Full Transcript: Whit Babcock’s Press Conference On Parting Ways With Justin Fuente

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(Jon Fleming)

This is a full transcript from Virginia Tech Director of Athletics Whit Babcock’s press conference on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021 announcing the university had mutually parted ways with head football coach Justin Fuente. Thanks to Aaron McFarling, Andy Bitter, Mike Niziolek and David Teel, who all helped compile this 40-minute transcript.

Opening Statement

Thanks for being here. It’s nice to be able to talk to the media and then our fan base as well. It’s been a while since we’ve talked. I just have a few opening remarks, and then certainly want to take your questions. I want to begin by certainly thanking Justin Fuente for his six years here. We greatly appreciate his efforts, the way he focused on his family, focused on doing things the right way, and simply how hard he and his staff worked to try and make us better.

He was a coach of the year, he has great records against our rivals and on senior day, and he will land on his feet and we wish him well. We made this change in leadership most simply because we did not have the level of consistency, nor the full development of a true team identity. I want to empathize with our fans, donors and alumni. You guys show up and show out, and we want to match your level of excellence on the field.

Everyone in our department, including me, is 100% committed to getting this back to the level we expect and exceeding levels we’ve already achieved in the past. We expect that at Virginia Tech. This is my school, too. I care very deeply about it, and it means a lot. That hasn’t changed since day 1.

I want to thank and recognize our players, our students at Virginia Tech who play football at the highest level. They’ve been through a tremendous amount the past two years. We’ve worked to keep our focus on them and made decisions that we felt were/are in their best interest. I have a son going through their daily life of his own at another school, and the way I communicated with them this morning was as if they are my own. They are, after all, someone’s sons and they are loved.

I ask them, our coaches and the remaining staff to overcome adversity once again, to finish off the season right, to rally around the interim staff and do it for one another and do it for Virginia Tech, and we also have amazing people to help them during these difficult times.

A little bit on timing so you know how we got to this point. Justin and I meet every Wednesday. We have for a long time. We met last week. It was at a point in time that I could not tell him with certainty that he would continue to be the coach here. I said I was strongly considering it. And then at that point, when he realized he would likely not be the next coach, he wanted to move on, and I respect that opinion.

Yesterday, we mutually agreed. That’s why the timing was this morning. The team meeting was at 7:30 [a.m.]. We certainly wanted to hear them first. You will hear about the buyout number in due time, but it was compromised in the middle at $8.75 million. Justin and I met again at 6:30 this morning, and then I met with J.C. Price at 6:45, our team at 7:30. Justin went first, and then me. And then they went off to position meetings and practice.

J.C. Price is our interim head coach. I made that decision, we made that decision. We think he’s the right man for that position. This is his school. It also enabled us, we felt, to let our coordinators still focus on calling plays and giving our kids the best chance to win these last two games. Our other assistants and support staff, I will visit them later today. Changes like this often change many lives. We will also be visiting soon with committed recruits.

A couple more things. We do believe and know that we have a tremendous job to offer to the next coach. We have a tradition of high-level success, and we’ve got to get that back and exceed it. Our goals and expectations here are to win the division and certainly compete for winning the ACC on a regular basis. We have tremendous fan support. Our stadium is amazing. There is none better than Lane Stadium on game day.

Our donor support is tremendous. We’ve gone over 20,000 donors and greatly elevated our budget. Our academic support, nutrition and more, eight years into this as AD, we have put the right people in place to be successful for the next coach.

Virginia Tech is a uniquely special place. We see this as a destination job. Our location is a plus in many ways, whether that’s recruiting, being in the heart of the ACC in the mid-Atlantic and more. The seeds that we planted years ago are blooming. That financial narrative on our commitment is dated and tired.

We came into the COVID year – you’ve heard me use the metaphor of a pit stop. After last year, all 15 cars in the ACC were pulling into the pits. Some had $20 million in damage, some had 40, some had 10. And the way we came out of that pit stop and that time period, we’ve elevated our budget in the league from eighth to fourth. We’ve developed a tremendous recruiting structure. We have a group of 20 donors, our team-first group, that contributes significantly annually seven figures above and beyond our budget to help football get where it needs to go.

