Transcript of Whit Babcock’s TSL Podcast Appearance

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Whit Babcock Virginia Tech
(Ivan Morozov)

Virginia Tech Director of Athletics Whit Babcock appeared on the Tech Sideline podcast Wednesday, and he spoke on a variety of subjects: facilities, finances, the future of the football program, and more. We’ve never provided a transcript of our podcasts, but we felt that this podcast was important enough to provide one, for those who don’t like the audio format. We also want to provide a format that search engines can crawl and archive.

Many thanks to Cory Van Dyke and Jake Lyman for their rapid transcription of the podcast. Here’s the audio of the podcast, and the transcription follows.

On how he personally is doing during the pandemic…

I appreciate you asking. I’m no different than our employees and you and people listening as well. You try to put one foot in front of the other. Some days are better than others. It’s been a strain mental-health wise. You have to be able to stay sharp there. Physical exercise helps, but it has certainly been a challenge. It’s been very challenging, but there have been many blessings in there as well. You’re kind to say that, but I don’t know that my pressures are all that different from anyone else’s. A lot more mental stress and some more free times in the evenings just with some time to think about things; that can be good and bad.

On the major facilities projects…

It is nice to see some of the seeds planting and visions planted a few years ago come to fruition. The Student-Athlete Performance Center or what used to be called the Bowman Room should be fully finished within a month. It was a little delayed for a few months, but nothing significant. We’re really thrilled with that and it will benefit all of our sports. People will see it on basketball gamedays. We tripled the space and made a signature piece. We’re really proud of that.

In the Merryman Center, as you’ve seen, there was an expansion and addition of team meeting rooms, an expansion and renovation of the weight room. What that will have done, and we’re really proud of this …  we don’t have just one stand-alone football facility. It kind of drifts between all of Merryman and most of Jamerson and a little bit of Cassell. Now, within the last five years, we will have renovated or expanded every square foot of it. We take a lot of pride in that one being finished. That will also be completed within the next month.

The residence hall is a year away, so that will be the class of 2021. We feel like that will be a game-changer as well on the recruiting front and how we take care of our young people. That’s coming along.

Cassell Coliseum will probably be the next big project that we do. We have a comprehensive capital campaign that we were going to announce in April in conjunction with the spring game, but obviously that got pushed back. We always want to be accomplishing things and working towards the future. When I first got here, it seemed that a little finishing touch to the facilities part was where we needed to go. Now, in football specifically, we will move towards infrastructure and recruiting. That’s a broad-based idea of it. We’re not going to have gold-plated locker rooms or anything like that, but we have stuff that will make us proud and allow us to compete with anyone in the country.

On financing of the Student Athlete Performance Center…

It was, like most things, a little bit over cost, but we did have one gift of around $16.5 million and another seven-figure gift, as well. The final price was just over $20 million. We have a little bit to take care of, but pretty minimal compared to the facility we have, and we could pay cash for it.

On financing of the Merryman Renovations…

This last round was $6 million dollars and all of that has been raised. We have a million to go to pay for the new weights. We can still use the other ones; they weigh the same, but when you deck it out and do it nice, you want to go all out. We feel like we have a way to cover that last piece by the end of the year and that should complete that in total of fundraising as well. We tend to take some short-term internal loans when some of the pledges are paid off, but in these cases with the Student-Athlete Performance Center and Merryman, most of the cash is in hand. That’s a great way to do it when we can.

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On the new dorms being built…

Student-athletes will take up about one-third of the residence hall. It will be all of our freshmen student athletes. It could be some transfers if they’re living on campus, but all of our freshmen in all of our sports. The other students that are in there were also highly recruited. It’s a group called ‘Innovate’ and ‘Studio 72.’ It’s entrepreneurship and creative and it ought to be a heck of a melting pot of some really talented young people. Those groups of students, for a lack of a better term, spent a lot of good money on the rooms and a lot of good money on studio space. We focused more on the rooms and individual small bedrooms for each student-athlete. We patterned them off of Auburn and Alabama football and feel like they’re better than those. Not that it’s an arms race in that way, but if we’re going to house them and have them a quarter mile from our facility, we thought this was a good differentiator for us.

