It’s been a busy two years for Whit Babcock, to say the least. Officially announced as Virginia Tech’s Director of Athletics on January 24, 2014, Babcock was scheduled to start work on March 1st of that year. But as often happens, events took over, and he accelerated his schedule and actually started work full-time at Virginia Tech on February 17th, 2014.
That makes this Wednesday his two-year anniversary, and in those two years, Babcock has, in the words of a friend of mine, “taken a drink from a fire hose.” In addition to reorganizing the athletics staff and hiring support personnel and staffers too numerous to list here, Babcock has made the two most high-profile hires an AD can make: head men’s basketball coach and head football coach.
Despite all the other things he has done and will do, like most athletic directors Babcock will be judged on the success of those two hires. No pressure there. He has “won the press conference” resoundingly with both hires, and his moves have even made national news, from being called stunning (the hiring of Buzz Williams) to being graded as a head-of-the-class A-plus (the hiring of Justin Fuente).
Babcock handled the retirement of the legendary Frank Beamer, a task fraught with potential pitfalls, effortlessly and smoothly (though to be fair, at least half the credit for that goes to Beamer himself). That transition has gone as smoothly as can be expected.
Whit Babcock hasn’t just set the wheels in motion with two big coaching hires. He has reshaped the athletic department into the image he desires, and his people are in place in key positions. Within the next few months, his plan for the next phase of Virginia Tech’s athletic facilities will take shape and be revealed, with an emphasis on baseball and the Olympic sports.
The heavy, frenetic lifting now done, Babcock settles in and will tweak, tune and execute his plan to keep Virginia Tech athletics moving forward.
Last week, for the first time, I got the chance to sit down with Whit Babcock one-on-one, reflect on what he has done, and talk a little about the future. We admittedly probably spent too much time talking about Nike and football uniforms, but even on that score, Babcock had some interesting comments about how Nike is helping Virginia Tech shape and maintain its image.
We thank Whit Babcock for taking the time to talk to us, and here’s the text of our interview.
Will Stewart, TechSideline.com: So you’ve been here about two years now.
Whit Babcock, Virginia Tech Director of Athletics: Just over two. I’m starting year three.
Stewart: And in those two years you have hired — in addition to your staff and shaping the way you want it — you’ve hired a basketball coach and a football coach. The public outside perception is that you’ve had a very good two years. You’ve earned high praise for the hire of Buzz [Williams], and anybody with a brain rated your hire of Justin [Fuente] as being the best hire of this offseason. As you reflect on all that, that’s a lot of work in two years. The laziest journalism is to ask, “How do you feel?” But after two years, how do you feel? You’ve done a lot.
Babcock: Thank you for saying that. In general I feel great. I love being at Virginia Tech. Yeah I went to JMU, but this is my school and I have great pride in it. and I’m just thrilled to be here. I don’t take lightly the responsibility that I have, and that we have, and how much people care about it.
As far as those two coaching hires, I think it’s great when you’re ranked high and fans are happy and all that. Those coaches know at the end of the day that they have to win, graduate players, play by the rules, and represent VT in a way that we’re all proud of, and time will tell. I wouldn’t trade our two guys for anyone in the country, and I really, truly mean that. A big part of the A.D. job is hiring coaches. I believe growing up in the household of a head coach helps me understand coaching and relate to them, but time will tell.
In general I couldn’t be more pleased with the people we have and it’s going to be fun to watch and see what we have and see what they can do; but they have to fit VT and then accomplish all those things that we want them to accomplish.
Stewart: Justin is a recent hire, but you have a perspective now on Buzz of almost two years since you hired him. This is a really open-ended question, but are you getting what you wanted from him, and what’s been the biggest surprise in a positive way with him? You’ve been with him about a year and a half now, and when you talk intensely with a guy as you did for about a week during the hiring process, and then you hire him, you may not be sure how it’s going to go.
Babcock: Yeah and you know the reverse side of that is that they’re putting a lot of faith in me, it works two ways.
Stewart: Well he (Buzz) said just a few weeks back, “I’m here because of Whit Babcock.”
Babcock: He’s nice to say that. I’m actually very, very pleased with what Buzz has done. I know he’s not used to losing. I don’t want coaches that like losing and I know it’s eating him alive. But for us to have five ACC wins [the Hokies are 5-7 at the time of this writing], the most in five years, that’s a great step, and I certainly hope we can win some more. I like what he’s done; he’s conscientious about not making decisions for a quick fix.
He’s exceeded my expectations. He also cares deeply about all our players. All coaches say that and they all mean it, but Buzz loves them, and those kids would run through a wall for him. He puts a big emphasis on academics. Our grades are great, I couldn’t be happier. I do want to win more games, and I know Buzz wants to win them all. I’m just very pleased with the process, and people had better look out for us in another year or two.
Stewart: Well, I think it’s coming. I think it was a little dicey after the WVU game, but it’s been good since then.
Babcock: And even though he’s a very private person, his wife and his kids, just like mine do, really love Blacksburg and the way new people come in here. The people here are really special, and the whole “This is Home” tagline really fits, even when you’re from far away. I know they love the Tech environment and I’m really pleased with them. I like his uniqueness. Coaches come in all different styles and all that, but I think the world of him and I really like him.