We have a residence hall that’s completed – not on an easel anymore, where these seeds were planted. A $110 million residence hall where all of our freshmen student-athletes stay, and those rooms were patterned after Alabama’s. We also have a new $20 million student-athlete performance center and nutrition area that recently opened. It’s not on an easel, it is open.

We’ve renovated all of our meeting rooms, expanded our position meeting rooms. Every square foot of our football facility, which encompasses two buildings, has been renovated. The players lounge is completed, and the locker room is completed. Our facilities are in the top 1-2 in this league. That is not my opinion – it is my opinion – but it is also factual from people who have seen all the facilities in this league.

We have amazing alignment and commitment and direction, from the president to the AD to the board of visitors, and our university has helped us tremendously and further shows this commitment to the next coach. This is a place to do something special, never before been seen at Virginia Tech. Our next coach will get us there.

We have players that care. This place changed their life for the better. Those are all the reasons – there are many more – why this is a great opportunity for the next coach. The things we need to work on before the next coach arrives or when he arrives: we need to continue enhancing our operating budget to some extent. We need to get our conference distribution up and Comcast and the ACC Network. We need to finish off our recruiting staff investment, the full structure, and our next coach will help us on that. The locker room is our last facility piece, I mentioned that. And then we want to put even further investment into our performance center, nutrition center, and double down on the impact that is having.

Lastly, what we are looking for in our next coach, and these are in no particular order, and there could have been a longer list, but we are looking for:

  • A proven track record of success
  • A coach that fits the values of Virginia Tech and what we stand for
  • A coach that will engage the community successfully locally and beyond
  • A leader, a CEO that has character and competence
  • A teacher and an educator that’s committed to the total student-athlete experience and what it develops in young people
  • A coach with a vision, a plan and tremendous ability to recruit this footprint successfully.
  • A coach who can do player evaluation, player development and hires a complementary staff around him
  • A coach that is comfortable in the paradigm of being at the top of the ACC. 

We define excellence at Virginia Tech is to rise up and surpass, and that is exactly what need the next coach to do and what we fully plan to do. We need a coach that can relate and thrive in a new era of athletes today and coaching styles, the new NCAA structure, yet with discipline. That discipline is important. Small things equal big things and attention to detail. And lastly, the coach that we’re looking for ultimately will buy in to our single-minded proposition in our athletic department. And that is that we create memorable experiences that only Virginia Tech can offer.

After today, I won’t have any public comment until we introduce our next coach. It’s a reminder to our fans that every leak has a motive. Hang in there and let’s support our team this next two weeks and hopefully get to a bowl game. Thanks for your time and go Hokies.

Press Conference Questions And Answers From Whit Babcock

Why is identity important now, and is it more important than identity?

If I ever said winning doesn’t matter, that is an incorrect statement.

You said wins and losses wouldn’t be the defining thing.

I’ll just leave it at that. I don’t know that it serves any purpose to go through all of that. Just lack of consistency and I didn’t feel like we had a real consistent team identity. So I’ll just leave it at that.

The lack of identity, though – was that obvious?

I think it became a little more evident, yes.

What specifically did you look for in terms of that identity?

I would say play style. Other than that, Mike [Niziolek], you can keep asking me that question. I will keep telling you that it’s lack of identity and lack of consistency.

Did you want him [Fuente] to finish the season?

Yeah, certainly. I want to say this two ways: I certainly would have liked for that to happen, but I also understand Justin’s point that, ‘hey, if I’m not the guy and you don’t believe in me, then we need to do this.’ I don’t want to paint Justin in a poor corner. I don’t think he quit on anybody. I think his meeting with the team today was great. And I don’t know how I would handle it if the roles were reversed. But yes, he had that option. 

And on the interim coach, the timing, one, worked out with our conversations with Justin, but I also felt like giving them a two-week runway rather than just one potentially next week, and we feel like Coach Price is the right guy for the job. And then we challenged all of our remaining staff. Every one of them has talked to a player at some point about GRIT and overcoming adversity, and that’s what I expect of our staff through this too. We ask it of 18- and 19-year-olds, we’re going to ask it of them.

