Rarely will an athletics director go on record like Virginia Tech’s Whit Babcock did last month. When a local sports radio host asked if Justin Fuente was on the hot seat, Babcock cannonballed into the Twitter pool with a resounding, “No.”
— Whit Babcock (@WhitBabcock) August 20, 2019
Fuente took over for Frank Beamer ahead of the 2016 season and immediately looked like a home run hire. The Hokies had leveled off under Beamer — they went 7-6 in three of his final four seasons and 8-5 in the other — and immediately went 10-4, won the ACC Coastal Division and finished No. 16 in both polls, all of which were firsts in half a decade.
That earned Fuente a 2-year extension in 2017, which led to a still-solid-but-not-as-solid sophomore season from the head coach: a 9-4 record, a second place finish in the division, and a No. 24 finish in the AP poll.
Fuente’s 19-8 record over the 2016-17 seasons generated interest from other schools, which, in turn, earned him another kiss. Virginia Tech extended his contract to seven years and $30.5 million in base pay and retention bonuses in January 2018.
And then Virginia Tech slipped noticeably in the fall of 2018. The Hokies’ FBS-best bowl streak lived, but just barely. Virginia Tech was 4-6 heading into the Virginia game, which the Hokies won in an overtime upset. A win over Marshall the following week extended Virginia Tech’s FBS-best bowl streak to 26 years, but that 26th straight bowl game was a dud: a Military Bowl loss to Cincinnati.
All that led to Josh Parcell’s tweet, and to Babcock’s strongly-worded answer. Surely, Babcock thought Virginia Tech was due for a rebound in Fuente’s fourth season. Through four games, the opposite has happened.
Virginia Tech opened the season with a 35-28 loss to Boston College — the same BC team that was blown out by Kansas two weeks later. After a solid win over Old Dominion, VT needed a second half rally to beat Furman, and then Duke hammered them on Friday, 45-10. It was Virginia Tech’s worst home loss since 1974.
VT’s remaining schedule includes three ranked teams and a handful of toss-up games.
Virginia Tech’s bowl streak is in serious jeopardy, but is Fuente’s job?
Knowing that Babock himself might cannonball into the comments section, the answer seems to be no — and not just because the AD is so publicly supportive of his head coach.
We don’t have a copy of Fuente’s new contract, but those who’ve seen it say the school would owe him $15 million if Virginia Tech moved on before Dec. 15 and $12.5 million thereafter. Much like with Colorado State’s deal with Mike Bobo, the timing here is interesting. Should Virginia Tech elect to make a change, that decision would be made ahead of the Dec. 15 date, which falls two weeks after the Hokies’ regular season concludes and just days before the early signing period. And yet not waiting two weeks to save $2.5 million seems fiscally irresponsible.
Fuente’s buyout falls $2.5 million (or thereabouts) each Dec. 16, to $12.5 million on Dec. 16, 2019; to $10 million on Dec. 16, 2020; to $7.5 million on Dec. 16, 2021; to $5 million on Dec. 16, 2022; and then to $2 million on or after Dec. 16, 2023.
Whit Babcock is clearly a big believer in Justin Fuente. He hired him away from Memphis, extended him after both of his first two seasons and is willing to go out of his way to stand up for him on Twitter after a 6-7 season. It’s unlikely Babcock’s faith would be shaken so violently that he’d suddenly be willing to round up $15 million to buy him out (plus the associated costs of hiring a new head coach and exchanging staffs) just three months after stating so publicly and definitively that Fuente’s job was not in danger.
Babcock will give Fuente every chance to turn Virginia Tech around — like, say, hiring Jerry Kill to provide a fresh set of eyes and providing every available resource to find the next up-and-coming defensive coordinator following Bud Foster’s upcoming retirement.