Calm down. I know that headline might have got your heart racing.
Justin Fuente is wrapping up his fifth season at the helm of Virginia Tech football. It obviously hasn’t gone well — the Hokies just clinched their second losing record over the last three seasons.
There’s a running gun battle over which has deteriorated faster — the on-field product or Fuente’s relations with the fanbase and donors. Neither relationship is on the mend and the two sides basically aren’t talking.
As bad as things are, there’s a chance this marriage between the Fuente and Virginia Tech’s Whit Babcock continues beyond this season. As much as some people may want to avoid it, Fuente just might keep his job heading into the 2021 season. Here’s why.
It starts with a win
The path to Fuente keeping his job starts this weekend vs. Virginia. The Hokie’s 2020 season is lost — Tech removed themselves from ACC Championship contention long ago, a bowl game is uncertain and a winning record is gone with the wind. The only objective goal left is to win back the Commonwealth Cup.
Besting Bronco Mendenhall for the fourth time in five seasons would be a nice feather in Fuente’s cap as he heads into the offseason. Neither team is any good, but a win this season would make 2019 look like a fluke.
Fuente is going to sit down with Babcock after the season, just like he does every year. That conversation will go better for Fuente if he knocks off Virginia on Saturday night.
Excuses or reasons?
Depending on who you ask, COVID-19 is either an excuse or a reason why Virginia Tech’s 2020 season hasn’t gone to plan.
Fuente’s detractors argue that every program in the country is dealing with the effects of the pandemic, not just Virginia Tech. The Hokies are not unique in this sense and therefore, shouldn’t be afforded any slack.
But Fuente could roll into his postseason meeting with Babcock and say, “I just dealt with an unprecedented event in college football. How can you judge our program after all the cancellations, delays, infections and injuries?”
He might find an open ear. Twenty-twenty has indeed been a unique season — Virginia Tech has had two games delayed and dozens of players infected or exposed to COVID-19. The Hokies have been forced to change the way they practice and the way they gameplan. Spring and summer shutdowns wrecked any chance Tech, or any school for that matter, had at a normal offseason.
It’s all dependent on how you view Fuente’s tenure. Those predisposed to giving Fuente another year might look at 2020 as one giant anomaly. The person’s opinion that matters most is Babcock’s.
Pitching the future
This is the hardest case for Fuente to make.
Fuente’s pitch sounds something like this, “We started with a brand new staff coming into this season and had almost zero prep time before the schedule kicked off. They’ve had near-zero time to hit the recruiting trail. Our defensive coordinator had little time to install his new scheme. Our best player opted-out of the season before it even started. As the vaccine lessens the impact of COVID-19 this spring, our new staff will start to shine.”
It’s a reasonable pitch. Justin Hamilton was hindered by the practice restrictions put in place this spring and summer. Assistants like Darryl Tapp, Bill Teerlinck and Ryan Smith haven’t been able to visit high school players and coaches and sell the Virginia Tech brand. A full offseason program could help Hendon Hooker grow as a passer and allow a young defense to find their footing.
Fuente made some significant changes to his coaching staff after the 2019 season, but none of those coaches have been given the opportunity to show what kind of results they can produce in a normal environment. Fuente’s staff has recruited at a decent level before, finishing in the top-30 in 2017, 2018 and 2019. That said, the last two classes have been nowhere near that standard.
Ah, yes. The nitty gritty details.
Fuente’s biggest bargaining chip is the buyout clause in his contract, which dips to $10 million on Dec. 15. It’s a steep price, especially for an athletic department that just cut an unknown number of employees and reduced the salaries of most of their department.
That buyout number doesn’t include the money needed to buyout the rest of Fuente’s staff, nor does it include the money needed to hire a new staff. So the $10 million price tag actually resides in the $20 million range, most likely.
That $20 million or so might be just enough to make Babcock say, “Alright Justin, we’re going to give this another shot.” It would be a tough sell to the fanbase, but Babcock might determine that Fuente needs one more uninterrupted, normal season to show what he can do.
However, there might be a stipulation to this. This stipulation might require Fuente to make necessary changes to his staff, most notably moving on from offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen. He might also ask him to bring in another outside observer, similar to Jerry Kill in 2019.
Stomaching another year of fan anger would be easier if Babcock was able to get Fuente to commit to making changes that could turn around the program. There’s no guarantee these changes do the trick, but they give the Hokies a fighting chance.