The timing caught me off guard, but the “mutual agreement” between Virginia Tech and Head Football Coach Justin Fuente to part ways was inevitable.
The timing was curious insofar as the buyout option on his contract goes from $10 million to $7.5 million on December 15th. Reports indicate the two sides met in the middle and agree to a $8.75 million settlement. Yes, I still consider $1.25 million to be a “lot of money.” Of course, I am now in my mid-fifties and am officially justified in sporting the cranky old man attitude I have now sported for more than thirty years.
Without hearing more, I am guessing the university wanted to avoid two things. First, the lame duck “dead man walking” aura of having a coach stalking the sidelines over the last two games who was NOT going to be back. I can see where that would be demoralizing.
Secondly, I think they wanted to avoid the possible conflicts that could have arrived had the Hokies managed to rally and actually WIN those two games and qualify for a bowl! After last week’s impressive performance, if Fuente’s charges had managed to close out with road wins at Miami and in Charlottesville it would have put us at 7-5 with a bullet—heading into a Belk/Music City-tier bowl. It is hard to jettison a coach when his team is on a clear upward trajectory.
With Fuente gone the Hokies can focus on football and not have to worry about the immediate future. Former Hokie hell-raising Defensive Tackle J.C. Price will serve as Interim Head Coach. That’s a far cry from the spiky-haired Freshman who damned near flunked out of school in the early 90’s after arriving in Blacksburg and spending most of his time drunk off of his ass, playing Nintendo.
As for Fuente, yes I have been quite vocal about my displeasure in last year’s decision to keep him on board for what essentially amounted to a “trial year.” That is bad management. If the Hokies had over-performed this year and Fuente been retained, that was no guarantor of future success. Neither would have any shortcomings been proof of future failure. It is the long-term results and the reliable predictors which led me to the conclusion last year that we should cut ties with Fuente.
What can I say? At the time of the hire, Fuente seemed the best of the “hot” coaching candidates. Before arriving in Memphis, the Tigers were 5-31 in a three-year span. But he posted a 19-6 record in the final two seasons of his four-year Memphis stay. It included the development of a raw talent into an NFL quarterback (Paxton Lynch); earning Fuente a reputation as a “quarterback whisperer.”
It was hard not to be excited after the first season. Using a JUCO transfer QB, the Hokies won the coastal and played the eventual national champions from Clemson to a one-score game in the ACC title game. In the Belk Bowl the Hokies staged a super second-half comeback to beat Arkansas. They finished 10-4 and were ranked #16 in the country.
From there the story sours. It will be hard to revisit it, but here goes.
***Losses to all 3 in-state FBS programs in 3 years
***6 losses to unranked teams while ranked
***5 losses as a double-digit favorite
***3 straight bowl losses
***6 losses of 21 points or more
***Worst home loss in 45 years
***VT’s only losing season since 1993
***Recruiting that was ranked in the bottom third of the ACC for three consecutive years.
***Streak of 27 consecutive bowl games snapped
***Streak of 16 consecutive wins against UVa snapped
Unfortunately there is more. We had three starting quarterbacks transfer out of the program in a three-year period. That is unheard of, especially for a “quarterback whisperer.” Yes, the transfer portal has made such moves easier than ever before. But there was a conspicuous pattern under Fuente’s tenure of quarterback dissatisfaction. That is not a recipe for success.
And there are other intangibles to consider. I have said it many times. If you are a college football coach with the charisma of a turnip, you had DAMNED sure better win a lot of games. Thems the rules. Fuente did not. Fans of Indiana University put up with a LOT of shit from Bobby Knight for years…until he started losing a lot of games.
Add to this Fuente’s very closed-off nature of dealing with the press and other avenue of public outreach. The program was much more shut off to the public compared to the Frank Beamer years. Tech football is a marketable commodity and has to be repeatedly “sold” to the public. The modern head football coach has got to have (at bare minimum) rudimentary marketing skills. Or at the very least, designate those duties to someone who does. Fuente fell short in both areas.
Fuente’s very nature meant that he rarely showed any emotion on the sideline. That’s fine. Some of the great stone-faced coaches of the past (Tom Landry, Bud Grant, etc.) are proof that you can be stoic while still being effective. But when you juxtapose this demeanor against the backdrop of frustration, well, it just felt to rabid Hokie fans that Fuente never shared the frustration with us. That is probably a petty thing, but it is a thing.
It is never easy replacing a legend. Especially one who still lives a few miles from the stadium where you play. Simply put, the minimum standard of performance that was set in Blacksburg was not reached by Justin Fuente. It is unfortunate, since Fuente seems like a genuinely nice guy—a family man with good morals. I wish it had worked out. I truly do. And I enthusiastically wish him nothing but the best.
Now we will begin something that hasn’t happened in decades at Virginia Tech. A full-bore public coaching Silly Season. Fuente’s hiring was done quickly, sparing us the drawn-out process of bandied-about names, flight records checks and other assorted madness.
Drink up, fellow Hokies. The next couple of weeks won’t be boring!