Stewart: Let’s talk about something fans love to talk about and criticize and love and hate and all that stuff: uniforms. There’s a lot of mystery, lore and misinformation circulating around a specific question I want to ask, and it may have been different under Frank as to how it’s going to be from here on out. Fans argue all the time about when a uniform shows up that they can’t stand, they want to know who to blame. [Whit Babcock laughs] “Who picked that? Was it Coach Beamer, was it the players, was it John Ballein, was it Nike … who’s the bad guy?” So when we see the different uniforms next fall, what’s the decision process?
Babcock: That’s a great question. Here’s how the uniform process works, and people can pick who to blame out of all of this: In October uniforms are ordered, so in October of 2015 the uniforms styles were ordered for 2016. So they were ordered before Coach Fuente was the coach. Now when you decide on those styles, Nike makes some recommendations, coaches will make recommendations, and ADs can certainly insert themselves in the process.
Really what I saw for my role was this: I like the standard VT on our helmets, if we’re talking about football. I don’t mind the creativity and the ways that Virginia Tech football went [in the past], but I like a little more traditional look, so that was my two cents. You don’t want to come in and rule with an iron fist, I didn’t want to do that, it was just “Let’s bring it back a bit to our traditional style with that VT on the helmet.” We’re always going to have maroon and we’re always going to have white and we’ll have some orange.
Stewart: How about black, how are you on black?
Babcock: I actually like black, the recruits like black, some of the older fans don’t. I believe the original colors of Virginia Tech were black and gray, way back.
Stewart: Correct, but it’s hard to sell people on that.
Babcock: True, but I like the Hokie Stone, and that’s part of our fabric too, our brand and etc., so what we looked at coming into October was maroon, white, some orange, and then maybe you will see some of this other stuff … I’m confident you will, I just don’t want to give away all of our stuff yet.
Something else, and this is a great benefit to being with Nike, what we also did last year before this recent batch of uniforms was ordered: Nike, at no charge to us, they pick about four or five schools each year that are their schools, and they go in with what they call the Nike Graphic Identity Group — GIG. They come in and they pull all your uniforms, and they take pictures all over campus. And what’s amazing is how, over time, there’s creep away from your logo, the colors start to vary a little bit, one coach in one sport wants to use cursive, the other wants to use this, and before long all your consistency is gone.
So the Nike Graphic Identity Group comes back in, and they clean up your wordmarks, they get the colors back right, they changed our font to be more consistent …Nike can give you some off the wall stuff too, and they can present that, but it’s always up to the school to pick what we’ll accept.
So this also took place back in October , and what will now be unveiled later this year and into the fall is more consistent colors, more consistent fonts, our own Chicago maroon, Hokie maroon type thing, all the same numerical fonts, all the same script and it’s like, “Let’s bring this back, and we can have some flash, but let’s bring this back to class and a tight, clean look.”
Stewart: Now are you speaking of football only, or across the board?
Babcock: Across the board. So with the Nike Graphic Identity Group, at no charge, they hand pick five of their schools a year, and they send their team in and it’s like “All right, do you want to change your logo completely? Do you want to clean it up? What do you want to do?” and we just talked about “Let’s get back to what we had, we just got too far all over the place.”
In general the standard VT is what we’re going to use. As a Virginia kid who grew up in the 1970s, I still like the fighting gobbler logo, I like keeping that around, I also like keeping that old stacked VT TV logo that people can buy now, but in general, you’re gonna see that VT logo and all of our teams with the sharp clean look that was created exclusively for Virginia Tech.
Stewart: So Tech was one of those five schools, from all across the country?
Babcock: Yes. I also was a part of that process at Missouri, around 2010 or 11. Arizona State was done at that time, when all their stuff kind of changed (Editor’s Note: click here for a story on how Nike’s Graphic Identity Group helped rebrand ASU back in 2011). Schools will use it for a big change, or more traditional ones will just use it to tweak, and I really like what they’ve done with us, and I think our fans can look forward to see an unveiling on all of this stuff before the season starts in August.
Stewart: How much do you rely on — rely may be too strong of a word — but do you ping things off of Kevin Jones, because of his design background?
Babcock: I do sometimes, and the fact that he’s younger than me and certainly played professionally, and so I feel like he understands the history of Virginia Tech and is still young enough to understand what’s cool and all that.
So coaches have input on uniforms, ADs do, but as far as uniforms that are worn week to week … let’s just take football for example. I believe Coach Beamer and John Ballein would get with some seniors or captains and talk about it, and typically they would make the suggestion, and I don’t get in the way of that. If we have a Maroon Out, I certainly would go down to John and say “Hey we’re asking our fans to wear maroon, I think our team should too,” but other than that it’s usually seniors, captains — I’ve seen at other schools you have the seniors pick, coaches pick, it’s all over the place,. You pick them and order them in October the previous year, and as far as what’s worn week to week as the season starts, it varies.