On what the financial impact of COVID-19 will be to the athletic department…

The fiscal year ends June 30th, so our focus will become more sharp or clear then. Essentially, we will be down between $45 million and $50 million in revenue. We have made cuts, saving and other things to whittle that down to $30 million. Hopefully, we can do some other things to get it down to $20 million which is still a huge, huge number.

All things considered, I’m really proud of how our group has rallied around that and been able to generate some revenue to offset it. It will be a challenge for us and every other athletic department in the country. I think that’s the new competition ground on how each campus will deal with the deficits. Do you get some campus help? Do you finance it? Do you fundraise it? It’s kind of like we’re all at a pitstop and all of our cars are beat to heck. Who can get it put back together and out of the pits? We plan on that being a spot for us to gain some ground.

On plans to deal with the shortfall…

We will be meeting with the president on campus and some other folks later this fall and have an answer and a plan for all of that. Hopefully, there’s some ways that the university can assist. Hopefully, there could be some low-interest loans we could do or some refinancing projects. We do have a reserve. Most of that by state law is locked up to be a backstop for our loan payments on the stadium, but I believe the west side of the stadium rolls off of our debt service in 2028. That will be nice when all of that is free and clear, but all of that ties together and is an ongoing conversation. The university is great. Even if they don’t do anything, they already have too, I’m grateful for their support. We’ll find a good middle ground and something that is justifiable.

Hokie fans have essentially been shut out of attending football games this fall. (Jon Fleming)

On replacing lost money from ticket sales…

I really commend our external team, our marketing team and Hokie Club for all of the ways they’ve been able to keep people involved. Our donor numbers will be going up and we expect to cross 20,000 members in the Drive for 25 this March. They’ve been outstanding. Every dollar that they raise is one less that we have to figure out. It’s probably in the neighborhood of a million dollars that they’ve created and generated. We’ve had some ticketholders and donors retain their money as a gift or roll it forward. When all of that shakes out, hopefully we’ll be in the higher seven-figures there and try to offset it.

When you can’t have fans in the stadium, you can’t have suites, you can’t have parking, that really takes a toll on your revenue. We are about 90% self-sufficient. Campus helps us to the tune of around $10 million through fees and other things. The money that we generate has really taken a hit this year. We expect it to be better. We’ll operate leaner, but this could be a three- or four-year cycle before everything comes back. It’ll be a challenge, but an opportunity too.

On not being able to raise student athletic fees significantly…

It’s my understanding that they can’t go up more than 3% in total. Certainly, the university has plenty of mouths to feed on the fee structure. I’m really grateful for what we have. You want to look at every opportunity you may have, but you don’t want to put too much on the backs of your students. We will look, and already have, under every rock. It’s helped us be creative and reach our audience from virtual 5k’s to selling virtual tickets to a virtual game in a virtual stadium. I never thought I’d see that. If we can get through it, and we’re planning on it, it should make us more well-rounded.

On making a special appeal to higher-level donors to help…

We have raised some good money. I’m very impressed with this. Just to talk in generalities, about 15-20 donors have committed a total of $12 million over the next five years to help us support football infrastructure and on down the line. That is not to offset the operating costs. Sometimes, when you can raise money for one-time expenses, that’s nice. It’s hard to raise money just to turn the lights on and have the operating budget and it’s year after year after year.

We have called on some of our best and most loyal and tried to help out with football. We’re going to protect all of our sports, but if nothing else, it’s definitely shown the public the fan importance and the financial importance of football to protect all 22 sports. I’m very pleased with the fundraising. It’s been very private and quiet, but we’ve had a lot of people really step up and I’m really grateful for what the future holds there.

