Wednesday the 9th of March, 2016, will feature Virginia Tech Men's Basketball Team playing against Florida State as the 6th seed in the ACC tournament. The last time Tech was seeded at 6th was 2011. 2011 was also the last time that Virginia Tech Football was in a BCS bowl- or any major bowl for that matter. ACC champion level. But since then? Virginia Tech's gone through a lot of turnover. And you know what? For a community that can be really shocked and jolted by change? I think right now is the time to look back and say that we might truly be better off for it.
At that time, Virginia Tech men's basketball was coached by current ESPN employee and full-time personality Seth Greenburg, football by the old reliable Frank Beamer, the athletic department by the dog-loyal Jim Weaver, and the university was helmed by Charles Steger. At the time, all the dominoes seemed to be set up just in time for things to fall one by one. Steger had been on shaky public ground since 2007. Jim Weaver had been suffering from Parkinson's Disease since 2004, sapping him of his health. Anyone, like me, that has had a relative with Parkinson's knows how debilitating this dreadful disease is. Multiple surgeries and the bustle of the job probably wore the heck out of him, and he was running on empty. Frank was still a few years away from retirement, but questions about his age and when and if he'd be replaced were being asked very quietly- in the dark or more as idle curiosity rather than anything serious. Seth Greenburg was in the midst of a streak of years where his teams would just get CLOSE to the NCAA tournament or just barely make it in, and either fail there or in the NIT. At that point in time, Tech had a bankable athletic name to go with a good academic one. But the best laid plans of mice and men go slowly spiraling out of control.
The first axe to fall was Greenburg's. Seth was fired after the 2012 season after a moderately successful nine years on the job. Tech HAS a basketball history- not an amazing one, but a decent one. Bimbo Coles, Dell Curry, winning an NIT back when it meant almost more than the NCAA tournament; we've had success. To can someone after years of injuries and with a decent recruiting class incoming seemed confusing at best and completely loony at worst. We lost out on multiple players. Montrezl Harrell, a first round NBA Draft pick. Dorian Finney-Smith, now playing well at Florida. Coach James Johnson was dragged back from Clemson just to have someone at the helm- and he ran the ship aground. Unable to recruit or coach with the rest of the ACC, Johnson did poorly, and the program went into the tank.
The second axe to fall was Steger. The man that had built a lot of the university- literally and figuratively an architect of much of its expansion in the 2000s- decided to retire and hand the reins to someone else. Between the football exploits and the limited basketball success, not to mention the actual national and international outgrowth of the university and it's branding- Virginia Tech achieved a larger stage. Posts in Northern Virginia, Switzerland, Richmond, and information technology would help Tech get a foothold elsewhere. But he decided to step aside- no man was probably more damaged in perception than him in the aftermath of the tragedy of April 2007. Though a court decision was overturned in 2013 clearing him and the school of indemnification, the case probably wore on him.
Jim Weaver's job security and job quality had been the object of a lot of speculation for a couple years by the time he fired Seth Greenburg- it only picked up once Greenburg was canned. Not unceremoniously canned, but actually rather ceremoniously fired- with a recruit still on campus! In the middle of April!- without a lot of justification. I remember the huge block letters on the website announcing the move, and I sat there looking stunned at the monitor. What the hell had we done?! On top of that with the slowly spiraling football program and the lack of hiring a good replacement coach for Greenburg, Weaver had slowly dropped away the good will he'd earned expanding Lane Stadium and helping to sell Virginia Tech football during the Vick Era. His tenure will always be known as an odd combination of good and later bad, and he retired for medical reasons, before passing away in 2015.
Fittingly, Frank was the last to go. After four years of middling at best results, Frank's age, lack of attention to recruiting, failing health, and failure to live up to the lofty standards he had set finally got him, and he retired.
When you put that all together? Tech's Administration is brand new from top to bottom due to the crumbling of the old guard. Greenburg's personality and bad luck, along with just some odd logic, forced him out. Weaver, Steger, and Beamer retired for various reasons. And so brought in the new crowd.