Why J.C. Price?

He and I talked this morning. I believe he had some idea late last night. But I just felt like he was the best. It doesn’t mean that there are other coaches that couldn’t do it. Again, he played here, it’s his school, I believe in him and it still enabled our coordinators to stay focused on their day job and give these guys the best chance they have to win two games and go to a bowl game.

What kind of head coaching experience are you looking for, or is hiring an assistant possible?

Typically, head coaching experience. We wouldn’t rule out an assistant coach. Right? Every great head coach was an assistant at some point. I wouldn’t say it will necessarily have an offensive or a defensive slant, so it’s pretty wide open. But typically, yes, at this level, it’s tough for people to break in with their first head coaching job. Not everybody, but that’s tough to do. So likely on a sitting head coach, yes, and many of them will not be finished playing for two or three weeks, so anyways, we’ll start the process and do a good job with it.

Do you have a timetable?

No, I’ve learned not to do this. I think you just take the few weeks left in the season and y’all typically know the timing of that. But as soon as we can. But we’ve got to get it right. 

Everyone lauded this hire, but it didn’t work out. What’d you learn?

Yeah, I think we all learn from it, right? Like, Justin didn’t fail. Our team didn’t fail. We all did. And when you hire somebody in, it feels a whole lot different when you have to part ways. Obviously, it doesn’t get the attention, but it bothers me that we had to reboot in volleyball and lacrosse too, coaches that I’ve hired here. 

I believe our body or work speaks for itself over a 10-year period. I believe if you look out there, there aren’t many ADs that maybe haven’t missed on one. It’s kind of like a five-star recruit. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. You just do the best you can. I thought we got off to a great start with Justin, and then it just didn’t go where we wanted it to go. 

On the next coach being engaged more in the community:

And please, that list is not pointing out what Justin didn’t do. He did a lot of those things great. But I do believe that at Virginia Tech, right, you don’t necessarily blend in. People know who you are. The standard is set by Coach Beamer. So somebody that is comfortable in Virginia and the mid-Atlantic, doing that outreach, you cannot be insular these days. Anyways, that’s what we’re looking for, is someone who can successfully engage the university, that understands it. Fit is an overused term, but in this case, it’s appropriate. 

How much do upgraded facilities help pitch and persuade the next head coach?

Well, obviously we think they are important. We started all that probably five years ago. Really, David [Cunningham], what I think facilities do, certainly they’re nice to recruit to, train to, but quite simply it shows a commitment that football is important here. It’s the same reason we built a new engineering building and there’s a big old jet engine hanging in there. It’s so when engineering students come in, they go, ‘wow, look at this place, engineering is important.’ So same concept, and we do have … it would be much more concerning if we were just identifying some of these areas to improve today versus years ago.

In terms of the buyout, are you going to pay it in a lump sum?

That is being worked out. I believe it will be a lump sum, but that is still being worked out. Again, you guys know the dates, so we simply met in the middle between $7.5 and $10 million.

On the assistant coaches’ salaries and what they’re making:

I don’t have a total number. I do upstairs, I don’t know it. All of our assistant coaches, I believe, are on letters of employment that end this June 30. James Shibest may be on one that’s a little longer, but we will be visiting with all of them. That’s how theirs are structured. And then you let the next head coach bring in his people, right? You may have some that you say, ‘hey, can you interview and talk to them?’ And they may or may not keep them. I would certainly love for that to happen, but I’m not going to remotely begin to handcuff the next coach. He or she has to go with their decision, sink or swim with that, as long as it makes sense. Background checks, then they can hire the assistants they want to hire.

What was the moment you realized it was time?

I don’t know that that … I’m not trying to be difficult with you, Mike [Niziolek], you cover us great. I don’t know if that does a whole lot of good to get into it. I was just raised to unconditionally support coaches 100% until the day you can’t. And it just got to a day that I couldn’t do it anymore. And Justin, we came together on this, he handled it like a pro, and I know how tough this is on him and his family.

Taking ownership with decisions, anything he, Whit, could’ve done differently?

