As I said in my last article, the job that Coach Justin Fuente is going to have in Blacksburg is going to be hard and more importantly, there will be many things that come up over the next few years that he and the rest of his staff will never see coming. He isn't starting from a blank slate (almost no coach who goes to a major program ever does), but his job may be even harder because what he will be working with is both old guard and new. He has players who were recruited by former coaches and new players who he recruited. Coaches who worked with the former regime, and people who have only worked with him. And fans who have been used to things being done in a particular way, when now they will be done somewhat differently. There is nothing else that you can call the situation other than a challenge of the highest order. What makes his situation a little different though, is that he has a man who is on campus who has done it before and is starting to see success. Buzz Williams.
There are differences between what Coach Williams and Coach Fuente found when they came to Blacksburg. There was obviously less talent on the Cassell side of things than what Coach Fuente saw when he first got himself on campus. The coaching staff that Buzz assembled was also mostly his own, while Justin could never have done that himself without a full-blown mutiny on his hands. And most glaringly, Williams was able to do much of his work in the relative quiet of a mostly dormant basketball program, while Fuente has no option but to do his with a massive amount of scrutiny that will bring with it almost impossible expectations. But that is where the differences end.
The major similarity is both glaring and exceedingly important to why Coach Williams is such a good case study for Coach Fuente. Both men are at Virginia Tech in the new age of recruiting and culture. While basketball recruiting is different than football recruiting, especially with when it comes to AAU ball and the sheer number of recruits that a football coach must go for each year, the fact is, they are working on getting young men to come and play in Blacksburg. From talking with a good number of former players, the largest thing that I have learned is how much of a culture shock it is for many of these guys to come to a small, middle-class, and massively white city in the mountains of Virginia. While there are players who come to Blacksburg who fit in easily with the demographics and idiosyncrasies of our small world, we would be kidding ourselves if we didn't take into account what it is like to be such a different looking and stand out in the crowd type of guy as a 18-21 year-old. Clemson, Florida State, Miami (although not as much at the actual school), all have much higher rates of African-American's on campus and close to campus as compared to VT.
Think back to when you were 18. I bet, like most of us, you were trying to figure out where you fit in and find people who were liked minded and who it would be easy to get to know and relate to. And while there are positives to being a tall, in shape athlete at any school, especially one that values athletics as much as VT does, it can easily be a very lonely and confusing time for the guys who come to play in Blacksburg.
This is why the culture that Coach Williams has fostered with his team is so important. It would have been impossible for Buzz to get a Kerry Blackshear Jr. or a Chris Clarke without building a culture that makes these young men and their families feel welcome. If you follow Coach Williams on Twitter or Facebook (and I suggest highly that you do both), he is always giving out little sayings, posting pictures, and giving a slight glimpse into his program without being too invasive. He talks about people with real compassion, but also challenges them with wisdom while still throwing in pictures of him being with his team that are remarkable and memorable for all the right reasons. This is what you do when you coach a program now a days. Unless you are Coach K, you have to do these things in order to show that you can no only relate, but give the guys who might come to play for you later, a little positive glimpse into who you are and at the same time, show why the guys who do come to play for you, love you and feel included.
This may be the thing that Justin Fuente is most charged with doing as the new coach. He has to find genuine ways of showing off himself and the program in a positive light, not only to donors and fans, but maybe more importantly, to perspective players who might come and play for him in the future. He must make a connection with guys he has never even talked with, just by his presence online and with the media. There has been a lot of talk, much of it by Coach Fuente himself, about the 757, but those guys and their families are going to keep picking Clemson, FSU, Georgia, Alabama, and OSU until our new coach can show these guys the inclusive and welcoming culture that is Virginia Tech and it's football team.
The change in culture has already begun naturally. With a new coach, there is always a feeling out period where you get an idea of what the new person is like, if he has buttons that easily get pushed, and what he really is like as a man. But what Coach Williams did during that time was build the culture up, make it welcoming, and (most importantly) make it his own. Only time will tell if Justin Fuente really has it in him to make that happen and turn Hokie football into the beast that it really can be. But one thing is for sure, if he ever has any questions on how to make that culture work, he needs only to go a few offices down and knock on the door. I'm sure Coach Williams will be happy to give him some sage advise or at least a saying or two to point him in the right direction.