Whit Babcock Interview, Part I: Football Scheduling, Baseball Construction and Cassell Coliseum

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Whit Babcock Virginia Tech
Whit Babcock has been Virginia Tech’s director of athletics since Jan. 2014. (Photo by Ivan Morozov)

Recently, Virginia Tech Director of Athletics Whit Babcock sat down for a one-on-one interview with TechSideline.com. Babcock discussed a wide range of topics, from the recently canceled football series with Michigan and football scheduling in general, English Field at Union Park construction, future plans for Lane Stadium and Cassell Coliseum and men’s basketball head coach Buzz Williams.

This is part one of that interview. You can access both parts here. We’ll add notes of clarification in italics throughout the interview.

Recently, Michigan canceled a home and home football series with Virginia Tech that was scheduled for 2020 and 2021. The same day that cancellation was announced, The Seattle Times wrote that Michigan “confirmed” a series with Washington for those same two years.

TechSideline.com: There was an article recently in the Seattle newspaper that said Michigan has firmed up a series with Washington in 2020 and 2021. Connecting the dots, Virginia Tech’s series with Michigan was scheduled in 2013, they [Michigan] scheduled a series with Washington in 2014 for the same years, and then Jim Harbaugh started coaching Michigan in 2015. The article mentioned that Michigan was trying to get out of the series with Washington, and Washington didn’t want to get out of it. That tells me they were either trying to get out of both of them, or one of them. So just tell me the story of what happened on your end.

Whit Babcock: We had been hearing through the grapevine, ESPN and some other people that help us put some schedules together, that Michigan may eventually move that game. So we kind of thought it might happen, but we thought we could wait, and obviously Michigan would be a great opponent here. And then quite frankly, we knew we were a little bit overscheduled.

When [Michigan AD] Ward Manuel called — he and I are friends, he worked at Connecticut when I was at Cincinnati, he’s a good guy — he called me and said, “Hey we need to get out of it, but I also know you’re overscheduled. We talked about out years, but our first opening is, what 2029 or 2030?”

TSL: It’s way out.

WB: Then we couldn’t really agree on dates, and there was a … anyway, we just set it on that amount [$375,000] as a way for them to get out of it. We knew our fans wanted to play it. I was not going to be the one who canceled it. I’d like to stay employed, you know? So when somebody calls and says we’re not going to play, then that’s what you do.

ESPN had asked us a few times, “Would you be willing to move or change Michigan,” and we were not going to do that.

TSL: Is anything presenting itself at this time as replacements?

WB: Not much. Jim Weaver and John Ballein were very good at scheduling, so we’re booked for a long time. Since I’ve been here, we’ve added Maryland, Rutgers, BYU and a couple FCS games that people get fired up about.

TSL: What I meant by the question is, you now have two open dates, what are you thinking there?

WB: John Ballein and I have been talking about it. For your readers and people I hear from, it’s not East Carolina (smiles). I’m not trying to hold out on you. There are so few that are open, and the conversations we’re having, then it usually gets down to the coach level, and do they want to play each other. Justin’s pretty darn good [about being willing to play against other teams], but there’s not as many people who have an interest in playing us. I know we want to get the best game we can get.

We’ve been somewhere preparing for this possibility for a while, but not near like Michigan had.

TSL: I think in the past you had mentioned a possible neutral site game in Charlotte with South Carolina.

WB:  I know we have talked about a neutral-site game, but we don’t have anything signed with South Carolina nor any ongoing conversations. But that would be a great game to have down there.

We always want to have at least six home games, and we want to have a really strong home schedule. I’ve always believed that we have to start at Lane Stadium, and if we ever have a year where we have seven home games, that we could peel off one, but we’re not in any conversations about that right now.

TSL: At this point, nothing specific.

WB: Zero.

In the July of 2017, Virginia Tech announced that they will play multiple football games against in-state opponents Liberty and Old Dominion. The announcement included six games against ODU (three at home and three on the road) and five games against Liberty (three at home and two on the road, plus a game previously scheduled for 2020 in Lane Stadium).

The deals have been criticized by some Virginia Tech fans for including road trips to ODU and Liberty, but it’s notable that many other schools have also scheduled games at ODU and Liberty as part of longer deals, including UNC, Wake Forest, Syracuse and Virginia.

