I really like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, particularly where in The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent famously says, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente knows this all too well.
Fuente started a hero with a 10-win season, but is now seen as the villain in Blacksburg, the perpetrator who is responsible for the Hokies’ gridiron decline.
The Hokies 47-14 loss at Pitt on Saturday was appalling — another reminder of how far the program has fallen in the last three years. Virginia Tech is 15-17 vs. FBS opponents over the last three seasons, but that mediocre record doesn’t tell the full story. Embedded in there is a four-game losing streak in 2018 and two separate three-game heaters.
Currently, however, Virginia Tech has lost four of their last five. Once seen as a hero, Fuente is now a wanted man.
Ultimately, the future of Virginia Tech football does not reside with Fuente. That power rests with Whit Babcock, the man who hired Fuente in 2015 and signed him to two contract extensions.
Those two extensions, signed after each of Fuente’s heroic first two seasons in which Virginia Tech won 19 games, have set strict parameters for the discussion we’re about to have. The financial reality of the situation cannot be ignored.
Babcock has to make a choice and he has three options, as far as I can tell. None of them are particularly attractive or easy to stomach. But one of them must be made.
Rip off the Band-Aid
Option One is the most popular amongst many in the fanbase, which is to arrest Fuente now and put him on trial for the destruction of Virginia Tech football. This, of course, means firing him.
This move undoubtedly would give Tech a headstart and rebooting the program. The sooner it were to happen, the better, giving Babcock and his administrators plenty of time to begin compiling a list of candidates.
Babcock would need to name an interim coach, but in all reality, it doesn’t matter very much. Virginia Tech’s next contest vs. Clemson is about as guaranteed of a loss as there ever was. Virginia awaits on the horizon, and consecutive losses to the ‘Hoos wouldn’t change much regarding how the donors and fanbase would feel about the program that lacked a head coach.
From a football perspective, this is the most prudent decision. But as I previously mentioned, it’s financially not feasible.
Fuente’s second extension, signed in January 2018, extended Fuente’s contract through 2024. It boosted Fuente’s compensation to $4.25 million for 2020 and in 2022, that number climbs to $4.5 million.
More importantly, Fuente’s buyout numbers are heavily skewed in his direction. Virginia Tech is on the hook for $12.5 million if they fire him this year, prior to Dec. 15. If they wait until after that date, Fuente’s buyout is still a cool $10 million.
Virginia Tech would struggle to find that amount of money in a normal year, but 2020 is as abnormal as they come. Babcock told TechSideline.com on Oct. 22 that the athletic department is looking at anywhere from a $20-30 million deficit this fiscal year.
Can an athletic department on pace to lose that much money realistically afford an extra $10 million to throw away? That number is likely to grow, too, as assistants and support staff are bought out as well. Andy Bitter of The Athletic (subscription required) wrote that number is likely more than $2 million.
Add that to the amount Babcock would have to pay his new football coach, assistants and support staff, and you’re looking at roughly a $20 million tab for starting over in the football department. How possible is that? Even if it is possible, does Babcock want to spend that sort of money while also asking other department employees to take pay cuts?
Stay the course
As much as Tech fans may not want to hear it, Babcock could also choose to ride it out with Fuente and his staff.
This would be a hard sell to fans and donors alike, given Virginia Tech’s losing ways. Justin Hamilton, who was billed by this staff as an up-and-comer, has looked way in over his head and Brad Cornelsen‘s unit has regressed significantly since the start of the season. This course of action would require a full rehabilitation of Fuente’s image, changing his villainous reputation amongst many fans and donors.
There are reasons to write off this whole season as an outlier. The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought havoc on every program in the country and Virginia Tech has been affected as anyone. Dozens of players have missed significant practice and game time — time they could be using to develop and contribute.
A ton of players have missed time due to injury, as well. Hendon Hooker was unavailable for most of the preseason after a non-COVID related health issue. Khalil Herbert, as productive as he’s been, has missed time. Tre Turner and James Mitchell have been dealing with nagging injuries for weeks now. DaShawn Crawford and Jermaine Waller are among those missing significant time on defense.
Babcock may look at all that has happened and write it off as an anomaly. Fuente and his staff have dealt with all sorts of issues they wouldn’t otherwise deal with and with that hefty price tag sitting in the corner of the room, Babcock may decide it best to run it back in 2021.
The middle road
As an observer of the Virginia Tech football program, I fully endorse this solution.
Virginia Tech cannot realistically part ways with Fuente. His buyout is too large and the money the Hokies would have to spend to hire a new coach makes that option all but a fairytale.
Instead, Babcock could force necessary changes that could help Fuente become the hero once again. While Fuente owns more blame than anyone, he’s financially untouchable. Babcock needs to make do the best he can with the situation he created.
For starters, Babcock could force Fuente to do what he did in 2019, and bring in an outside observer to address existential issues within the football program. Babcock and Fuente’s hiring of Jerry Kill in the middle of the 2019 season contributed to the Hokies’ streak of six wins over seven games last season.
Somebody with a track record needs to walk into Merryman Athletic Center and start changing things. Fuente needs someone who he can not only trust, but also someone who can also see things from a different view, one that isn’t clouded by loyalty.
Other changes should include moving on from Cornelsen as offensive coordinator and reassigning Hamilton, thus promoting Bill Teerlinck to defensive coordinator. Fuente needs to overhaul his recruiting process as well, putting people in places that they can develop lasting relationships. And as stated in Option Two, the athletic department would need to undertake a serious and coordinated campaign to restore Fuente’s image from 2016 and 2017, when he played the role of hero.
There are other changes, but those would represent a shift that would buy Fuente more time to get Virginia Tech on track. Fans may be willing to get behind those changes, given Fuente’s success in 2016 and 2017. It’s really Fuente’s last gasp.
What happens next
If you are firmly in the Option One crowd, you’ll have to wait until Dec. 15 to get your wish. Fuente’s buyout doesn’t dip until that date and if Babcock is going to gut the program, every dollar will matter.
Virginia Tech’s bye week probably came too late, but the Hokies can certainly take advantage of it now. They need to get their minds right and do their best to not get run off the field by Clemson.
Fuente may be coaching for his job against Virginia on Dec. 12. A second loss to Virginia in as many seasons and a 4-7 record would make it a lot easier for Babcock to pull the trigger and part ways. If Fuente wins, however, it could be just enough to get Babcock to buy in for another season.
Ultimately, we won’t know which of these options Babcock will choose until Dec. 15. Until then, Fuente’s future at Virginia Tech remains in serious doubt.