Rebuilding a program involves many steps, but none may be more important than establishing the culture necessary to sustain success.
When Justin Fuente arrived at Virginia Tech last fall, he took over a talent-rich team that wasn’t winning. The program was treading water in the worst division of the ACC and hadn’t appeared in a major bowl game since 2011. The foundation for success was there, but something was missing.
Fast forward to October, and it seems that culture has been established. Virginia Tech is inside the top-25, off to a 4-1 start and in the driver’s seat in the Coastal Division. But more importantly, the team’s mindset is different
“There’s a lot of things they wanted to implement,” said Jerod Evans. “Believe, prepare, play. Preparation, 1-0, I mean there’s a lot of things Coach Fuente harps on.”
When Fuente arrived, he enacted several changes. He put more of an emphasis on recruiting, brought in Ben Hilgart to revamp the program’s strength and conditioning and worked to change the atmosphere around the program.
“Tough, that’s the first thing,” said Bucky Hodges. “I’m not saying Coach (Frank) Beamer didn’t preach being tough, but they’re on us about every little thing, from being at study hall to being two minutes late to class. It was never like this. On the field, always got to move, never time to sit down and take a break. You’re always on the move working. It’s a change for the positive for Virginia Tech.”
“We had to buy into it and I think we’ve done a great job of doing that,” said Brandon Facyson. “These coaches are great, they put us in the right position. They tell us what we need to know and we trust them, we follow them, we know they’re going to do what’s best for the team.”
The older players on the team appreciated Fuente’s reverence and appreciation for Beamer’s work. Fuente has been careful not to step on toes or come off as condescending towards the old staff, and instead of ignoring the past, he’s embraced it.
“I think the main thing they wanted to do was build on the coaches previously here,” said Jonathan McLaughlin. “Last three seasons weren’t as good as we wanted it but they came in here and did a great job. The first thing I liked was how they treated us all and we knew it was going to be hard work.”
The changes seemed to have worked, but it didn’t always look pretty. After an admittedly bad week of preparation, Virginia Tech squandered a 14-0 first quarter lead vs. Tennessee in the Battle at Bristol and ended up losing 45-24 in a game that wasn’t that competitive in the second half.
“I think the Tennessee game was a fairly good wakeup call for us.” Fuente said. “I don’t say that taking anything away from Tennessee. I wasn’t real pleased with them going into the game and some things that happened in the game. You don’t give yourself a chance to win when you do those types of things. I think that helped us, in terms of maybe getting our kids attention a little bit. Now, we just got to keep it.”
Fuente’s bunch responded. Virginia Tech has outscored their opponents 137-20 since the Tennessee loss, dominating non-conference rival East Carolina, as well as ACC opponents Boston College and North Carolina.
“I think once the team started to see his formula work, it was easy to buy in,” Evans said. “They saw at Tennessee, we were up 14-0 and how we ended up playing flat in the third and fourth quarter and they saw that, and I think that woke them up like, ‘We had a crappy Tuesday and Wednesday.’ So for now, our Tuesday and Wednesday, we’re looking forward to them. With our senior leadership, we’re not going to have a bad Tuesday or Wednesday, because they know how it felt against Tennessee.”
For Fuente, rebuilding programs hasn’t been easy. Even at Memphis, Fuente has always reevaluated his coaching style in order to better relate with his players.
“After four years, I was worried about, ‘Should I still be talking about the same thing? How should I articulate it to them? Are they blocking me out? Are they tired of hearing it?’,” Fuente said. “That’s one of the things I admire about Coach Beamer. He had 29 years here, continuing to preach his culture and they were still listening to it.”
“Sometimes I think they’re listening, sometimes I’m not sure,” Fuente said. “By and large, I think they’ve done a good job of accepting who we want to be and what we’re trying to be and living that out on a daily basis.”
With Virginia Tech off to such a hot start, Fuente is teaching his team how to handle success, which can be harder than handling failure.
“We try to keep it in perspective and address those things,” Fuente said. “Let’s talk about the reasons we have had success the last couple weeks. It’s because of the way we’ve practiced, the way we’ve prepared, ultimately leading to us playing well enough to win a few games in a row. Also, talk about how fleeting that is. There’s a long season ahead of us. We can take pride in winning a couple games, there’s nothing wrong with that, but you’ve got to move past those things and get ready for the next one.”
“It’s a constant — I shouldn’t say a battle — you can’t get tired of trying to preach your message,” Fuente said. “At least this is according to business people I’ve read. Whether it’s big corporations, you always continue to find ways to articulate your message and the culture. You can’t stop that. If you stop or relax or quit, then in my opinion, it begins to deteriorate.”
Fuente seems to have stuck to his guns, and it’s working so far.
“One of the things I like about Coach Fuente is that he never wavered in what he believed in,” said Andrew Motuapuaka. “When he first got here, he just laid it down, plain and simple, how he was, how he wanted things and how he wanted to change things. We kind of just went with it. We’re all in and I think that’s how we’re having success now, because we all bought into his plan and what he had for us.”