At 7:45 a.m. ET on Tuesday, Nov. 16, Virginia Tech Director of Athletics Whit Babcock announced that the school and head football coach Justin Fuente had mutually parted ways.
At a 10:45 a.m. press conference, Babcock addressed the media and the fanbase while discussing the decision. Here is a breakdown of the key details of the decision to move on from Fuente.
How It Happened
Babcock and Fuente previously met every Wednesday throughout the football season, and on Wed., Nov. 10, Babcock informed Fuente when the two chatted that he “could not tell him with certainty that he would continue to be the coach here.”
It was a decision Babcock was strongly considering, though the Hokies were not forcing their head coach out the door by any means. Babcock gave Fuente the option to stay, but once Babcock’s mind was made up, Fuente decided to move on.
“I want to say this two ways: I certainly would have liked for that [Fuente staying] 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,'” Babcock said on Tuesday. “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 [to stay].”
As a result, Babcock made the decision to name J.C. Price, formerly Virginia Tech’s co-defensive line coach and defensive recruiting coordinator, interim head coach.
A well-known figure around Blacksburg, Price played for the Hokies from 1992-95. He was a team captain and a third-team All-America selection as a senior. Before joining Tech’s staff after the 2020 season, Price spent the previous nine years at Marshall.
“We think he [Price] is the right man for that position,” Babcock said. “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.
“He [Price] 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.”
Babcock said the decision to mutually part ways was made on Monday, and the Hokies held a team meeting at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
“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,” Babcock said. “Justin went first, and then me. And then they went off to position meetings and practice.”
In the first few minutes of his opening statement, Whit Babcock made it clear why the Hokies were parting ways with Fuente: “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.”
The reasoning for the parting of ways is fairly obvious on the surface, though only Babcock and few behind the scenes know the true details. A few of the main storylines:
- Justin Fuente, though 43-31 (28-20 ACC) in six seasons, was 10-11 (8-8) in his last two seasons.
- The Hokies, after starting the 2021 season on a high note vs. North Carolina, lost three straight games at home (Notre Dame, Pitt, Syracuse) for the third time in the Fuente era.
- Bad losses were common. Defeats at Old Dominion (2018) and vs. Duke (2019) were one thing, but late-game failures in 2020 vs. Liberty and Miami made the situation uglier.
- Virginia Tech needed to schedule a game against Marshall in 2018 to make a bowl to extend the bowl streak, and ended up losing it two years later. And, in 2019, the Hokies lost to Virginia for the first time in since 2003 (though Fuente did finish 4-1 vs. UVA).
- Close losses in winnable games this year were frequent. Tech lost at West Virginia (L by 6), vs. Notre Dame (L by 3) and vs. Syracuse (L by 5) by less than a touchdown. It was a trend throughout his tenure, losses in close games, particularly as of late. The Hokies were 0-4 in their last four five-point games under Fuente, and in the last two seasons were 3-6 in one-score games (eight points or less).
“I was just raised to unconditionally support coaches 100% until the day you can’t,” Babcock said. “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.”
Babcock confirmed that he thought a lack of identity gradually became more evident. He didn’t go into detail outside of mentioning a “lack of consistency and I didn’t feel like we had a real consistent team identity,” which is a fairly accurate summation of the past few years of Fuente’s tenure, especially with inconsistent results on the football field.
Justin Fuente’s Buyout
One of the key points in the decision to change football head coaches was Justin Fuente’s contract and buyout. Virginia Tech had Fuente signed on for three more seasons (through 2024) after this year, and his buyout was $10 million until Dec. 15, when it was scheduled to drop to $7.5 million.
Babcock informed the media that the two came to a compromise at $8.75 million, smack in the middle between $10 million and $7.5 million. He said Tech is still working out how the buyout is going to be paid, though he believes it will be a lump sum.
As far as assistant coaches’ salaries go, Babcock said all assistants, outside of James Shibest, have letters of employment that end on June 30, 2022. Andy Bitter posted some calculations for the total money it will cost the Virginia Tech athletic department to change coaching staffs, assuming no one from the current staff is retained.
Rough #Hokies buyout math here:
$8.75 million: Fuente’s negotiated buyout
$1.69 million: Owed to assistants through June (subject to offset)
$420K: James Shibest’s letter of appt. through June '23 (subject to offset)
That's nearly $11 million before hiring a new coach & staff
— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) November 16, 2021
“Then you let the next head coach bring in his people, right?” Babcock said. “You may have some [assistants] 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.”
$11 million is a lot of money, so it’s important to factor in some context that was provided from a response to a question asked by David Teel.
Babcock mentioned that it’s a “tired narrative” that Virginia Tech lags behind financially. Teel specifically referenced the Hokies’ assistant coaching salary pool, which was the lowest in the ACC in 2019-20 among public institutions.
What did the athletic department do to upgrade that?
“Whatever the coach asks us to pay them, I try to pay it,” Babcock said. “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.”
Babcock said there aren’t many things that make him bristle, but when people criticize the school’s commitment to football and its importance, that’s one of those rare occasions. He noted that Virginia Tech has moved its budget from the middle of the ACC to the top tier, from eighth to fourth, which will help financial efforts with the next coaching staff. Paying the buyout of this staff can be roped into that circle, too.
Attributes for a Potential Virginia Tech Head Coaching Candidate
This is the section that people will likely be interested in, though Babcock didn’t give the media any direct answers when asked about candidates. He listed the specific attributes he is looking for in coaches, though he did not mention any names (just like anyone who knows Babcock would expect) or an expected timeline.
He also mentioned that the Hokies likely won’t hire a search firm and will have a small committee to pick the next head coach, similar to the one that chose Justin Fuente back in 2015.
Here’s the list of attributes Babcock said he’d like to see in candidates:
- 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 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.”
Babcock said he’s usually looking for someone with head coaching experience, though he wouldn’t rule out an assistant, and having someone that fits in the community is important. The timing of this, intended or not, gives Babcock & Co. an opportunity to get a bit of a running start against other teams that might end up searching for a head coach.
“Typically, we’re in the risk-removal business, if we can,” Babcock said. “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.”
Another question that came up dealt with Power Five experience. Something that comes to mind are a few of the coaches that Babcock has hired at Virginia Tech that weren’t at Power Five institutions at the time. Mike Young (Wofford), Kenny Brooks (women’s basketball, JMU) and Pete D’Amour (softball, Kennesaw State) are just a few examples that check that box.
Babcock’s response: “If it’s the right person, they can come from a lot of different places.”
“Ultimately, you want somebody that wants to be here,” Babcock said. “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.”
Full transcript of the press conference: Link