As A.D. I want to make sure our brand and look is what I want, but at the end of the day I’m not going to micro manage what our coaches and players wear. I just want to catch it on the front end, and then what they pull out of the closet and wear, I’m good with that.
But I’ll have to ask Justin [Fuente] “Hey, how are you going to pick uniforms?” Every coach does it a little bit different, some are “just because I said so,” but others let the players do it.
Stewart: I think we covered the heck out of that. The hiring of additional recruiting support staff for football: is there more of that coming? As an adjunct to that question; when you look at what Alabama and Clemson have done — there’s a great article about their two and three million dollar support staffs — a lot of those guys are former coaches, very highly paid guys. Do you see yourself going in that direction? Can you address what we can expect to see on that front?
Babcock: Yeah, that’s a good question. When I first got here, in one of my first meetings with Coach Beamer I asked him, “What can I do to help you?” We went through a few things and we did them all, but one of the things was, we need some help in these recruiting positions. We still had assistant coaches recruiting, but now it’s so much more social media and graphics, and the things that Thomas Guerry and all of them do.
Coach Beamer identified it, and also when I got here, quite frankly I thought, “Wow, we really have a lean staff.” So we added a couple positions in recruiting, we bumped up some assistant coaches pay, as I recall. And then this year with Justin, I believe we added some quality control people and two other recruiting positions. I don’t believe just because everyone else has it that we need it. If a coach can make a good argument for why we need to do it, and what it will impact, then if it makes sense, I’ll say yes to it.
Everyone wants the good players with good grades and no baggage, and those are the players we want, too. I believe Alabama is overkill, but they can afford it, so more power to them. But yes, we have seen some increase in staff, but we don’t do it just to keep up with everyone else. Recruiting used to be old coaches who were either on their way out or young coaches who wanted to get in, but now there’s a specialized professionalism in recruiting where Thomas Guerry and Chuck Cantor don’t want to coach … they want to recruit. This younger group and the way you push out content, and tell your story and brand it, has become a specialized younger person’s game, and I think we’ve made some good strategic hires.
Stewart: But do you see more coming? You and Justin have talked about that?
Babcock: Yeah, it was more like, “Hey Coach, what can we do, what’s right?” and this is what he came up with. I don’t feel like he went overboard with it, and I was happy to do it, and that’s what we did and talked about. I mean, are we really going to invest everything that we’re investing in football to win games, and then nickel and dime a couple of entry-level positions? No.
Stewart: What is the status of the baseball stadium renovation?
Babcock: Tech Sideline readers and Hokie fans can hopefully look for more from us on a number of projects in April or May. There’s a Board of Visitors meeting in March, and we want to talk about facilities and financing and where the money may come from. So I need to have my bosses approve things before I can go public, but it’s no secret. We see the baseball stadium with some opportunity. We see the softball stadium with some opportunity, along with Rector Field House. Which is great, we have all this high number of student athletes in men’s and women’s track, and we’re nationally ranked, and that facility was built in 1971. Now that football is in this beautiful indoor building over here, we want to make Rector for track and field only. Tennis, we have some things we want to do, and scoreboards and other things. So by the time we get into April-May-June, we hope we can release our master plan of everything we want to do. Hopefully baseball will be with that.
But before I get ahead of myself, I need to make sure everyone approves it before we roll it out.
Stewart: Can you fill Tech fans in — buyout isn’t necessarily the right word in all cases — but Tech has been making payments to Seth Greenberg, Jim Weaver, and James Johnson for a few years. What is the status of those?
(Editor’s Note: Jim Weaver was paid $469k for two years after his retirement. Seth Greenberg received a buyout of $1.2 million spread over four years, starting in April 2012. James Johnson was owed $284k per year for three years, starting in April 2014.)
Babcock: Right. We paid Jim for two years after his retirement, 2014 and 2015. So that has ended. I believe Seth Greenberg’s rotates off March of this year. VT was pretty responsible with that. It wasn’t the entire salary, it wasn’t guaranteed, it was the base amount. So instead of Seth getting around $1.2 million a year for three years, all he got was base salary which was closer to $300k. What you’re finding now is popular coaches who have a lot of leverage and such want it all guaranteed. So it’s not ideal, but I thought VT was very responsible with it. But Seth will rotate off in a month. James Johnson I believe has another year. All of them, give or take a little bit, were around $300k to $350k.
You don’t want to have too many of those in this profession in football and basketball. Very rarely does a coach get to the last year of their contract. Usually you extend them or break up, so to speak, and there’s usually some type of financial arrangement.
Stewart: I think Tech has been fortunate with that kind of thing. One more question. What can you tell us about a possible ACC Network? Sometimes I think that the ACC is so far behind, and that it will never happen, but they may get into a streaming service instead. But at your level, what do you think is going to happen and where will it go?
Babcock: There’s not much I can say, because in the ACC there’s a small committee of ADs and a few others that will speak for that, and we all want to have one voice. But do I feel like the ACC has missed its window? No, no and if and when there’s an announcement I think that will be explained. I would love for it to happen, and I think it would be great. I believe we’re getting closer, but that small group will speak for that, and hopefully we will have some clarity on that because it would be a game changer.