The Hokie Football Culture Conundrum
Culture. Defined as the shared attitude, values, goals, and practices that characterize an institution or organization, it's also one of the most important elements in building and sustaining a successful college football program.
Culture is paramount to establishing buy-in, increasing the levels of accountability, and standardizing excellence in what it means to represent your particular institution or organization.
However, in my experiences, some common fallacies in attempting to create a winning organizational culture generally overlook the following elements:
1. It has to be organic
2. It has to represent the people
This is where those tasked to lead the organization - in this case, the head coach - make the common mistake of pressing a culture through the use of platitudes, "coach speak", jargon, or other slogans that seem like a feigned attempt to impart a specific brand or style of play.
The idea is, it doesn’t matter how it happens or who is in the organization, as long as we teach these elements, our culture will be sustainable.
Don’t get me wrong, that mindset isn’t just limited to the coaches and staff.
In fact, I’d guarantee that if you took a cross-section of the Hokie fan base on what elements make up the Virginia Tech football culture, the resulting list would probably look like this:
• Hard. Smart. Tough.
• Hard Hat Mentality
While all correct in labeling the type of player and persona for someone associated with Virginia Tech football, none of those phrases actually define why those terms are utilized to describe Hokie football in the first place.
That’s because they are symptoms of culture.
The reality is actually much simpler. The culture of Virginia Tech football is the players, specifically, players from Virginia.
Plain and simple.
And why is that?
Because a roster comprised of kids from Virginia, that were born, raised, and played football in the Commonwealth, are far more likely to understand, beyond just lip service, what it means to play for Virginia Tech.
That’s not to say the coaches, staff, and players currently on the roster don’t understand and haven’t already heard what it means over and over again, but it’s also hard to argue that it doesn’t seem to be imprinted upon them, marrow-deep, considering the on-field performance.
And what I mean by that is, the product we see on Saturdays doesn’t look like Virginia Tech football. Not just whether the result of the game was a win or a loss, but to many in Hokie Nation, it is HOW the team played.
• The physicality
• The effort
• The consistency
• The blue-collar type identity that is such an important element to playing for a university embedded in southwest Virginia
"I thought our in-state recruiting had slipped. High school coaches were telling me. They were upset. They didn't think they were getting enough attention. You're leaving the state, we're bringing in guys that aren't as good as the kids in-state that are leaving or we're not recruiting. If you lose the in-state, the thing is going to fall apart."
So to understand the shift in performance, outside of just coaching changes, talent levels, or any other variable that is important in contributing to a winning program, there was one other difference that appeared too large of a change from years prior as to why the culture of Hokie football seems so different.
Going back to 2005, which is a great starting point considering the available data and the fact that Virginia Tech was kicking off a pretty remarkable run, the on-field results spoke for themselves:
• 10+ win seasons (8 straight from 2004-2011),
• High-level bowl games (‘04 and ’11 Sugar, ‘06 and ’09 Chick-Fil-A/Peach, and the ’07, ’08 and ’10 Orange),
• Consistent Top 10 defenses (2nd in 2005, 1st in 2006, 3rd in 2007, and 9th in 2008 and 2009)
To the media and fans, these accomplishments were all made possible by the Lunchpail and Beamerball “cultures” that defined that era.
But if you look closer, there was a predominant theme, beyond the teachings of the coaching staff, which was… each roster was overwhelmingly representative of players from Virginia.
Entering the 2005 season, Beamer and Co. were operating a well-oiled machine, with annual recruiting classes that averaged 35-40% of the top-ranked high school football players from the Commonwealth, which translates to roughly 10-13 players a year from the VA Top In-State Rankings.
(By the way, Virginia Tech somehow sustained its in-state recruiting success and Virginia-based roster strategy despite continuously ranking in the bottom ten of Power Five football programs as it pertains to total recruiting budgets… just saying).
While many of you already know that in-state recruiting is an issue, especially at the top end of the VA Top In-State rankings, what I’m pointing out is that, if you look even closer, it’s the TOTALITY of the 110 total active players from the 2005 roster that were from the Commonwealth... 88 players.
Just let that sink in for a moment. In 2005, 80% of the Hokie roster was comprised of Virginia high school football players.
Doing some quick math, Virginia Tech averaged 11 recruits per season from the VA Top In-State rankings for each of the five seasons leading up to that point (2001-2005), meaning, in theory, roughly 55 of those 88 players were considered “highly touted”.
That means the remaining 33 Virginia players were kids that just wanted to represent their home state, even if it meant foregoing a scholarship to play at a smaller school. Those 33 kids chose to represent Virginia Tech, knowing they would probably never see the field.
It’s those 33 kids that, to me, defined Hokie football culture.
That’s because each of those players was in the same meetings, dining halls, practices, and weight room sessions as the scholarship athletes, meaning they were just as impactful in defining a winning culture as those who went through the Merryman Center as a 4-or-5-star recruit and went on to be drafted by the NFL.
The logic is simple, having a supermajority of Virginia players on the Hokie roster seemed to be a significant component of the Beamer era, that when you also factor in how Beamer was from southwest Virginia, played at Virginia Tech, and had the majority of his staff from Virginia, each culture-building principle was in place to sell a more comprehensive message of what it meant to play Virginia Tech style football, especially to a cohort of Virginia based players that were more receptive to buying into that culture.
Fast forward to 2020… and that cohort of Virginia players has plummeted to forty. Four. Zero.
With 120 on the active roster, that equates to just 33.3% of the total roster. With the last few years of disappointing results among the VA Top In-State recruiting classes, which only yielded 25 total players, that leaves only 15 additional players from Virginia currently filling a roster spot.
Less than half the amount from 2005, or in other words, a 55% drop in an area that seemed to be an important contributor to the prior levels of accountability, consistency, attitude, and the shared value of playing Virginia Tech football.
Culture, like any other element, can reach a tipping point.
For Virginia Tech, it was probably more of a series of tipping points.
The waning Beamer years, the loss of not just one, but two Hall of Fame football coaches, and an influx of new staff, who may not have fully understood what made Hokie football successful, were all cultural tipping points at the top of the organization.
But the ebbing tide of Virginia players from the roster is an even bigger cultural tipping point considering it impacted the FOUNDATION of Virginia Tech football.
So as Hokie Nation collectively searches for answers on how to right the ship, any new strategy or direction would be remiss if it overlooked the importance of having Virginia players over-represent the orange and maroon.