Virginia Tech Basketball And The Search For Consistent Success

Virginia Tech Director of Athletics Whit Babcock has turned Virginia Tech basketball around. (Liam Sment)

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.

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.

“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 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.

28 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. This is a great article, but I feel like a “Managing Editor” should know that our former coach’s name is “Henrickson,” not “Hendrickson.”

    1. Apologies, didn’t notice the typo. I know it’s Henrickson, but I misspelled it there and no one caught it. Thanks for pointing it out.

  2. Great article. I have and continue to be a WB fan. I have had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of times and found him both polite and approachable. His predecessor however I meet also a couple of times and found him aloof and abrasive.

  3. If only he had realized that football is the cash cow of the university. He waited far too late to put major efforts into football and should have known what was needed based on other schools.

    1. Whit Babcock has great vision of what is needed, is smart, and is among the top ADs in the Country. We need to be thankful we have him. You put more money into programs as you get it. Virginia Tech has outstanding athletic facilities, and more are coming. The recent campaign to raise the Hokie Club enrollment to 25,000 was a huge success, and competed a couple of months ago. In essence, it is this Hokies opinion that our athletics are in good hands with Whit’s leadership.

    2. I don’t think that is a point that is lost on Whit. There has been a lot of structural work to increase the funding for the athletic department over the last 4-5 years. Maybe it started too late but the challenge was that our cash cow wasn’t being supported the way other program’s were. That change takes time, especially as you continue to make progress amid the last 2ish years and a very different world than previous.

      Don’t know if Coach Pry will be the answer to all of our problems but he will certainly have more resources at his disposal than Fuente did and that is progress.

  4. Since the 1980s, Tech has had more good men’s bb coaches than bad ones. 39 of the past 50 years have been spent under coaches with winning records at VT. (That, of course, includes Greenberg, who was just what VT needed at the time — though I can’t ever fully forgive him for not giving Steph Curry a scholarship.)

    Can’t say the same for women’s bb. Pretty much just Henrickson and Brooks have been winners (Carol Alfano was a mainstay for a long time but really only managed to sprinkle in a few good seasons in what was otherwise a twenty-year run of mediocrity.)

    Right now, we’re pretty much in the same territory as the Foster/late-Alfano/Henrickson era of the late 1990s, early 2000s. All of those coaches were short-timers, though. Young and Brooks could be in Blacksburg for a decade more — or longer. That’s what makes this feel like it might be different, more sustainable.

    Tech’s luck with ADs of the past thirty years or more has been much more consistent. Braine, Weaver, and Babcock have all been above average (though all are often disparaged, to varying degrees). Babcock’s better than merely above average. If the Pry hire turns out to be a Mike-Young-type hire, he’ll be the AD GOAT by a long shot. Even if it doesn’t, we’re lucky to have Whit, and — maybe more than any other reason — it’s his relative youth and the success he’s had so far that gives our overall athletics program such realistically bright hopes for the future.

  5. Let’s not forget that SG had Montrez Harrell coming the year he was fired. That guy is a stud and would have produced more years of success for the program.

  6. Everyone is missing the point. The article is about WB, who deserves many kudos. TS needs to write an article about how much VT has improved in all sports since WB arrived.

    1. Correct – many sports – softball and wrestling are top 10s, men’s and women’s track just won ACC indoor, etc

    2. Agree with you 110% on Whit changing VT culture across all sports since he arrived in Blacksburg! Go Hokies!

  7. Not fair to lump SGs years with Dunkenburger’s years and say all VT basketball stunk for a decade. You don’t have the perspective of living through the A10 and Big East years.
    SG made 5 consecutive post seasons, and the NIT seasons absolutely did not lack wins, including ACC wins. SG mentioned it today, during that 5 year stretch VT was the 3rd winningest team in the ACC. They did not “pay rent in the ACC’s basement” as you mention. In fact, up until that point, you could make the argument THAT was the golden age of VT bball, considering the amount of games won and 5 consecutive post seasons. VT hadn’t had more than two consecutive post seasons in any tournament in history except one 5 year stretch in the 1980s, with two NCAAs and 3 NITs, but that was not in the ACC. SG won 109 games those 5 years. In his 8 ACC seasons, he finished in the top 4 five seasons. In a MUCH more difficult ACC than the present (yes, only 12 teams and not 14). MY did that once (last year), and Buzz never finished higher than 5th. Without SG, there would be no Buzz, because SG proved VT wasn’t destined to be a basement dweller.
    SG got fired after finally having a bad season, then JJs two bad seasons followed. VT was on a 3 year stretch of basement dwelling. Judge SGs accomplishments based on the history of VT prior to his arrival, not through a 2022 lens where he doesn’t compare favorably to the Buzz/MY era. Nobody is going to argue SG was a better coach than either of those guys.

    1. Yeah love David’s work put that was an unfortunate take. If you take away I think Seth’s first ACC season I believe his team’s were .500 in ACC over the next 8 years, a helluva accomplishment no one would have predicted. Jim Weaver put us back 3 years and then yes Whit and Buzz bailed us out and we so far haven’t looked back.

      1. Yes, I love David’s work too. Now I’m feeling like I was a little too harsh. I just read “basement dweller” and immediately thought of the years when we were a mid major and couldn’t win in the A10, then joined the Big East and finished at the bottom over and over.

    2. I’d agree and I’d bet that SG’s best team would play this year’s team pretty close.

    3. Tech basketball from the late 70’s to mid 80’s was very good. Those Dale Solomon teams were pretty good and the Dell Curry teams were even better. Tech was bounced from the NCAA Tournament in 1979 by some school named Indiana State with this player named Larry Bird. The Metro was no joke. Louisville won the national championship in 1980 over UCLA and won it again in 1986 beating UNC and then Duke in the championship game. Memphis made the Final Four in ’85. Those were probably the Metro Conference’s “glory days”. Tech was something like 2-3 vs. UVA during the Curry years. Cassell was packed and Charlie Moir’s basketball teams were more respected than Dooley’s football teams. I remember Tech beating Valvano’s NC State 89-65 in early 1983.

              1. NCSU had beaten #3 Houston a couple of weeks prior to VT blowing them out. Houston later lost to Georgetown in the NCAACG.

Comments are closed.