TechSideline.com: The Liberty and Old Dominion deals, I’m sure you’ve heard from some fans about those. There are some fans who are quite vocal about not liking those deals, primarily because it involves Virginia Tech traveling to play at their places. I know what’s been said publicly, if you go to play at ODU, it helps with recruiting, it’s closer to Tech fans in that area, that kind of thing. The question is, how much do finances play a role in a deal like that?

Whit Babcock: A big role. But I wouldn’t put it at the top of the list. But it sure is nice, when you have a home-and-home series that your fans can get to, that you can go by bus, that’s not so bad when you can get that.

To go to the 757 and play and take it to our fans there, I wouldn’t say that was as much driven by finances. Liberty was, a little bit, in full transparency. In trying to transition out of FCS games, there’s not that many openings. When you get a team like Liberty, they’re very popular. Carolina just scheduled them. Syracuse and Wake Forest and UVA, all of them signed a game with Liberty. (Each link describes a two-for-one series, two at home, and one on the road at ODU.)

Then we started thinking about, “If we don’t play that home-and-home against Liberty, who can we buy to come in here?” And it’s probably going to cost $800,000 to a million to bring them in. So we’ll go play on the road, and Liberty comes back the following year, and no one’s paying anyone.

TSL: And Liberty fans are going to buy their whole ticket allotment when they come to Lane Stadium, and not return tickets.

WB: And I believe that was Jim [Weaver]’s thought process on the initial deal with ECU, and I believe it was accurate. I’ve also signed some games with East Carolina, but we’ve seen the ECU fan numbers drop. But ODU packed it here last year.

But as you know, John [Ballein]’s really good at it and ESPN helps us some, but there’s not too many people that’ll play you home-and-home. We had a Conference USA team approach us about coming here to take Michigan’s place, and it would be a $1.5 million guarantee. So we said no thank you.

So that’s why the priority is the home-and-home and places you can travel, and getting out of FCS games. So when Liberty became 1A, that became a lot better option.

English Field Union Park
A recent photo of the renovation of English Field at Union Bank Park, which is almost complete. (Photo by Ivan Morozov)

Virginia Tech is wrapping up construction on English Field at Union Park, a big renovation project that was part of a combined capital improvement effort that included big renovations to Rector Field House as well. The updated English Field at Union Park will be officially unveiled at a grand opening on Saturday, April 14, the night after the Spring football game. The Hokies will play Louisville that night at 7 PM.

TechSideline.com: What was the original schedule on the baseball stadium construction and has that schedule been met to your satisfaction? Will it be fully ready to go by the grand opening?

Whit Babcock: We’re pleased with it. We had every desire to get this stadium done by the start of the season, by the first home game. I don’t believe we have crossed the date — in other words, three snows slowed us down and we’re doing the best we can to get it done.

We have the scoreboard going up and we’d really like for the whole thing to be done, every bow to be tied, by the grand opening for the Spring Game. It’s a little behind. I had one of our baseball players ask, he had heard we were getting big money every day in the form of a late penalty, and I said “No, but if it’s that big, I’ll slow them down for a couple months.” 

We’re pleased with it, we love the look of it and I’m really confident that when people go to watch a game there, it’s a great experience. We’re playing Louisville right after the spring football game, and that’s the grand opening, and I’m sure it’ll be 75 and sunny.

(This interview was conducted on Friday, March 30th, less than one week after heavy snow caused power outages throughout the New River Valley. And yes, the forecast for Saturday, April 14 is mid-70s and partly cloudy.)

TSL: Do you know the timeline specifically on the scoreboard?

WB: We’re pushing hard to get it done by the grand opening.

TSL: How did sales of the $1,000 tables go?

WB: I bought one myself, for the record, full price. We sold every one of them and we look to add more next year. Those sold very quickly. And all of the suites are sold and we had some season ticket sales. We’re pretty pleased with it. That’s a neat space to watch a game and we feel like we can use that facility for a lot of things other than baseball, like socials, or Monogram Club stuff, maybe concerts. Things like that. It’s a cool place.

TSL: Do you think you underpriced the tables? I almost bought one.

WB: Probably. But baseball is not a revenue generator that way. We really were flying a little bit blind. The suites were $12,500 and the tables were $1,000. We were trying to do right and make it affordable. We didn’t want to turn people off by going too high.