Hindsight is a pretty amazing tool. I will say this: I have looked back on it plenty of times. No, no, I wouldn’t change the decision we made last year. It was well thought out. My communication of all of that was pretty poor, in some cases, but I was trying to bring the Hokie family back together. If Justin was going to be our coach, which he was, I was trying to show support for him and let our signing class see that. Our messaging wasn’t as great as I’d like to do. 

Last year was the hardest I’ve ever had professionally, personally, and I just don’t know that I communicated well. But no, those decisions were sound. That was the right thing to do. Typically, you do want to change if you feel like one more year can dig you a deeper hole. I do feel like our staff had some success, our recruiting had some success, so no, I don’t regret that. In a leadership role, you make decisions and you own it and some work out and some don’t. And my goodness, I’m going to do my best to make it right. I do on all of them.

Are you going to hire a search firm for the next head coach?

I don’t think so, no.

High-profile jobs across the country are opening up. Does this help you put your hat in the ring a little earlier, and how do you approach competing against the LSUs?

None of this was done for that. If you have a couple of weeks, you can certainly be more open in your communications and things. You always want to pay your respect to the sitting head coaches. I did not go behind Justin’s back in any of that. … So the timing was not that. It does give you a little bit of a runway. Really, until the season shakes out and all of the jobs are open, I’m not sure you can get a huge running start, but yes, this will give us a little bit of a running start. It was not part of the equation. I think we also could’ve done it at the end of the year and been ready.

Do you anticipate fundraising to pay off the buyout?

We’re working through that. Whether it’s some financing, some other things. But I’ve been incredibly pleased with our fundraising and again, while COVID was going on, what we did by Zooms and to bring in our team first group… But what the group does, bringing in approximately $2.5 to $3 million dollars a year on top of our operating budget, they’ve really stepped up for that, and Justin was a part of that plan. We laid it all out a few years ago, they bought in, I’m hopeful they will stay with us for the next one. 

On early signing day and communicating with recruits:

That call with recruits and their families or anyone they want on it, we will do that by Zoom. I’m hoping it’s later today, or at least we get the notice later today and we talk tomorrow. We’ll tell them the truth on all fronts. Obviously, you hope to hold it together. You hope they will hang in there and see who the next coach is. Anyways, we will shoot them straight, we will tell them how much we want them, and we will update them when we can.

You said it’s a tired narrative that Virginia Tech lags behind financially. Tech’s assistant coaching salary pool was the lowest in ACC in 2019-20, among public institutions. What have you done to upgrade that?

It’s a couple of things there too, David [Teel]. Whatever the coach asks us to pay them, I try to pay it. And we had a staff that had been with Justin, not that he had unlimited resources but that’s what he wanted to pay them. They also took a 10% pay cut to help us out, I think those are in those numbers. And then our head coaching salary is certainly towards the top of the league, the facilities I mentioned, and the things I mentioned we need to work on. We’ve added eight-to-ten recruiting positions, we have a further plan for that and the fundraising will certainly help us get there, David [Teel]. 

We are certainly limited somewhat, but there’s a few things that make me bristle and when people don’t think we have a commitment to football and it’s not important and we don’t care, I don’t like that too much. Not that you’re insinuating that. But yes, we want to do better, we want to keep up, talent retention, all of those things. And I think our budget moving from the middle of the ACC to the top tier, a four, five maybe, we’re good overachieving from eighth but I’d much rather overachieve from fourth or fifth, and we can do it from there, not that we’ll settle for that position either. We’ve come through this, and again, if that was a position we were just identifying, that would be cause for concern, but those are things we identified years ago and have been working on.”

Was that part of your thinking, we see so many programs losing a coach in the middle of the season, in part because of recruiting? How much did that factor in?

Sometimes if you make a change early in the season, it may give those recruits a longer time to think through things. It was not necessarily part of the timing. I know I’m talking out of the both sides of my mouth. I don’t really believe in cutting coaches off before the end of the year. This was just a unique situation. There was some compromise. That’s just how Justin and I worked it out. But the recruiting class David [Teel], was yes very important, but no, that was not a primary driver of this timing.

How much fear do you have that compromising on the buyout also could compromise the commitment for those kids?