On fans being allowed at games sometime this season…

I don’t know, is the answer. As of now, we could have 1,000 fans in Lane Stadium and 1,000 fans in Cassell Coliseum and 1,000 fans at English Field at Atlantic Union Bank Park. That one is above my administrative grade. I know that the president and other people are working on that, but certainly the governor calls those shots and is doing what he thinks is best for public health. Hopefully, with a couple weeks off and some November games coming up, there’s some wiggle room there. I don’t know, there’s no deadline. I’m hopeful, but that’s not something I have my hopes too high about.

Right now, we could have 1,000 in Cassell and we’re working on how to do that safely. For our winter sports, men’s basketball, wrestling and women’s basketball are the three most high contact from a potential for spreading the virus. So, we’re testing especially for wrestling and both men’s and women’s basketball will be another struggle. We’re planning to play and do it with as many fans as we can.

(Ivan Morozov)

On the basketball schedule and non-conference vs. conference only…

I’m not quite sure all that is public yet. I would just put it in the high 20’s, mid 20’s on number of games with most of those being ACC competition yet with some non-conference. We’ve had to go back and adjust some of our contracts and game guarantees. Won’t quite be the quantity of games, maybe a 10 percent, 15 percent drop and most of them will be ACC. Probably look a lot like football, but with some non-conference in there as well.

On if Virginia Tech and Virginia petitioned the governor for more fans in stands…

I don’t believe that is accurate, at least the word petitioning, through the right channels. There’s also a committee of all outdoor venues in Virginia that works with the governor. I believe there’s 187 different venues from Busch Gardens to Lane Stadium, etc. and all of them are under the same mandates so to speak. That one will be worked out at some higher levels than I can certainly control. But the president’s been great, everybody wants to do what we can responsibly. Ideally let some students in there. The revenue is so far gone, it’s not a revenue play. Just a chance to get some people back and take three or four hours off from real life a little bit. 

On making new hires (Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, Corey Fuller, Alex  Smith) in midst of pandemic…

Really it’s being funded through that $12 million over five years that I referenced earlier. What we’re doing to be responsible is to save or sock away either two or three years of a position’s salary benefit, everything, have that in hand before we create a position. We were a little light on the recruiting staff. When Coach Fuente first came here and we addressed what the needs were then, the last year or two I believe it’s been a realization more of the digital age of recruiting, not that we didn’t know that, but it’s on steroids now and we needed to do that.

It’s just a way to try to undergird football. It’s not exuberant spending. Most of those jobs are pretty entry-to-mid level, but we need some boots on the ground. We will have another hire in that infrastructure area coming out announced in early November. A young lady for our student-athlete development in football, recruiting, on campus visits, things such as that. We do realize the sensitivity to it.

We will also be undergoing some pay cuts, other things that will be more public as we turn toward January. We know if we’re going to ask donors to give and other things, we need skin in the game. A lot of that has been private in giving. It’ll be a more structured and more public and more formal as we turn the year there. It’s a lot of heavy decisions, but we feel like investing in football responsibly with money in hand is justifiable.

On furloughs and pay cuts and if that information will be made public…

I believe it will. Our staff, we talked about this coming. Obviously, I’d rather give them the details before I give Tech Sideline all the details. We will, yes, be public with that. Then when you see pay cuts and furloughs and things, some people do them for six months, some people do them for eight months. I would anticipate ours being longer than that. Some people do it off of base pay. There’s a lot of ways to do it.

I don’t believe there’s anybody in the country that can cut their way from a payroll standpoint to really make up — in other words, if we just paid everyone what we had in staff and paid the scholarship bill, that would be approximately $51 million a year just before you even start up with anything else. I do believe it shows good faith. It puts skin in the game. It’s team sacrifice when we’re asking our fans to sacrifice. Yes, that’s a long way to say it will be more public, and more to come on that when our staff is fully aware.

I don’t know that this is rock solid, but it’s something I’ve always used. Each place I’ve been typically your payroll needs to be under 38 or 36 percent. I don’t think if it got towards 40 you’re really out there. That’s just a guide we’ve tended to use. Maybe that helps it for the fans who try to understand what we can do, why we can’t do some things, etc.