TSL: We at TechSideline.com have heard that the $31 million or so that was borrowed for the English Field / Rector Field House project was a loan from the university. True or false?

WB: I believe it’s true. We did it all through the university. For me to be one hundred percent sure how they financed it, or what they did with it, I don’t know. But I believe it was done through the university, they would loan us the money as we needed it, instead of a lump sum. The interest rates are usually a little bit better, and then we had a dedicated revenue stream through Union Bank and some old debt falling off that it wasn’t that big a stretch for us to use gift money, financed money, and not sting our overall budget too terribly.

And we were also hustling to get those two projects done, finish up this football stuff, and then when we roll into this next capital campaign, do some work at Lane and Cassell.

The reason I give you that long answer, if we try to raise $18 or $20 million for track, that could have taken a while. Or, you might get $5 million in on one project, $5 million in on baseball and you can’t build either one of them. So we just felt like it was a good way to do it, to lump them together.

Jim [Weaver] was also so very good with budgets and almost all the debt that Jim incurred was on revenue generating projects. He was outstanding. So we were in a position to do it. So let’s say the money we borrowed, $2 million a year is the house payment, so to speak, and we have gift money from Union Bank and other debt falling off, it was a relatively high, six-figure new net hit for us.

TSL: What’s the current vision for Cassell Coliseum, either working on it or replacing it?

WB: First off, we’re very pleased with the new Student-Athlete Performance Center area up there, and essentially that renovates almost a quarter or a fifth of Cassell, just that end of it, because the new facility up there will tie into Cassell Coliseum.

But what we would like to do in the not-too-distant future is expand the [Cassell Coliseum] concourses out, add some more amenities, maybe some club seats. We’re considering suites or maybe even loge boxes like what the media sit in now.

Something to still make it this incredible home court advantage, but if we could generate some more revenue without stealing the fan experience, we’d like to do that, too.

Virginia Tech Cassell Coliseum
This stock photo of Cassell Coliseum shows that the outer walls can be pushed out into the archways to expand the inner concourse. (Photo Courtesy of Virginia Tech Athletics)

I just think the building has great bones and to go out to that next set of arches is a fairly easy construction option. But I think we’re only going to get better in basketball, men’s and women’s, and wrestling and volleyball. And when we’re packed up there, it’s not a real pleasant experience in the concourse.

But we have no plans to do a new arena at all. I would never say never, but we love the central location. Students can get to it. I like the history of it. It darn sure works for Cameron Indoor. It can work here. But that’s the next big one, but I don’t think that’s a 10-year horizon, I’m hoping that’s three to five years from now that we’re really making progress.

TSL: I don’t think I’ve ever envisioned the concept of the outer walls of the concourses being moved out until just now. So I get that.

WB: When you walk out there beside it, you can see how you could easily take the side walls and move them out. You know how the wind blows through there when the doors are open.

TSL: I know you’ve talked about wanting to eliminate that.

WB: The point of sale, opening it up, restrooms … we don’t mind shrinking capacity a little bit. Cassell, we’d love to stay over 9,000. We will balance keeping the capacity as high as we can keep it while making it a little nicer and a little more welcoming, and quite frankly, to generate a little more revenue.

TSL: The remaining wooden seats, do you envision replacing them?

WB: Yes, but it’s $800,000 to replace them. But we would like to do that, yes.

TSL: I imagine the feedback you received on the seats you did replace was uniformly positive.

WB: Yeah. And the tread depth — if that’s the word — the way Cassell was built, you can only get so much legroom, but it was an upgrade. But it’s not a Lazy Boy recliner.

You know, having the two styles of seats kind of shrinks the arena. What I mean by that is, a lot of times, for women’s basketball, or volleyball, people move down from the old seats to the new seats, and they’re closer to the floor.

Up Next in Part II: Running the athletic department in the red, information on the ACC Network studio Virginia Tech is constructing and the relationship between Whit Babcock and Buzz Williams.

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37 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. I was at the very first game at Cassell in January, 1962. HT Captain Gene Fife said the HT’s had to give the place a proper opening that night.. We did. We literally waded to the front door on boards. There were no seats, just risers. It was Loud! The next day, the Roanoke Times said that the place (not as yet named) was a worthy successor to the old gym snake pit.

  2. Easy to see Whit & Company had to rebuild the AD organization as well as replace the two larger revenue generating sports.

