Bud Foster patrolled the Virginia Tech sidelines for over three decades. Since 1995, he made a living as a defensive coordinator by frustrating opposing offenses with his calls. Heading into the 2019 campaign, Foster announced his retirement at the conclusion of the season.
It left the question, who would follow in the footsteps of a giant? Come to find out it would be a small-town kid from Clintwood, Virginia. The former Hokie who started his career on offense before becoming a lynchpin in Foster’s defense as a senior at free safety. A coaching career that began at UVA-Wise led to a rapid ascension through the coaching ranks that ended up as Virginia Tech’s defensive coordinator. This is the rise of Justin Hamilton.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Hamilton said during Tuesday’s press conference, his first media appearance since being named defensive coordinator in December. “I’ve had good graces of a lot of good people whether that be coaching me, or I’ve gotten to know through coaching, that have helped me out… You have to have some luck in this business. Those are the facts and I’ve been very fortunate and very lucky.”
Hamilton’s humility shines through as he speaks with an astute and aware tone, displaying the look of someone who knows what he’s talking about. Those early roots in Southwest Virginia crafted Hamilton for the position where he is today. He needed to be the same guy every day, a lesson he learned from Frank Beamer, and one he preaches to his players today.
“I think the best part of that for me was in a small town there’s nowhere to hide, good or bad,” Hamilton said. “If you are successful in doing some things, then you have to maintain humility because if you don’t, those communities tend to turn on those types of people. When I experienced some success, I was raised to be humble and I was raised to be grateful for opportunities and for the other people around. Also, if you make mistakes or if you don’t have things go your way, you have to go out and you have to own it. As a player and as a coach, that’s probably been the most valuable part of that for me.”
After three years as the defensive coordinator at UVA-Wise, Hamilton moved on to VMI where he was a linebackers coach from 2014-2017. It all positioned him for a return to Blacksburg. In 2018, Hamilton was hired by Justin Fuente as director of player development for defense. When safeties coach Ty Nix left for Ole Miss, Hamilton was promoted to the position for the 2019 season.
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In effect, the 2019 season was Hamilton’s job interview. Day after day, Hamilton’s intellect, communication skills, and overall sharpness impressed Fuente and Foster. When it came time to name the next defensive coordinator, the man who was surrendering the crown gave a strong recommendation for Hamilton.
“It’s the biggest honor of my professional life that Bud Foster would recommend me for this job,” Hamilton said. “It’s the No. 1 honor that’s ever been bestowed upon me. I’ll never forget it and I’ll be endeared and endowed to him my whole life.”
Foster was the man who changed Hamilton’s life. The man who saw his potential on the defensive side of the ball. And the man who was there every step of the way for Hamilton in his own coaching journey.
“I would come up to see him and talk ball every year I was in coaching,” Hamilton said. “One day he had an off day and it was he and I in the building. The only two people here, and he took time to answer any questions I had about anything. Just his generosity and being a genuine down to earth man. Those are the things I admire the most about him. He’s a hall of fame coach, but if you walked past him, saw him in Walmart, or saw him in the grocery store, you would never know. That’s who he was. I really have a great amount of respect for that.”
With a new defensive staff in hand, Hamilton and Co. were expected to attack the spring and start to establish a new legacy in Blacksburg, while still honoring the ways of the past. Instead, a national pandemic had other plans, wiping out spring ball and summer conditioning, and leaving the Hokies in a peculiar spot with so much turnover on the coaching staff.
“The most frustrating part of that was that our new coaches didn’t get to blend and jell with their players like they normally would have,” Hamilton said. “That’s probably what frustrated me the most because that is incredibly important. The other part, spring ball in my opinion, is the time that you experiment with ideas that you’ve had as a staff. You also experiment with your roster and see where guys can fit. Two springs ago is when we discovered that Chamarri Conner could be a really good nickel for us. The other thing is that it’s about installing, developing concepts and terminology. That’s critical.”
With no spring ball, Virginia Tech was forced to chalk things up in a different manner. Grad assistant Matt Kardullis coined the term ‘dollar menu’ for the defense that the Hokies were going to run. Sure, they would like to have a full menu on hand to choose from, but considering the circumstances, a dollar menu would have to do.
This was only the beginning of Hamilton’s bumpy ride since taking over as defensive coordinator. A week before the opening of the season against NC State, the Hokies were doing their mock weekend at the hotel, simulating all the meetings and lead-up to the game when Hamilton received the call from his wife Brittany that her water broke. He rushed her to the hospital and gave birth to their third child early in the morning.
Later that night while recovering with his wife, Hamilton saw the Wolfpack offense put up 45 points against Wake Forest and move the ball at will.
“I’m thinking, ‘What have we gotten ourselves into?’” Hamilton said.