Yeah, it could. Just when it gets to the time, you know, you tell the truth then you work on it after that. I’m well aware of that. I hope they have a love for Virginia Tech and we’re going to do our best to keep them. I also know they are young people and will make the right decision for them. We are going to do our best to keep them in the fold if they want to be Hokies. It’s a heck of a class.

Justin Fuente’s salary and where the next guy will be?

I don’t know if I want to put out all of that. I would just say there’s not too many schools with unlimited resources. We are proud of what we have and I believe there’s somebody that certainly wants to coaches here and we can give them what they need to be successful. That’s what we always tried to do with Justin as well.

Why did Fuente fail with his own players?

Sure, I won’t go much into that just out of respect to Justin. I think you can evaluate that a lot of ways, so just out of respect to him I know our fans and you maybe deserve an answer, I would rather keep that to myself at this point.

OK, where do you feel like the program is in terms of talent, resources and it’s positioning compared to when Justin took over?

I truly do believe that it’s better than it was. All of those remarks on our fundraising, on our recruiting staffing, I think Justin helped bring us a long way. I actually think we are in a better position. We have gone through the difficult transition after a legend and we are more prepared and more sound, have better infrastructure than we did a few years ago. I still do believe, I absolutely do. That’s the reason I’m here.

I do believe we can be the preeminent program in the ACC. It goes in cycles. It was the Hokies for a while then the Seminoles then Clemson. It’s right there for the taking. I think we have one of the best jobs in America, every AD will say that, I think it stacks up with anybody as far as a place to work and win.

How many names are on your shortlist of potential candidates?

I’m not going to give you that one, but fair questions. Certainly some names on the list, but we have not talked to any coaches to this point, no.

Do you have a time frame to reach out to coaches?

I’ll keep that one to myself too. There are ways to touch base in ways that can be done that are respectful to the coach, the other AD, but now that the decision is public, it does give us the ability to spread out and do some recon. You are always keeping an eye on other coaches that might fit. That list hasn’t been finalized and no, I’m not going to share the number on it.

In terms of the timing, was it important to have Justin Fuente coach Senior Day?

I was glad to see that happen. All I did guys, the timing, don’t overthink it. I just told him the truth. He told me the truth about how he felt that brought the timing. Once that was decided, I didn’t want to wait another week and I don’t think that Justin did either. I didn’t want to put an interim staff on one game. Again, the interim staff we did put together is with every intent to give our guys the best chance to play for each other and be successful. When you see it through young people’s eyes and see it through them, I think that’s a pretty good north star.

Was it a long process after that meeting?

No, there’s certainly things you have to work out and attorneys and a few other things. But yeah, once it’s time to go then you do it. I want to thank Justin, I feel for him, I know how hard he tried. Five-star recruit, it just didn’t ultimately work out.

Will Justin Hamilton be given the opportunity to interview?

That’s up to the next coach.

For the head coaching position?

I’m not going to get into that today. You are asking some tough ones today.

On the Tommy Tuberville and Justin Fuente hires not working out, and his message to the fans:

Sure. Thanks for bringing that up. I would tell them [the fans] that I apologize. You never go into it not expecting it to work. Coach Tuberville we hired time at the time it was nationally acclaimed. At that time at Cincinnati, there was conference alignment and we thought bringing a Power Five coach in would really jump it, and it did for a couple years. I left – that’s not the reason it went down. It just wasn’t the right hire, and then the folks at Cincinnati have done a wonderful job bringing it back. But I would say this: I treat every coaching search the same. 

Of course football is more scrutiny, more pressure, more money, all of that. But I just have confidence in my and our track record over the 10 years in coaches that we hired and how we go about it. Again, you can go check it out. I think even the best ADs in this country – sometimes you just don’t get them right. It’s just the nature of the game. There’s a winner and loser and sometimes you do everything that you feel is right and it doesn’t [work]. So to the fans: Man, y’all showed out. That was amazing. We want to bring you something that you can be proud of, and we’re going to work really hard on that. But no, I don’t question my or our ability to do it at all.

