK’s co-defensive coordinator from 1999-2008, serving with at least two other co-DCs.

I included the defensive coordinator column to point something out: the importance of longevity and consistency. Bud is one of just two DCs in the top ten who have held the position all ten years, and Bud is the only DC to hold the job title alone. Brent Ventables has been a DC at Oklahoma for ten years, but he has had at least two co-DCs over that ten years, and has probably had one for each of his ten seasons. (I searched the heck out of the Internet to try to find the answer to that, and information was sketchy.)

It’s not a coincidence that two of the most stable defensive coaching staffs — Virginia Tech and Oklahoma — are in the top three. Miami might seem like the outlier there, because Hurricane head coach Randy Shannon just hired his third defensive coordinator in three seasons. But prior to that, from 2001-2006, Shannon was the DC at Miami, and his record was positively Foster-like:

Miami’s total defense rankings
Randy Shannon as DC (2001-2006)

  • 2001 – 6th
  • 2002 – 7th
  • 2003 – 2nd
  • 2004 – 28th
  • 2005 – 4th
  • 2006 – 7th
  • Average: 9.0

In the last two seasons, the Hurricanes have finished #33 and #28 in total defense, dragging down their ten-year average.

Back to the subject of Bud Foster: Foster has distinguished himself like no other defensive coordinator in the nation in the last ten years, and in the last five seasons, his stats are astounding. Frank Beamer is a savvy coach who has built an empire in Blacksburg, but it’s no stretch to say that Bud Foster is just as responsible as Beamer for what has transpired here. Beamer owes Foster an enormous debt of gratitude.

We’ve known for years that Virginia Tech is blessed to have Bud Foster at its defensive helm, but when you look at the statistics and his longevity at the position, it quickly becomes apparent that this is the golden age of defense in Virginia Tech football, and what Bud Foster has built will likely never be matched, not just at Virginia Tech, but possibly anywhere else in college football.