Justin Fuente will never be pegged as an extrovert with an outgoing personality. Some coaches have that personality and some don’t, but it’s not a prerequisite for winning football games.
Over his time at Virginia Tech, Fuente has been fair with the media for the most part. Yes, he keeps a lot of information close to the vest and uses coach speak, but more than likely he’ll answer nearly every question with the same demeanor and tone. That changed on Saturday following the Hokies’ 47-14 beatdown at the hands of Pittsburgh.
When asked about potentially taking over as the play caller following the bye week, Fuente was terse, unleashing the lines “ludicrous crap” and “next question” that is typically reserved for someone who is feeling the pressure.
Fuente returned to face the media on Monday and was more in line with his usual self, reverting back to his reflective and cool tone. How did he respond today when asked about the fanbase’s frustrations with the direction of the program?
“I can’t control the perception of other people,” Fuente said. “What I can do is do the best job I can do for our players. Our staff is working diligently. Our players are working incredibly hard.
“It is nice to coach at a place that values football. There’s a lot that comes with that, right? I understand that and I get it. I’m not going to let that influence the direction or what we’re doing. I’m sure it’s out there. I haven’t listened to one thing. I don’t know anything. I’m sure it’s there. That’s part of coaching at a place that values football. I get that. Nobody is happy with the record. Nobody likes what we’re doing. And nobody is more invested in what we’re doing than I am, our staff and our players.”
It’s evident Fuente has a sense of the negativity surrounding the program right now. He might not read or listen to the articles and podcasts out there recapping all the issues going on with the Hokies, but he’s certainly aware. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that one out.
So what has Fuente learned along the way through this challenging season?
“I think it proves practice is important,” Fuente said. “I think it does prove that. The offseason is important. It highlights that some of the things, many of the things, that football programs across the country do are for the actual safety and betterment of the players. As far as when we get to the end of it, we’ll take a great look at how we tried to practice, how we tried to adapt to it, what we did meeting wise and schematically. Some of it we’ll hopefully throw away and never use again. Hopefully some good will come out of how we do it.”
That practice was disrupted from the get-go with no spring ball and an abbreviated fall camp. Combined with nine straight weeks of games, a schedule that no other team in the country has had to endure, the wheels have simply fallen off for Virginia Tech. Whether it’s an excuse or a valid concern, Fuente has continually pointed out that there’s no deep-rooted issue, but instead it’s a byproduct of 2020.
“I just think when you’re kind of in the middle of it all and you see what people are having to do, young people,” Fuente said. “Again, the people who touch our program, the lengths they’re having to go through, the precautions they’re having to take. The way that we’re asking them to live their lives. The stress of not knowing whether you’re going to get to play or the guy next to you is going to be able to play. Combined with all the other things that have been going on over the last nine months in our country, you can’t help but be a little more understanding of what we’re in.
“The key for them to remember is if you can bear down through all of this, you have to know that you’ll come out on the other side stronger and better than before. That has to be one of your reasons for continuing to battle through this, is the long-term gain you’re going to get.”
Fuente was also introspective on Monday, seeing how his own experience with his daughters at home has given him a clearer picture of what his players are encountering on a daily basis.
“I think seeing my own kids has given me even more insight into how [COVID and the circumstances surrounding it] affected the young people,” Fuente said. “I’m not talking about playing football, I’m talking about all the other stuff. I think it’s affected them in a negative way. It’s been very, very difficult. I think the younger kids, I think watching my own kids, have given me a greater appreciation for the difficulty that our players are going through.”
With a team that’s reeling and no longer has much at stake for the rest of the season besides pride and the rivalry against Virginia, it could be very easy to lose the locker room. How does a coach continue to motivate players in times like these? At least in the short term, there have been no more deflections or opt-outs.
“I haven’t had any conversations in the last week,” Fuente said. “We’ve had those conversations with a few guys. The first question is whether this is COVID-related or playing time related. We’re making sure that if it is COVID-related that we do a great job of addressing their concerns and talking with family members if it is that. We’ve all been in this thing for a while now, so we’re trying to diagnose it and have those conversations when they come up.”
Now, in a year filled with uncertainty, the greatest piece of uncertainty left on the minds of Virginia Tech fans everywhere is Fuente’s future in Blacksburg.
“[Whit Babock and I] talk every Wednesday,” Fuente said. “I think everybody understands what we’re all dealing with. It’s pretty evident every single day. Being actually on the ground floor probably even highlights it even more. I think everybody understands what this is like. You can imagine what the administration is dealing with, right? We all have our own deals. Some of them are financially, some of them are players being available with COVID testing, how to meet, how to eat dinner, so on and so forth. I think we all have a pretty good understanding of what this is like.”