On plans with Justin Fuente for football program’s future needs…

Justin and I visit really anytime we need to, but certainly at the end of each year. How did it go, what can we do better, what do we need to work on? The Baylor situation you referenced, not to go back on that, Justin briefly looked at it, was good to me, no issues there. I believe it did open his eyes a little bit to the resources and recruiting infrastructure. Then, we started doing some peer comparisons and found that to be true.

What we’ve done for the donors who gave significantly to football, we laid out a PowerPoint of where we want to go, where the money would be spent, how it’s important. Essentially, Justin wants to have the best player development program in the country. That doesn’t mean we won’t recruit elite, but we’ve done pretty darn good here in getting really good players and making them great. Really impressed with his vision combined with ours. We presented that to that smaller group of more influential donors.

That will also become public. It’s not a secret. It just will become public more when we roll out the next capital campaign. Again, it would have the Coliseum, it would have a lot of football endowments, Hokie Club, all sports. We did not have time to wait on fundraising for football, so we laid that plan out. We’re fortunate those people stepped up in a really big way.

Justin Fuente does a pre-game interview with Eric Wood of the ACC Network prior to the Hokies game against Furman in 2019. (Ivan Morozov)

On ACC Network revenues and how it compares to pre-COVID expectations…

I have no idea what the ad rates are, but I’m usually watching the game live and see some of the tweets, so I have no idea on that. In general, what was projected to come in from the network actually came in very high, six figures above what was budgeted, so we were pleased with that.

The big ABC/Disney negotiations with Comcast coming up later in ‘21 would be big for us. I know you’ve commented on it, I’ve tweeted about it, I know business is business, but it is frustrating to me and Carla [Williams] at UVA as well when 40 percent of your state can’t get the games through Comcast, but yet the SEC Network and Big Ten Network is on there. So in a way, our state paying dollars to the cable company are going to conferences and schools out of state. I don’t love the way that sits. I can’t change it, but I’m confident ABC, Disney and those two goliaths can come together. If and when that happens, hopefully it will, I think the network is off and running and will exponentially produce a new revenue stream. We will use what we made this year to start paying off the studio and some other things. I don’t know that it’s real money in our pockets so to speak for probably another three or four years. It is nice to be able to project on that.

Actually very pleased with the numbers and that they exceeded their projections. That’s always good. That’s going better than most people think, it’s just hard to tell in the state of Virginia sometimes.

On North Carolina scholarship laws where they just have to pay in-state tuition for student-athletes, and if that could happen in Virginia someday…

It is certainly on the list of things under consideration. It’s my understanding I believe that it could be done. We were able to do that when I was at Cincinnati. There’s lots of ways universities can help. That would be a big one. It certainly makes it easier with your gender equity numbers. I hope that comes to fruition. It would be a great thing to do, but every dollar that we don’t pay in scholarship is one less that campus is going to get for academic units.

We will look at it and explore it and present that along with a lot of other things. Hopefully, we can get there. That would be a nice long-term help, and as recruiting in all of our sports has gone more out of state than in state, it would be a game changer for us. Hopefully so, but certainly I think the world of our administration. Not ever going to criticize them. They’ve been great to me. That would be a good one. I like that one. 

On if he’s thought of cutting sports…

No, there is no discussion about cutting sports. I don’t believe in that. The student-athlete experience, we have 22 sports, right in the middle of the ACC. To some people who really don’t know how it works, that’s sometimes a flippant remark. “We’ll just do that.” Well, oftentimes the money is not that significant. When you see the student athletes, the coaches, the fans. That’s a pretty painful thing to go through. 

Yes, I have certainly followed what’s going on at William & Mary. That’s a sad situation. Obviously, I don’t know all the facts and you know what’s in the news is sometimes accurate and sometimes not. I just feel for the A.D., I feel for the sports. It seems like they’re in a lot of dysfunction right now and it’s certainly hard to move forward when you have that going on. I’ve seen it through the eyes of my son there, too [Whit’s son plays football for W&M], knowing some of those student-athletes. Hopefully, they can get back on track. I’ve really grown to like Mike London and the way he coaches and what he’s doing over there. I do root for them. Can’t wait for them to play. They’re going to try to get in some games this spring. Really anxious to do that and maybe tailgate a little bit and watch those. 

