For 48 hours, Virginia Tech football was turned completely on its head. The Hokies came quite close to having to hire a head coach when the program is supposed to be getting ready for the offseason, nearly leaving the program in limbo while adding even more pressure next season.
In case you’ve been living under a Hokie Bird statue recently, you’re aware that Justin Fuente entertained the head coaching opening at Baylor. We learned on Thursday that Baylor representatives met with Fuente on Wednesday and that Fuente made the decision to stay later that evening.
Fuente’s silence on the topic left many in the program, including players, wondering what exactly was going on.
Instead of Fuente addressing the issue head-on Thursday, Virginia Tech director of athletics Whit Babcock answered questions from the media and explained the situation through his eyes. Babcock said that Fuente was open and honest throughout the process and that he believes Fuente truly wants to be in Blacksburg.
“Somebody from that neck of the woods… (Baylor is) going to come to your house and they’re going to talk to you,” Babcock told the media on Thursday. “You might let them do that too… So yeah, he was straight up in my book and no problem whatsoever with it. In fact, I think it shows even bigger commitment on his part. He’s not Frank Beamer and he’s not Bud Foster and we don’t want him to be, so he’s a little more private than most. But when you know the Justin that I know, you know how much of a Hokie he is and how he fits.”
It’s important that Babcock believe in his head coach, especially as Fuente and Babcock try to elevate the program to heights we haven’t seen in about a decade. But Fuente’s flirtation with Baylor and silence about the topic create multiple problems, chief among them that Fuente continues to struggle to relate with and build trust with a significant portion of the fan base.
Fuente’s foray with the Baylor Bears alienated a good section of the fan base and even though most of those fans are happy he is returning, they’re disappointed that Fuente would consider leaving at such an inopportune time. Many are also disappointed that Fuente hasn’t explained himself and that it will likely be a while before we learn what was going through Fuente’s mind.
Not only does Fuente’s dance with the Bears hinder his ability to relate with some fans, it also heightens the stakes heading into 2020.
Fuente lost even more of the fan base last season, despite turning things around and getting to the eight-win mark. Fuente coached the program’s worst home loss in school history and signed what is the lowest-rated recruiting class in the internet recruiting era. Fuente oversaw the ending of Virginia Tech’s win streak vs. Virginia and lost his third straight bowl game in December. These failures pit irritated fans against Fuente and his staff, and Fuente’s entertainment of Baylor’s head coaching position gives them more ammunition.
Any leash Fuente had with his critics is now gone. He has no credit line of good will to tap into and no savings account flush with hardcore supporters to lean on.
The 2020 season is supposed to be the culmination of Fuente’s efforts over the last four years. This roster is entirely of his construction, consisting of players he’s recruited and brought in through the transfer market. He has a ton of returning starters from last season, excluding Deshawn McClease and Dalton Keene (declaring for the draft) and Damon Hazelton (transferring). Despite these losses, Virginia Tech has one of the best rosters in the ACC. The Hokies have depth all over the roster and are even working on adding more help through the transfer portal. Fuente needed to win in 2020 before all this, but now he needs to win more than ever.
Hokies fans by and large understand why Fuente nearly left for greener uniforms and logos at Baylor. Location, money and experience in the Big 12 region were mostly likely large factors, but Fuente would benefit from addressing the situation on his own. It would go a long way in repairing his strained relationship with angry fans and who knows, maybe even give himself credibility at a critical point in his tenure.