Virginia Tech introduced new athletic director Whit Babcock Wednesday and he made it clear that his new position has been on his mind for quite some time.
"It's good to be back home again in Virginia," Babcock said during his prepared remarks.
"When those closest to me, my family, my mentors would ask, 'Whit if you could pick one place in the country, one place, your top place in the country to be the director of athletics where would it be?' That answer has been and is Virginia Tech."
He went on to reminisce about his his first exposure to Virginia Tech as a young bat boy for his father's James Madison baseball teams. Back then, the baseball diamond was where the football practice fields are located today. His new office overlooks the same spot. After playing baseball and graduating from JMU, Babcock served in various administrative positions at BCS level schools Auburn, Missouri and West Virginia before finally becoming director of athletics at the University of Cincinnati. Babcock's excitement to be in Blacksburg is genuine and a good sign for Hokies everywhere.
Let's face it, Tech fans have been feeling pretty low about the revenue sports the last couple seasons. Football has found out that what other schools deal with all the time—going through multiple assistant coaching changes—can be messy and uncomfortable. Never mind a 7-win season backed up by an 8-win campaign. Meanwhile, the men's basketball program has officially bottomed out—though if there's something worse than rock bottom, the current team seems intent on finding it.
Despite those high profile issues, there are plenty of other things going on in the Virginia Tech athletic department that need to be addressed. Daily Press columnist David Teel had an enlightening column recently outlining some of the most pressing issues. Teel interviewed John Ballein, Virginia Tech's associate athletics director for football operations and one of a handful of candidates that sought the position that eventually went to Babcock. The piece paints a picture of a department at a financial "crossroads" as Ballein put it, something that likely comes at surprising news to most outsiders. It's especially surprising considering Virginia Tech is one of a small number of athletic departments nationwide that runs in the black.
Even so, Hokie Club membership is down, Virginia Tech ranks 14th in the ACC in ratio of academic support staff to Olympic athletes and there are plenty of facilities issues waiting to be addressed. When Frank Beamer's right-hand man tells the coach that the department should probably hold off on the new indoor practice facility, that tells you something about where the priorities should be.
The biggest priority is the Hokie Club. There needs to be a massive effort to educate Hokies everywhere about Tech's official athletics fundraising arm. Most people probably don't realize that the Hokie Club doesn't just help put up shiny new buildings, but funds scholarships for all sports. I was surprised to find that the club has a Twitter account, but it has just 743 followers. For comparison, Gobbler Country has over 2,000. People don't know largely because no one has told them. I graduated in 2008 and have never been contacted by the Hokie Club. I'm not a big donor by any stretch, but I did give some money to the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences last year, largely because they picked up the phone and asked if I could. While the Hokie Club is separate from the athletics department, there's no question Whit Babcock will work closely with them to energize fundraising efforts.
New money can be used in part to address facilities upgrades that are needed not just for football practice, but plenty of other sports. Perhaps the most pressing need is to address Rector Field House, an aging relic built in the early 1970s that needs to be significantly upgraded if not entirely replaced. Virginia Tech has one of the fastest indoor tracks in the country in the facility, but it gets taken apart and stored so football can use the building. This is inefficient and also puts unneeded wear and tear on the track. Even if football gets a new building and track gets the existing field house with some upgrades, that leaves other Olympic sports with no indoor field to use.
I've already addressed at length some of the long term prospects for Cassell Coliseum, but there are more immediate concerns with the basketball programs. On the women's side, head coach Dennis Wolff has made some headway in his third season. The team has suffered a number of close losses including a near upset of No. 4 Duke. The win-loss mark is still ugly, but the quality of play has significantly improved and his recruiting has been impressive. It's not too hard to make an agrument for Wolff to get more time.
James Johnson's situation on the men's side isn't so clear. Johnson was also tasked with an enormous rebuilding job in the best basketball conference in the country. The difference is Wolff was a longtime head coach on the men's side at Boston University while Johnson was a longtime assistant. So far, Johnson has posted an overall record of 21-31 with just a 5-22 record in conference play. Only one of those ACC wins has come this season and it's entirely possible the Hokies won't win again this season. The team is undeniably listless and has no clear identity on offense or defense. Fundamental mistakes like turnovers and missed free throws have become the norm. Even if Johnson is given another season and shows improvement, Babcock would have a tough call to make. In order to recruit effectively, Johnson would need a contract extension at that point as he would only have two years remaining on his initial contract.
It will be the first of many difficult decisions for Whit Babcock and it will come with less than three weeks on the job.The good news is he brings a refreshing new perspective and a youthful presence that is sorely needed in Blacksburg. His enthusiasm for the position is palpable and will serve him well in a job that clearly will tax his abilities as soon as he starts February 17th. Of course no one said dreams are easy.