Two of the most important things to note about Virginia Tech Director of Athletics Whit Babcock are easy to pick up on, even just in passing.
First, he loves to win. Second, he despises losing. The second might drive him more than the first.
Hired in January 2014 from Cincinnati, Babcock inherited two basketball programs at Virginia Tech that paid rent in the ACC’s basement for a good portion of the decade prior, especially from 2012-on.
The men’s basketball team had been to one NCAA Tournament since its 1996 appearance under Bill Foster. A more productive program in terms of Big Dance bids in that recent timeline, the women went to four straight NCAA Tournaments from 2003-06, hosting in 2004.
But the drought Virginia Tech experienced after Seth Greenberg’s bunch beat Illinois in Columbus, Ohio in March of 2007 stung. After five straight years of one of the programs making the glorious postseason, neither made it for seven years before Babcock’s arrival.
Across both sports, Virginia Tech was 209-234 (47.2%) overall, 65-157 (29.3%) in the ACC in that span. Greenberg never heard Tech called on Selection Sunday again, while Beth Dunkenberger couldn’t maintain the level of success Bonnie Henrickson achieved.
One of the first things Babcock did when he arrived in Blacksburg was find two coaches who would change the culture on the hardwood.
On March 21, 2014, he hired Buzz Williams from Marquette. Two years and a week later on March 28, 2016, Kenny Brooks was recruited from James Madison.
Success wasn’t instant. It took Williams three years, four* for Brooks (*Tech would’ve made the 2020 NCAA Tournament had COVID not cancelled it), to make the programs relevant again. And even after Williams left and Mike Young was lured from Wofford in April of 2019, it took him two years to put Virginia Tech back in the Big Dance.
The men’s team’s journey to the Sweet 16 in 2019 was magical. Hearing their name called in the 2021 Selection Show became a core memory for Brooks & Co. But both groups making the NCAA Tournament for two straight years in 2021 and 2022, the only two instances in school history?
That just goes to show you that Babcock pulled a Ted Lasso and hit two 20s and a bullseye in one turn, no easy feat. And it’s also why watching Babcock celebrate with his son, Brett, and cut down a piece of the net after Virginia Tech men’s basketball won its first-ever ACC Championship over Duke on Saturday night in Brooklyn is so memorable.
LETS GO DAD!! pic.twitter.com/G8l8cQYfle
— Brett Babcock (@BrettBabcockk) March 13, 2022
Babcock has been criticized for the performance of the Hokies’ football program in recent years. In the same right, he should be praised for bringing in the right people for Tech basketball.
Brooks and Young, in turn, have done the same.
He had a four-year head start on Young, but Brooks made a statement signing Aisha Sheppard out of Alexandria, Va. in December of 2016. Now the all-time leading scorer in Virginia Tech history, she’s a staple of the program.
That paved the road that the Hokies followed to bring in Elizabeth Kitley, the 2022 ACC Player of the Year, Cayla King, Georgia Amoore and others. Kayana Traylor moved from Purdue, Emily Lytle from Liberty.
Brooks assembled a powerful and talented group, but most importantly, they’re all pieces that fit perfectly in a larger puzzle.
In a similar light, Young convinced Keve Aluma, Storm Murphy and Hunter Cattoor to join him from Wofford. Justyn Mutts transferred from Delaware, looking for a home. And the culture, as ACC Network analyst and Hidden Valley alumnus Luke Hancock described, “is the best … I’ve ever seen.”
The men’s and women’s basketball programs at Virginia Tech are one tight-knit family. They mirror each other in many ways, too.
The vibes in Hahn Hurst are immaculate rn
— Virginia Tech Women's Basketball (@HokiesWBB) March 15, 2022
“We’re the ones that really understand what each other is going through,” Brooks said on Tech Talk Live on Monday. “We watched them go through a situation where they were 2-7 in the ACC. Ironically, we were 2-7 last year in the ACC and we just look at each other and we’re continuously following each other, giving each other advice, just comfort and knowing that you can pull through this.”
“The interactions we have in this building [Hahn Hurst] are fun,” Young said during a Monday press conference. “It is one program. We cheer for them, they cheer for us, and a real friendship that I’ve developed with Kenny over many years.”
One of the most unique parts of the 2021-22 Virginia Tech basketball season is that the Hokies swept the ACC Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award, the first time a school has ever done so.
Kitley, who aspires to be a doctor, was the recipient of the Kay Yow Award. Mutts, on his third degree, second Master’s (this one in psychology), received the Skip Prosser Award.
Young loves watching Kitley play, praising her hands and footwork. Brooks spoke with Hunter Cattoor, the Most Valuable Player of the ACC Tournament, before the ACC Championship game and told him to “let loose.”
Both admire one another’s staff and players, and it’s led to a beautiful thing.
The MVP pulled up 💯 pic.twitter.com/SA0GMYnzOW
— Virginia Tech Women's Basketball (@HokiesWBB) March 14, 2022
The women play Florida Gulf Coast in College Park, Md. as the No. 5 seed on Friday at 2:30 p.m. ET. Right after, the men face Texas as the No. 11 seed in Milwaukee, Wis. at 4:30 p.m. ET.
You can bet Brooks will walk off the court afterwards asking how Young’s team is faring up north, and the men’s staff will no doubt be watching the women go to work before it takes the court.
After the women’s selection show on Sunday evening, Sheppard summarized both program’s having success in the Blacksburg in a very simple way: “Blacksburg deserves this.”
And she’s right. It wasn’t a flip of the switch; it took time. But now, what Babcock, Williams, Brooks and Young have created is beautiful, and it truly represents southwest Virginia.