Virginia Tech announced its $400 million Reach For Excellence fundraising campaign Tuesday morning for the athletic department. After running through some specifics of the campaign, president Timothy Sands, Whit Babcock, and Justin Fuente answered questions from the media in attendance on Zoom.
The Reach For Excellence campaign is a part of the larger Boundless Impact campaign at the university as a whole that was launched publicly in October 2019. Virginia Tech was planning to roll out the athletics portion last year during the spring game before COVID-19 had other plans. The time has now come for the ambitious campaign to spark and energize Hokie Nation.
“As far as the campaign number, $400 million is pretty aggressive,” Babcock said. “It’s going to take a lot of work and a few years to get there. We felt like it was bold and we don’t need to take a backseat to anybody. When Hokies put their mind to things, we can do great stuff. We feel like it will be impactful to football, all of our sports, and help us keep this momentum going.”
Cassell Coliseum Renovations
One of the bigger announcements within the initiative is the major renovations planned for Cassell Coliseum where $50 million will be raised privately. Renderings that Virginia Tech produced displayed an updated look on the inside and outside of Cassell, which was opened in 1962. There appeared to be a number of new amenities inside, including suite seating.
“We would want to keep the capacity as close to 9,000 as we could,” Babcock said. “We will lose a little bit. It is, again, loud, it is uniquely Virginia Tech. We just want to spruce it up a little bit, generate some revenue, some point of sale, and give people club seating options and other things. It will still have a great student section and we are going to be really proud of it. But hopefully, you can see the videos and pictures and we can roll that out as our fundraising progresses.”
The time is now for Cassell to get its long awaited renovations. So what’s the timeline for a project like this? And could the Hokies basketball team and other sports that play inside Cassell potentially be displaced to a new location while the upgrades take place?
“Ideally not,” Babcock said. “We have met with our designers about possibly phasing it in. We would like to keep our team here in play. The timetable on that will go as quickly as the funding will come in. We believe we have some people that are interested in that. It will take gifts of all levels. It will go a whole lot faster with the success of this campaign. We wanted to share it broadly and let people see what it would look like and start to get this thing going. I would be very disappointed if it’s not done in four to five years at the very latest.
“We can accomplish multiple things with this [Cassell] campaign. It houses four of our sports. Everyone uses it. We can make it more comfortable. It is the best home court advantage in the ACC. Teams do not like to come play here, so we need to make it uniquely Cassell, but modernize it. We have no interest in making a new one. That old building is a signature part of Virginia Tech, so let’s pay it forward and make it right for the next 50 or 60.”
Football Space Upgrades and Improvements
Facilities have long been a buzzword within college athletics and especially in college football, showcasing how a team will struggle to compete at the top level without top facilities. Virginia Tech is starting to take a step in the right direction with the recent addition of the Student-Athlete Performance Center and the upgrade to the Merryman Center weight room.
One of the newer renovations that will soon be completed is the players’ lounge. The space can be used for team gatherings, recruiting and other items of that nature.
“In general, we were looking at the players’ lounge project because we feel like we can complete it in July and not disrupt football,” Babcock said. “Once you get into football, and again we will be in a fundraising component, but you don’t want to disrupt the locker room/training room during that time, so you try and fit in strategically when you can have the least disruption.”
Beyond that, Virginia Tech intends to build in more space for recruiting and staffing offices.
“We have good space, it’s just how can we utilize it? What can we turn into that,” Babcock said. “We’ve been very strategic with that. Justin and I talk about it often. We will make sure they have what they need. Right now it is not planned as new construction. At the same time, if you look at the investment we’ve made, when people say we have a football facility and they simply look at the Merryman Center, which is fabulous, they’re not including the square footage in Jamerson and Cassell on down the line.
“We’re really pleased with it. It just has old bones and we’re looking to put people and move them. Football will not be shortchanged.”
Peer Data Comparison
Over the last few years, Virginia Tech has been scouring through peer data on other universities to see where it is falling short and missing the mark. One of those key areas has been in the area of staffing, where the programs consistently making noise in college football have a plethora of assistants, quality control personnel, recruiting staff, and more.
Recently, the Hokies have made headway in this area and don’t intend to stop anytime soon with this campaign.
“We are aware of the numbers,” Babcock said. “Football programs count numbers a lot of different ways. You may have unpaid people, which are great, you may have data crunchers, quality control coaches, so trying to pin other competitive schools down with what the number is. We were behind and this year we did not wait for the COVID year to get started. We have added eight new positions in football in that area. We won’t add just to add, but we will add strategically. We know what those roles are. Coach and I meet every week. We’ve been looking at this for a long time. Just wanted to share it more broadly today so our fans knew what we were doing.”
Fuente sees the benefit in these positions beyond just people who help on the football field. He sees a more holistic approach as beneficial in student-athlete development. Fuente cited Samantha Stewart, Assistant Athletics Director of Player Engagement for Football, as a key cog in the big picture for Virginia Tech football with the way she coordinates programs to enhance the personal growth and development of football players.
“I think we had a pretty good handle on the market and what the numbers would be at particular places,” Fuente said. “I’ve been really interested in the student-development part of it.
“I think that’s a part that we have a chance for great potential growth here in terms of it’s not necessarily academics, it’s not football, but it’s everything in between, from community service to real world development. I’m excited about the direction that we’re going to go grow that part of it just as much as I am about our ability to expand recruiting and quality control.”
COVID-19 was disastrous from a budgeting standpoint across the nation for athletic departments. The inability to sell tickets for sporting events and have fans in town created a major shortfall in the budget. Babcock shared what those expected losses will be for fiscal year 2021.
“There was around $47 million we could not collect, so to speak,” Babcock said. “Through budget cuts, through pay cuts of our staff which I’m so grateful to them for making that sacrifice and not traveling, cutting it down, we feel like we can get it down to approximately $15 million for the year, hopefully less. The last month and a half will shake out. I believe those numbers are reported as we get into the fall. $15 [million] is a good approximation. All things considered, we’re satisfied with that and we’ll keep working to whittle it down further.”
The athletic department will keep exploring COVID relief funds and work with the university to pay off that excess amount.
The Reach For Excellence campaign also shared the goal of getting the operational budget into the top third of the ACC to join the likes of Clemson, Notre Dame, Florida State, and Louisville. For as long as one can remember, Virginia Tech has been middle-to-bottom of the pack in its operational budget.
With it comes some inherent disadvantages that those in power have had to creatively overcome. If Hokie Nation could band together and reach the goal through the campaign, Virginia Tech would set itself up for success.
“Our budget was, is, and has long been between eighth and 10th in the ACC,” Babcock said. “And we overachieve and we finish where we do, which is higher than that. Just imagine if we can get our budget — I am for going to the top — but if we can get it to the third, and we overachieve from there, we can win. You just want to have the resources to be competitive. We don’t mind still using that hard hat, lunch pail, doing some of that. But if you are fighting from the bottom half of the ACC and the bottom half of the Power 5, you are really relying on overachieving.
“So, this is our vision, this is where we are going. And again we keep reiterating, we can’t do it alone and we are hoping Hokies will step up and help us do this thing.”