    Hope Part 2 includes Whit’s views of the changing financial landscape of college athletics and his vision for VT to be able to navigate.

    Good stuff!
    Let’s Go…Hokies!!!

  3. I think Cassell having larger concourses and additional/newer restrooms is a big deal. The seating arena is awesome. If they can put the wider seats with cup holders in the entire arena, MINUS the student section, that’d be great. I’d be fine if they just put new bleachers in the student section and made it so they take the railing out and go all the way to the floor on that end with those bleachers
    Love Whit and love the interview! Great jobs Will! Can’t wait for part 2!

  4. Great article Will. Whit is doing great work and I really appreciate him. Good vision and the scheduling issues will occur no matter if he was AD or not. The trend is to play in-state teams to reduce costs (traveling) and build your brand in your state. I live in Nashville and have family in the 757 and Lynchburg areas so I will attend those games.

  5. I’ve been very supportive of Whit, but the description of the $375,000 conversation with AD Manuel, a “friend” and ” a good guy” brings to mind the adage “a sucker is born every minute”. Whit has made some very good hires, but I agree that he is “not a numbers guy”.

    1. He doesn’t have to be an expert on every thing! He has a staff to advise him and he certainly knows how to make good decisions. Are you a CPA?

      1. Do you need to be a CPA or even a “numbers guy?” Surely we are misunderstanding something. Did we just take a $375k settlement from Michigan for a replacement game with an ODU level replacement that will cost us $1.5m?

        1. Exactly… you don’t need to be a CPA to understand that… $375k is chump change to Michigan…we had leverage in that negotiation and should have demanded more. Missed opportunity…. I don’t question Whit much but seems like we lost out on this deal..

        2. You don’t know who the replacement will be so your loss is totally speculation at this point.

        3. Where are you guys coming up with a $1.5 million loss from the Michigan cancellations? We had a home & home with them. No payouts to either team. Just like the ODU and Liberty home & home games. We’re not paying either of them as because we agreed to play at their stadiums.

          1. Correct. If VT schedules another home and home to replace Michigan, it’s a wash.

            If VT replaces Michigan by scheduling two home buy games … then yes, VT takes a beating financially, relative to playing Michigan home and home.

          2. I don’t know exactly what we pull in from a home game, but you figure it’s at least $3 million.

            replacing 1 Michigan home game with 2 random home games is +3 million. Of course those replacement opponents won’t be as big a draw, so lets say we only gain +1.5 million from that combo ($4.5 million for 2 games vs $3.0 million for 1 game). Toss in the $375,000 and we’re at theoretical budget of $1.875 million to pay guarantees before we start looking at going into the red.

      2. The buyout was part of the agreement Weaver made when scheduling the serier, not something Whitt did. Michigan chose to exercise it. Why make an enemy because of a difficult situation. This type of an event is not an unusual happening in college sports.

        1. That’s not how it sounds in Will’s article. Where are you seeing that Weaver gave them a buy out?

          1. These contracts typically include a buyout, though it sounds like Whit and the Michigan AD talked about it and came to a number.

    2. There’s also an old adage to not burn bridges behind you. I think Whit has gotten to where he is because he is fair. He has built a great relationship with other ADs and I think in the long run that will be more beneficial than getting a reputation of “he’ll stick it too you when he can”. I have complete trust in him doing the right thing.

      1. I’ve been supportive of Whit and still am. As I stated, he has made some very good coaching hires (which is probably the most critical part of his job). But I don’t think the $375,000 Michigan buyout was good for VT. So, I agree that Whit is “not a numbers guy”.

  6. Why don’t they remove the walls around the basketball court and run the seats all the way to the floor like a lot of other schools do (Duke, UNC etc). This would allow 4 or 5 more rows of seats, more revenue, and make Cassell even louder. Seems like a no brainer to me.

    1. Fire Marshall, and exit requirements being grandfathered. does not meet current codes.

  7. Whit is the man and he has a vision for Hokie sports (all of them). In Whit I trust and all of us should be thankful he is leading the Athletic Dept. A great hire by Tech and he is doing a great job. We need to do everything possible to keep him in Blacksburg!

  8. Whit is obviously not a detailed finance/budget guy. Sure hope that doesn’t bite us down the road. He needs a good numbers person at his side….who is that person and can you interview them?

