December 15th, 2020 - 1 PM ET.
This is the moment that Virginia Tech Director of Athletics Whit Babcock officially tied his legacy to embattled head football coach Justin Fuente.
After weeks of speculation, criticism, and an on-field product that has consistently fallen short of expectations, the fan base eagerly awaited closure.
This past Monday, December 14th, Babcock met with Virginia Tech President Dr. Timothy Sands, as well as the Rector of the Board of Visitors to discuss the state of the football program. During this meeting, Babcock laid out a plan for improvement, and what needed to be done both on and off the field, in order for Virginia Tech to turn the page and get the program back on track.
On Monday, Babcock also met with Justin Fuente for over four hours to discuss a wide range of issues. The meeting included a discussion on the current state of the program, the roster composition, coaching staff, recruiting, and a variety of other topics. Monday's meeting was status quo, as Babcock and Fuente always meet during the week following the conclusion of the football season to evaluate the state of the program. Both Babcock and Fuente left the meeting with an understanding that Fuente would remain employed as the head football coach.
Later that afternoon around 4 PM, an e-mail invitation was disseminated to media members, notifying the contingent of a Tuesday afternoon press conference with Babcock. The topic du jour was to "answer questions on topics pertaining to Tech football and Tech athletics."
Without much context, many expected that this press conference was being held to announce that Fuente was being dismissed, and to formally commence a national coaching search for his replacement. Given that Fuente's buyout dropped on Tuesday from $12.5 million to $10 million, it was fair for those on the outside looking in to speculate, and even assume, that Fuente was done in Blacksburg.
However, shortly after the press conference invitation was extended to the media, news began to leak that Fuente would be retained as the head coach of the Hokies. With many well-respected media members reporting the news late on Monday afternoon that Fuente would remain in charge, the expectation for Tuesday's press conference shifted. Instead, the prevailing thought was that there would be a clear path forward for improvement outlined by Babcock for the fans, donors, and alumni alike.
When Tuesday's presser began, Babcock backed Fuente as anticipated, citing that he was the right man to lead the football program.
"Most people do not understand when you reboot the program and tear it all the way to the ground, some fans simply want someone to pay for their pain. I know it hurts when we lose. There may be a better way to go about expressing it. That's the easy way out...hey, the mob is mad, let's change coaches and have a honeymoon, and no one really knows much for three years. Not here. Not this year. I don't believe that's right. That's not how we are going to do it just because it's easier and pacifies some of the vocal opinions and social media mob. Upheaval is a dangerous strategy if you miss. I know we have the right coach. If you change and miss, it can get into a spiral that you don't want. We believe we have the right guy and that's what we are going to move forward with," Babcock said.
"We have not given this staff a fair shake in my opinion, especially on the defensive side of the ball. We are not going to throw the baby out of the bathwater."
While sticking by Fuente, Babcock stated that 15-20 Virginia Tech donors have committed to giving $12.5 million to the football program over the next five years for program infrastructure. Babcock hopes that this fundraising effort, combined with other initiatives, will take the program's budget to the top-third in the ACC.
"The future is very bright," Babcock said as he discussed the donations.
While the boost to financial infrastructure is in the best interest of the long-term prospects of the football program, many want answers to the here and now, and rightfully so.
How is the current staff going to right the ship in the near term?
Babcock described his Monday morning meeting with Fuente as "a breakthrough." However, Babcock did not discuss concrete details regarding what will change to move Virginia Tech forward on the football field sooner rather than later.
In reality, the press conference provided plenty of platitudes, but not a whole heck of a lot of answers. When pressed on the specifics of short-term remedies, Babcock dodged and deflected like Mike Tyson in his prime, instead pointing out that he did not promulgate specific changes that Fuente needed to make to keep his job.
"There were no demands made where, 'If you want to stay here, you have to do X'...you give them advice, you do that, but they sink or swim with their own people. I think the staff that he's brought together-- a lot of new ones, right? Haven't even been here a year-- pretty pleased and ready to give them a change to show what they can do," Babcock said.
When asked more directly if there were any impending staff changes, Babcock deflected and said, "I can't speculate on that."
Armchair quarterbacks all over the internet have speculated on the job status of offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen, who despite conducting a top 25 offense in several statistical categories, has become known for his uneven play calling that has been a contributing factor to offensive inconsistency.
Cornelsen's name was brought up early in Babcock's opening statement, where he supported Cornelsen and discussed a need to "humanize him" and put him in front of media members and fans more often so that they get to know who he is and what he's like.
We're at the conclusion of year five and now is the time for the fan base to get to know Brad Cornelsen? Why haven't we gotten to know him earlier? And most importantly, does Babcock believe that "humanizing" the offensive coordinator will lead to fans being pleased with his job performance?
It sounds great on paper - but let's be honest about this. In reality, it couldn't be more tone deaf.
Alas, herein lies the problem with Virginia Tech football. Public relations is a nightmare, fan apathy is at an all-time high, and trust in the program with Fuente as its head, and now, with Babcock as its athletic director, has come into the crosshairs of the fans.
Virginia Tech finished the 2020 season with its second losing record in the last three years. The Hokies have not put together such a stretch since the early '90s, when the program started the decade with consecutive losing seasons in 1990 and 1991 before Frank Beamer flipped the switch and led the program to over two decades of prominence.
Despite this, are fans expected to accept the status quo, support the program, and live with the results?
That's a tough sell.
However there is one person who must live with the results - good, bad, or indifferent - and that's Whit Babcock.
Babcock bet his legacy at Virginia Tech on one thing and one thing only...
Time will tell if that bet was worth the gamble.