On what Hokie fans can do to help…

Giving is always the first answer. Maybe fans want to hear that and maybe they don’t. Giving to the Hokie Club, to the scholarships, to just saying, ‘Hey, we’re in it with you.’ Some people may not think their $50 or $100 makes a difference, but there is strength in numbers. Again, this Drive for 25 that people kind of laughed at when we were at 9,000 donors is up to 20,000. Hokie Nation is strong together. If they’re able to give, all I can promise is we’re going to do our best to make you proud with how we spend it and represent Virginia Tech.

Other than that, I guess I would say be positive. Not blindly positive, we know we’re not above criticism in the public arena, but the whole world has gone mad. Everybody is screaming at everybody else. Sports is a unifying thing and we’re a lot better when we’re not bitter at each other. So far it seems like Hokie Nation has hung in there together. I would say be positive, hopefully have faith in what we’re doing, and if they’re able to give, do that. That’s what would come to mind and love them for it.

Many thanks to Whit Babcock for taking the time out for this interview.

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22 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Whit is a great AD. It infuriates me when the negative nellies get on Twitter and want to fire Whit and Fuente. We are lucky to have both of them. VT Athletics is in good hands.

  2. Wonder how many more VT fans in Virginia would donate if they had access to the ACC network? I’ve been able to watch more Liberty games (not that I did) than VT games and I live in Lexington.

  3. This comment cleared up some questions about where CJF’s head is at around recruiting. This first sentence specifically: “Justin wants to have the best player development program in the country. That doesn’t mean we won’t recruit elite, but we’ve done pretty darn good here in getting really good players and making them great.”

    1. This is what really stood out to me as well. I don’t know if it’s the right approach or not. But if CJF believes it’s unrealistic to out recruit the big guys then player development is where we have to be great. There are plenty of examples where this strategy had worked. Boise State in the early 2000s as an example.

  4. Thanks so very much for transcribing his comments. I am a reader and not a podcast listener. Well done. Babcock comes across as a terrific AD.

    1. Completely agree. The only thing I would ask is to transcribe the questions, as well. I listened to the first 5 minutes or so during lunch the other day and Will’s questions frame the answer Whit gives. Knowing the context of the answer is important, IMO.

  5. Most likely fewer than 1000 will be able to be in Cassell if they cannot be safely spaced. I get what you’re saying about Lane. Gates would need to be entered and exited through on an appointment basis to keep the congestion down. That would mean people might have to stay until the game ends.

  6. Good job guys, especially for having your facts straight, one way to never have the interview again would be to wildly off on those kinds of things, but you knew that and did your research. And an appreciation to Whit who answered the questions directly although in a circumspect way so as not to leave any soundbites out there. I will guess he wasn’t surprised by the questions – well, maybe the NC law to allow instate tuition question – but probably made a mental note that these guys are up to date on goings on. Yeah, that NC state one, he kinda changed courses mid sentence on that one, first pointing out that was a zero sum game for VT in general, then “well, we work with the admin on those things” to “yeah, that would be great for the athletics department” That’s why he has the job, be smooth while thinking fast.

  7. Does speech-recognition software create the transcript? Or does an individual have to translate it?
    Just wondering how that works. On another note, a big thank you to the “15 to 20 donors” who have stepped up with some really nice donations.

    1. From the second paragraph: “Many thanks to Cory Van Dyke and Jake Lyman for their rapid transcription of the podcast.”

      Done by hoomans. You can get it done by a service that uses speech recognition, but there’s so much clean up to be done afterwards that it’s not really worth it.

  8. When politics are on the table, check ya brain at the door. I applaud the job Whit & staff and coaches and VT are doing to keep things going forward! GO HOKIES

    1. Yes, we all are pulling our hair out over political decisions, can you imagine how frustrating it is for Whit and the others. Mighty glad it’s them and not me.

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