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Virginia Tech Hokies: Moving in and Making Changes

Virginia Tech sports is changing almost as fast as buildings are going up around campus. Before the big season starts, it's time to adjust the seat belts and prepare for a growing healthy athletic department that is beginning to appear on more radar screens than interest in Football.

More good changes and the Hokie Bird might be getting more mascot respect...
More good changes and the Hokie Bird might be getting more mascot respect...
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

How many folks out there really know what it's like to move?  Not to temporarily load up a dorm or apartment room with stuff to occupy a short period of time; but to truly pick up and move to somewhere different.  This is both a personal question and a relevant one as well.   There were huge changes for the Virginia Tech Football coaching staff.  Few reporters and commentators spend much time or thought when it comes to that churn factor.  The Hokies haven't had much of it in the last 30 years, so maybe it's time to walk in the shoes of the affected.

What's it like to get a tap on the shoulder, negotiate a contract that would count for multiple years of work for most regular people, and offer to pick up and move to a completely unknown town in an obscure mountain river valley of Southwestern Virginia?  I wonder how many Hokies remember their first time coming to Blacksburg; unless you are/were local and therefore familiar.

So, why would a huge chunk of the University of Memphis's coaching staff uproot and follow their boss to a completely different place.  Memphis isn't a huge city, but it is pretty big.  To be kind, because culturally it has given this nation so much, it has current big city issues.  The place is, however, a full sized city with the big suburbs and city center that many folks find more culturally amenable than two small towns (Blacksburg and Christiansburg) sandwiched together in the western slice of a county that is mostly bearded Appalachian Mountains and high valleys.

There are more than a few folks who assert that Virginia Tech cannot possibly attract the kind of talent necessary to routinely make it back to the FBS Top 20 and maybe take an occasional crack at the ersatz playoffs.  There isn't enough sun, sand, and booster club arranged fun.   Frank Beamer is gone, and was past his prime so the program is thin and populated by two star talent and walk-ons that Frank was so fond of turning into winners.  That's what they say.

That argument may be valid, or it may be a bit of a cartoon.  One thing that it points to is the self-reinforcing feedback loop that is decline.  The oddity of most sports organizations, pro or amateur [cough] is that the organization is either on the rise or on the decline.  There might be a couple of years at stasis; but decline does set in.  The parts of the coaching staff moves on.  The player quality begins to slow as the promise of big things begins to wane.  Eventually the team drops out of the top of whatever league that it plays in; which feeds the coaching issue.

The spiral continues until something changes the dynamic and the spiral resets and spins the other way.  If there are some parallels in the discussion, and some things seem ominously true then the change at the locus of the spiral is the only cure.  That axis, or locus, or focus is inevitably the leadership of the organization both on the field, and off.

When Whit Babcock took over for Jim Weaver there were all the markings of a classic program death spiral nearing critical mass.  His first move was to reach out to Buzz Williams to fix the struggling basketball program.  Babcock, facing some revenue issues, along with infrastructure problems signed a first big deal with Carilion Clinic to leverage some naming rights to the basketball court.

Whit's biggest move was one that few thought that he had the wherewithal to make.  Frank Beamer's retirement offered the new AD an opportunity that few get.  He was given a program that had not bottomed out.  The fan base was still engaged, and the team was thin, but still capable of winning games.   They just needed to find the right coach who would not only bring fresh ideas, techniques, and energy to the program; but would also be effective in quickly stopping the self-reinforcing program death spiral that threatened to write off the Hokie football team for quite a while.

If Babcock's first big coup was to grab one of the top college basketball coaches why not go for the hottest new coach for the football team?  You'd have thought that Whit was on the phone to BA (Bruce Arians) about not receiving a short bread reward for not venturing into daring territory (‘No Riskit; no biskit' as it were).  That's where the move tie in comes from.

Justin Fuente was firmly entrenched at Memphis.  The program was well funded with solid FedEx booster money and the Tigers had gone from a nothing program to FBS Bowl contending status in four short years.  What makes a guy pitch all of that, get on an airplane and fly to a place he'd never been and even entertain a contract with the Hokies?  He's been asked several times by several reporters, and getting past the coach talk, the program standard newspeak, is nearly impossible.  Coach Fuente has an adventurous career adviser, I guess.

I have to admit that Blacksburg is an acquired taste; it's small -€” everywhere is ten minutes from where you are; unless it's Game Day, that is.  The schools are good, the university is world class, and the New River Valley which is nestled on a 2,000 foot plateau (the New is the only river that flows north in North America) is actually one of the oldest continuously flowing rivers in the world.  So maybe this young head coach, with no history of operating too far east of the Mississippi was looking for more terrain variation than prairie dog mounds and river banks.  Or maybe the river's small mouth bass population raised his off season fishing interest.

Whatever the reason behind his decision the big show starts in 15 days with the ACC official Media Days event.   The first game looms against the Liberty Flames on September 3rd.  Between now and then there will be the program equivalent of moving into a new home.  There are old things that need to be unpacked.  There will be new things to buy and unanticipated issues to fix.

There are many changes to track besides basketball and football. The baseball venue is getting an overhaul and a new name.  The softball team did better than expected.  The wrestling team garnered national attention and rank.  We have a solidly ranked outdoor track and field team, and even Hokies in the pool are making Olympic runs.  Ok, so the Hungarians get claim to the Hokie making it to Rio; but I said we were a world class institution didn't I?

There are even big indirect changes going on. The road into the athletic quad (Southgate Drive) is well under construction.  No more stopping at the one light on US460 for future Hokie sports fans.

Those are all great things, but the football team remains the primary focus of our sporting attention, and there are serious changes in emphasis going on for the entire football program.  Bud is regaining his stride on defense, and even the hint of a new effective offense is attracting some attention. The staff is keeping a tight lid on the changes, and that might not be a bad thing.  It is a bit frustrating for the writing gig, but it will be good for the effect on the entire fan base as the excitement of something new builds.

August 14th a little piece of the veil will be lifted (if current time lines and events hold).  Tech will be conducting the second official Fan Appreciation Day at Lane Stadium.  The field will be open and the team will be signing autographs on posters, mini-helmets, tee-shirts, whatever the fans would like (within reason).  It's a time to get to meet the kids behind all the grill work and padding.  Of course that also means that they have a tiny break in the often brutal practice sessions of mid-summer.  Of course the new "Beamer Barn" will be in full use when the temperatures and humidity get to the point where practices must come inside.  The field won't offer the old gymnasium workout feel.  The drills will be just as hard, merely indoors.

Let us embrace the newness of the program changes with the spirit and dignity that will be the golden legacy of Frank Beamer.  Let's put that glorious past behind us and focus on the present and future of a program that will be different regardless of some of the traditions that will remain.  Justin Fuente and his staff deserve our support and our patience.  Change can be good.  Remember that.