This was only the beginning, though. Next weekend, Hamilton slept in the team hotel on Friday and awoke to the stunning news. He had tested positive for COVID-19 and would be unable to coach Virginia Tech’s opener.
Instead, he was forced to watch on the ACC Network like the rest of the general population and root his players on from isolation. A brutal experience finished with a happy ending when the Hokies stomped NC State and connected with Hamilton postgame.
“It was miserable,” Hamilton said. “I’m excited for our coaches and players, but I’m at home after all that we did to get to that point. It just felt surreal, but it felt really good at the same time. When they FaceTimed me into the locker room after that game, it was as excited as I’ve been. I’m totally by myself and I’m yelling and screaming through FaceTime. They probably think I’m crazy. I was that excited for our guys and just thinking about all they had experienced, what all they battled through, it was awesome.
“That was an awesome win. I was as proud of that win as I’ve been any in my career for the way our kids and coaches stepped up in that situation.”
Hamilton was in quarantine for the next week as well and spent day after day on Zoom calls with players and coaches. Even in the lead-up to the opener, it was constant communication to try to sort things out and figure out what grad assistants and directors of player personnel would be on the field as position coaches, since Hamilton wasn’t the only coach who would be unavailable. Gameplans were being developed, and on a minute’s notice they had to be altered when a player had tested positive or been flagged for contact tracing.
“It was probably the most useless I’ve ever felt,” Hamilton said. “I’m conducting meetings. I’m with the players, but there’s someone who’s running the film – rewinding, playing, pausing while I’m trying to commentate over Zoom about it. Same thing with the unit meetings. At home with a week-old son and two other children, I’m isolated to where they can’t be around me. They can’t be in the bedroom. I’m of no use to them and felt like I was no use to the football team. It was a tough time. It was very challenging.
“It’s the most challenging experience of my professional life. That’s as a player or as a coach. My wife got me a FitBit back for one of my birthdays or anniversary and my sleep score during that time was like 40’s.”
That hellscape was finally wiped clean and Hamilton could return to coaching in person. The only problem? He would be facing a top North Carolina offense loaded with weapons while his own defensive unit was severely depleted.
“The unfortunate thing about that week is we really didn’t know during the week who we were going to have and not have,” Hamilton said. “When we finally find out on Friday and Saturday, during the week you try to put guys in positions where they can do things you think they can do. A guy either isn’t available, or a guy is available and has to do something else. Then, Chamarri Conner gets ejected. At that time, one of the hottest teams in the country we were playing against, it was difficult.”
It left Hamilton in a precarious situation throughout, and his debut left a lot to be desired. The Hokies surrendered 656 total yards, including 399 rushing yards in a 56-45 loss to the Tar Heels. Not exactly the way a new defensive coordinator wants to begin his stint, but Hamilton remained true to himself and the lessons he learned to get to that point.
“I looked at it as you’ve got to own it and after the fact, we took our lumps,” Hamilton said. “I took it as an opportunity to be a standup guy and to get in front of our team and to get in front of whoever I needed to get in front of and say, ‘This is what happened. Here’s how we’re going to correct it.’ We got to go do that. With our coaches and our players, I was really proud of the way we responded next week against BC.”
That Boston College game was a redemptive moment for the Hokies’ defense. They forced five turnovers in the game and helped Hamilton capture his first victory on the sidelines as defensive coordinator.
Few, if any, defensive coordinators have had to face what Justin Hamilton has encountered over the past eight months, much less one who is in his first coordinator position at the Power Five level. It’s remarkable the work that he has been able to accomplish with all the odds stacked against him.
“I think he’s been put in an incredibly difficult circumstance,” Fuente said. “He’s done a fantastic job managing it between all of the things that you already know. I see how he communicates, I see how he teaches, and I see how he manages both adults and young people. I just think he’s fantastic at it. Everybody always wants to talk about the X’s and O’s and there’s a portion of those that is important, but it’s about so much more than that. It’s about what your players can do, how you hide your weaknesses while capitalizing on your strengths, how can you get guys to play better than they actually are. I’m seeing those things on a daily basis over there.”
Foster sends Hamilton ‘good luck’ texts before most of the game and the legend’s wisdom sticks with him during this chaotic endeavor. There’s the temptation to focus on the opponent and what they bring to the table, but Hamilton is holding firm to the advice from Foster that says the focus needs to be on his program and players and what they can do and accomplish.
Maybe along the way, Hamilton will reflect and focus on himself as well. Until then, he’s still the humble, intuitive rising star in the profession who is making his own mark from the Virginia Tech defensive coordinator post every day.
“I try to look at it as right now we try to put our head down and try to go get the next day and the next opponent,” Hamilton said. “I hope in five or ten years, I’ll look back and say that I really grew and developed as a human being during this time.”