How much input with you be looking to have from former players:

Not too much. If the players know, especially the ones that played in the NFL, I want to hear what they have to say, and there will be a chance for that. But we have to do what’s in our best interests, so we usually keep it pretty small. But I will say, this is as good a place as I’ve ever been with our former players wanting to help give back, recruit legally. I think they’re chomping at the bit, ready to go, so we’re going to lean on them pretty heavily. But not, I will not have a former player on the ‘search committee,’ no.

What would a win and a bowl game berth mean for this current team?

You want to see young people get rewarded. You know that sports are going to knock them around a little bit, and they’ll learn from that. I think our team has learned a lot from a tough two years, so it would just make me happy for them. Certainly a bowl game would get us back going, give us a chance to play some younger guys, some more practices. So it would be a big deal. All the other games are in the past, right? Can’t change those. But we can do our best on these next two.

Hiring someone with a track record of success, does that include coordinators or is that only head coaching experience? And does the timeline get affected by the early signing period?

The early signing period, again, wasn’t a factor in the timing today, but it’s always a factor. And no, we will not rule out coordinators. All I mentioned earlier was, typically, we’re in the risk-removal business, if we can. And a sitting head coach that’s done it, I just think – there are some coordinators that can do it, but when your first [head-coaching] job is a Power Five job, sometimes it’s a little tough to cut your teeth on that. But no, we don’t rule out anybody. If it’s the right person, even if they’re not a coordinator, we’ll do it. It’s just typically at this level you like to try and find head-coaching experience.

What impact did Justin interviewing with Baylor have on you and your eventual thought process?

Absolutely nothing to do with today. That’s in the past. We talked through that, got past it. He ultimately chose to stay at Virginia Tech. So no, no impact on today. That’s long since in the past.

Are you relying on anyone for vetting candidates?

It’s usually a really small group, but I don’t care to share their names. I think that just puts more pressure on them, more phone calls. So a very small group. Certainly I talk to the president. We have some people in the department that can help, but it’s not a true committee, but it will also not be a one-person show. But the smaller the better when it comes to leaks and being able to do things, so that’s the way we’ll go about it.

Why keep the coaching search committee small?

I don’t know that it’s opposite, Mike [Niziolek], because whenever you’re trying to get feedback, it’s got to be somebody you trust that’s not going to have an angle or motive to put it out there. So whether you’re getting feedback on your team, feedback on other coaches, I think it’s the same. It’s smaller. I wouldn’t call it an opposite approach, no.

Is this committee different than the one that hired Justin Fuente?

Desiree [Reed-Francois] helped some then, so it will be a little bit different, yes.

How much do you value Power 5 experience?

Yeah, that’s a fair question. Just because… I wouldn’t limit it to Power Five, but that would be great, but just because one [Group of Five] didn’t work, there are plenty that are. So no, I don’t think – if it’s the right person, they can come from a lot of different places. I don’t think you go into it that way. You may have some goals, but what I’ve found is, we don’t mind recruiting. We’ve think this is a really special place for a head coach. 

But ultimately, you want somebody that wants to be here. But if you can get your prospect list down from ‘here are the guys we want’ to ‘here are the guys that will say yes,’ even with a lot of work, that’s what we’ll work on soon, because you can chase too much over here and lose these over here. But certainly we’ll aim high and go for the best, whether that’s a guy that everybody recognizes their name or doesn’t, that’s okay. The proof will be in the pudding.

Teams having to make frequent coaching changes, and how impactful is the transfer portal now?

I still think you need to build a program off of the signing class. Admittedly, in this new era, I think you can build a program back with the right amount of transfers, right? It used to be you got maybe a couple of junior-college guys and all freshmen. Now the way rosters move around, hopefully it doesn’t take as long. But it’s got to be sound. Like, if they’re transfers and free agents, they have to mix in right with the team that is homegrown. So yeah, you take all that into consideration. 

And with the [current] players, we tell them how much we want them to stay. We also tell them we will them the truth always. I just encourage them to give it a little time, let’s see who the next coach is. There is a new deadline of May 1 with the football transfer portal for next fall, so hopefully be patient and see. We really want them here so we can build around the group we’ve got.

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