    1. I agree that Whit isn’t really a numbers guy. It took me a while to realize that, and this interview solidified it.

      VT has a CFO (Chief Financial Officer) that they hired about a year ago, by the name of Omar Banks. I met Omar for the first time last week. Very attentive listener, and he says that his first year has been a learning process about how things are done here.

      An interview with Omar isn’t a bad idea. I’ll check into it. Here’s his profile:

      http://www.hokiesports.com/staff/banks_omar.html

      1. Omar doesn’t seem like he has a qualified background to be a CFO…. seems like an odd hire. He has a sports management background but not really a strong accounting and/ or finance background.

          1. Exactly. Babcock is pretty much hated by the alums and fans at UC for his bad hires and reckless spending. He’s very good at spending money he doesn’t have yet. We will see how it works out and will need to learn to be comfortable operating in the red for long periods of time.

  9. Good article Will, Whit Babcock seems to have great visions for VT’s Future. I look forward to the new experience at the Baseball Stadium. Thank you.

  10. I’m disappointed you didn’t further ask Whit about the home and home deal with ODU. I noticed Whit mostly talked about the home and home with Liberty. He did mention taking a game to the fans in 757. However, no mention at all about the “high school” stadium ODU plays in. Does he or anyone really expect many Hokies will be able to actually get tickets to that game?

    Is he going to guarantee a ticket for me? Of course not. And the allocation of tickets to the visiting team is going to about half of what we normally get from the home team.

    1. Well, I’ll say this: The interview as it was lasted almost 40 minutes (which is way more time than any of us ever get one-on-one with anyone else at Virginia Tech). I had a lot I wanted to go over, and the intent wasn’t to grill him for 10-15 minutes on football scheduling alone.

      Although he did talk specifically about Liberty, I think everything he said applies to ODU as well. And it’s interesting that people pick on ODU for having a “high school” stadium, because ODU’s stadium is about the same size as Liberty’s. ODU is going to undergo a renovation that will set capacity at 23,000, while Liberty’s current expansion will set capacity at 25,000 — almost the same.

      1. I place both the Liberty & ODU games in the no go category. There is no way I’d drive 10 hours round trip for either game & I would not waste my time going to their stadium even on the slim chance I could get a ticket because I have a problem with scheduling them. I also don’t care who other schools choose to schedule.
        It sounded like the $375,000 wasn’t a pre-agreed upon cancellation fee. If it wasn’t then we should’ve insisted upon playing Michigan. I know Michigan fans who regret dropping the game as well. What is up with schools wanting to play cupcakes?
        I could tell Whitt wasn’t a numbers guy when he hired Buzz. Most of our fans aren’t numbers people either. They would’ve loved the Buzz hire even if Whitt agreed to give him 2 billion. I’m exaggerating because I don’t know what Buzz is making but my point is they wanted a coach of Buzz’s stature no matter the cost. Nobody seemed to care about the money still going to Greenberg & now JJ. Heck, his stay was so short I’m not even sure that’s his name but we sure paid him well to not coach. I like Whitt but it’s easy to hire good coaches if you are willing to spend money. I just hope we don’t go in the red.
        The Cassell concourse renovation sounds smarter than building an entire new facility.
        Great interview Will.

        1. I suspect both of these games will be filled by Richmond alumni. Easy driving distance for both games, plus no hotel minimum stay. And we get to see the Hokies play!

          1. ODU’s sells out anyway so there won’t be any tickets for VT fans other than the allotment. Unless there’s a dip in Lane Stadium attendance or a drop in season ticket holders, due to scheduling these crapola games, they will persist unfortunately. One per year I could handle but two is to much. Athletes want to play against the best. If teams in the ACC schedule to many cupcakes the ACC will struggle for respect & to convince the best athletes to play in the ACC.

        2. Whit signed Buzz for LESS than he was making at Marquette. I would say that’s a fairly financially astute move on Whit’s part.

          1. Maybe but you have to recall we had just expanded the basketball gym. We were still paying for Greenberg and his staff & now we had to pay off JJ & his staff plus Buzz & his new staff. We also had the Beamer transition looking at us in the face. I think Whitt’s made some great hires but they weren’t cheap.

        3. There will be tickets available. ODU fans are not as passionate and don’t expect to win. Stubhub should be plentiful.

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