Whit Babcock was the first man on the boat (January 24th, 2014). Hired by the interim staff in charge of the university, Babcock was a known fundraiser at Cincinnati. A former JMU baseball player, Whit had been around the country at Missouri, Cincinnati, West Virginia, and Auburn. He was the guy that somehow got former SEC and Big XII coach Tommy Tuberville to go to Cincy, which was a huge move at the time. It would portend things to come- because Whit's gone from an AD known for being a money man to being an AD known for being a ‘gets-his-man' man.
In a very short time after being hired, 43-year old Whit got kicking. First thing was to get the basketball program back on its feet by getting rid of James Johnson (March 17th, 2014). And in the ACC, it better be on its feet to compete. Here's where the money-man became the go-getter we know: To make revenue in basketball, especially in the ACC, you've got to have a good coach to win. With Syracuse, Louisville, and Pitt joining the ACC, now you had Coach K, Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim, Rick Pitino, and Tony Bennett now coaching in the same conference. It was time to put up or shutter up- and Whit put up by hiring Buzz Williams (March 21st, 2014), who wanted the heck out of Marquette. FOUR DAYS, GUYS. From the time that the news that James Johnson was fired passed our desk to the time that Buzz Williams was hired was less time than it takes to get a pair of shoes shipped! Williams is a hard driver and someone that can recruit and develop talent- that's something that Whit now seems to specialize in, by the way. Getting guys that develop talent and demand excellence in many ways. He's only in his early forties, too. Long as we can keep up with paying him what he's worth, hopefully he'll stay- his mishmash team of recruits, transfers, and one remaining player have gotten us very close to back where we started- and there's obvious room for UPWARD growth. Buzz has been worth every penny so far.
Then Steger's replacement was hired. Taking the reins of the university in June 2014, Timothy Sands could've done whatever he wished with the university, within reason. Get his own guys in place? No. Sands was content to grow the university and let Whit get to work. He's now pushing to grow the medical school, building several new academic establishments, and overseeing further growth of the reputation of our university as a research institution. More feathers in the cap go to our growing work with the smart road, biofuels, concussions, and other fields. Sands comes from a non-athletic background- UC Berkley and Purdue aren't exactly known for football or basketball greatness (though Purdue can probably justifiably argue I'm wrong about the latter). For him to throw himself and the support of the school behind an athletic department he had no role in hiring, and in helping to ensure them that they had the university's full support when a lot of the academics at the university wish that the football program would go away? That's saying something. Sometimes the best thing to do IS to do nothing and let the money ride.
And of course now we're to the point at which we've hired Justin Fuente, 39, after Virginia Tech being listed as one of the most desirable jobs in the nation- at least at a realistic tier (USC sitting on its own moon). Whit again went out, searched for, and identified his guy with alacrity. Justin Fuente was signed, sealed, and delivered almost mid-UVA-game. Leaks being what they are in the sports media business, someone wanted to get the news out about the hire to basically stake out Fuente and tell everyone he was off the market. Whit strikes fast and first. To grow the money, you've got to build the brand back up, and at Virginia Tech, that's got to be done with class and development and hard ethic rather than just simple talent. It's just the nature of being a sleepy town in Appalachian Virginia that's three to four hours away from the closest major media market. But Coach Fu's already proven to be fair and doggedly determined. We'll see how the on-field results shape up, but much like basketball- though Fuente has more to work with- it's not a short term job.
In five years, a university known for stability had an upheaval. Both socially, historically, and administratively, Tech is much different than it was. The AD, and both major revenue sports head coaches are only going to be in their early 40s- Fuente just hitting it this year. All of them will have had short tenures. Sands is only in his late 50s, which isn't exactly old for a major college administrator. The carousel has finally stopped at Virginia Tech, and all the players are new in the game. But all of them seem to be headed in the same direction. They're all honest, hardworking men that are going to do what is good and right for this university. Even with the jury still being a bit out on Coach Fuente due to time constraints, Virginia Tech's future got turned over to a younger generation with even more hopes, dreams, and possibilities at its fingertips. Five years was all it took to completely turn the page.