When Justin Fuente was hired as Virginia Tech’s football coach almost five years to the day back on Nov. 29, 2015, it was considered a slam-dunk hire around college football.
I, for one, thought it was an outstanding hire.
But after Virginia Tech’s latest setback, an embarrassing 47-14 loss to the Pitt Panthers to fall to 4-5 on the season, this era needs to end — now.
In Fuente’s five seasons at the helm, there have been bright spots. In his first year back in 2016, Fuente led the the Hokies to a Coastal Division title and 10-win season. And the Hokies won a bowl game — a 35-24 triumph over Arkansas in the Belk Bowl.
However, like most things, it requires some context.
The 2016 Virginia Tech team was loaded with players from the previous regime, with the exception being quarterback Jerod Evans. Evans, who transferred to Virginia Tech from Trinity Valley Community College, was outstanding in his lone season with the Hokies.
The offense was especially good that season, even if it was predictable and lacked a lot of variety.
As expected, the Hokies took a step back in 2017, yet still finished 9-4. Things were looking up for Virginia Tech.
Then 2018 happened.
The Hokies finished that season with their first losing record in 26 years (6-7) and had to defeat Marshall on Dec. 1 in a makeup game just to become bowl-eligible to keep that meaningless streak alive.
That season was ugly. There was the 49-35 loss at ODU, which was monumentally bad on so many levels. It led to players being removed from the team and the first sign of discontent with this coaching staff.
There was a four-game losing streak that season which included the most embarrassing loss in Bud Foster’s defensive regime. The Hokies allowed 492 yards, six rushing touchdowns and 13.7 yards per attempt in a 52-22 loss to Pitt.
Oh, how it all comes back to Pitt.
After that season, a record number of players transferred from Virginia Tech. And when they left, some sounded off on social media. Sour grapes? Perhaps. But recent news has many wondering what Fuente did to alienate so many of his players.
The Hokies entered 2019 with high hopes, yet lost the season-opener at Boston College when quarterback Ryan Willis couldn’t quit turning the ball over. The Hokies would win two in a row before the epic loss in Blacksburg to Duke.
That game, played on Sept. 27, 2019, was when it truly ended for Fuente at Virginia Tech. The Hokies suffered a historic 45-10 defeat at Lane Stadium on a Friday night when many eyes were watching.
It was another example of this team — under Fuente’s watch — where it looked unprepared, uninterested and flat-out bad.
They say teams take the personality of its coach. If so, that makes sense. For so often during this regime, Fuente comes off as arrogant, resistant to change, my-way or the highway and has kept fans, alumni, donors, and the community at arm’s length.
Look, this isn’t some type of article based at painting Fuente as a bad man. From many who I have talked to, Fuente is a good man, husband and father. He also has his fans with several players on past teams and the current team.
The problem is he does not fit at Virginia Tech.
One comment after Saturday’s loss to Pitt was extremely curious.
I asked #Hokies coach Justin Fuente if he'd consider taking over play calling after the open date: "That's the most ludicrous crap I've ever heard. Next question."— Mike Barber (@RTD_MikeBarber) November 22, 2020
It was a legitimate question by Barber after seeing this offense regress since the loss at Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons exposed Virginia Tech’s offense and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen proved he was unable to adapt.
So, shouldn’t the head coach — who was noted as an offensive genius — step in and help his overmatched coordinator?
Of course not.
Jerry Kill tried to tell Fuente last year. The former special assistant to Fuente for the 2019 season — and glorified babysitter — pointed out Cornelsen’s ineptitude. Naturally, Cornelsen took offense to it. Yet, Fuente kept rolling with his buddy/OC.
While money — and a chance to be back with his buddy Gary Patterson played a role in Kill’s departure, it was clear he wanted no part of this team with Cornelsen in charge.
Kill’s presence was a big reason why this team went on that winning streak after the Duke debacle. That and Foster turning the defense around. Big boys were in charge — albeit too briefly.
Therein lies the issue of why athletic director Whit Babcock had to hire Kill in the first place. He was paying his head coach $4 million per season and had to hire a respected veteran coach to “help” him. That entire process was eye-opening.
I’ve heard the excuses for Fuente. He’s an introvert, he doesn’t like dealing with the some of the drama on the recruiting trail or in specific regions. Get over it. When you accepted a job at a Power 5 school, you knew it was much different than Memphis.
As a head coach of any school in the Power 5, recruiting is the lifeblood of your program. Please, let’s not talk about money for a minute. Yes, we ALL KNOW of the financial constraints facing Virginia Tech before COVID-19 — and it’s much worse now. But everyone is dealing with this on different levels.
It’s Fuente’s job to build relationship with coaches in the region. Beamer did it. And Beamer surrounded himself with guys who had strong reputations not only in the Commonwealth, but in the Mid-Atlantic as a whole.
Instead, Fuente alienates coaches, especially those that have been good to Virginia Tech in the past.
Virginia Tech can’t even get a hat on the table with an elite recruit in its own backyard.
We just saw it recently with coveted offensive lineman Zach Rice of Lynchburg. Rice, who grew up a Virginia Tech fan, also plays in Tech’s backyard and has a former Hokie — Andre Kendrick — as his mentor. And the Hokies didn’t even land in Rice’s final eight schools.
Oh, but what about the argument that the Hokies can’t land elite players so they need to identify local talent and develop them?
I bring you Carlos Basham Jr. of Roanoke. Now an All-American defensive lineman at Wake Forest, Basham wasn’t even offered by this staff.
What’s the excuse there?
This staff can’t land elite players, identify unheralded players in their own backyard or develop some of its better recruits in recent seasons.
Oh, there are more examples. There’s just not enough space here.
Christian Darrisaw and Caleb Farley are clearly outliers. But, for the sake of fairness, the staff does get credit for the development of both Darrisaw and Farley.
Let’s take a look at Memphis pre-Fuente. In the three classes before Fuente took over at Memphis, the Tigers ranked No. 88, No. 71 and No. 77 in recruiting rankings, per 247Sports. In his four years at Memphis, the Tigers were ranked No. 92, No. 90, No. 78 and No. 77.
In the three years after his departure from Memphis, the Tigers’ classes ranked No. 61, No. 56 and No. 87.
With the Hokies, Fuente had solid classes from 2017-19 before the wheels fell off. Virginia Tech ranked No. 76 last season. Let that sink in for a second. This season, Tech is currently No. 43 and trending downward.
Fuente’s teams at Virginia Tech have unsurprisingly struggled against ranked teams. A big reason is the lack of development at quarterback.
Hendon Hooker and Quincy Patterson were good signings for the Hokies. Both had plenty of potential. Hooker has excelled at times during the last two seasons despite the limited coaching he receives. Imagine if he had a competent offensive coordinator?
Teams have schemed to slowed Tech’s running game, forcing Hooker to beat them in recent weeks. He’s struggled at times and he has no help with the offensive scheme.
I believe Hooker and Patterson can be both be really good players at this level. Hooker has put together an impressive resume the last two seasons considering the obstacles he’s consistently faced.
This staff was supposed to be able to develop quarterbacks. Instead, the unimaginative offense is limited to a handful of plays and continues to squander good offensive talent.
Can you imagine what an innovative offensive coach could do with players like Dalton Keene, Damon Hazelton, James Mitchell, Tre Turner and numerous others?
Remember what we were told about Raheem Blackshear? Go watch Blackshear at Rutgers and you see a dynamic back in the passing game.
How has Cornelsen used Blackshear this season?
Some of Fuente’s biggest moments at Virginia Tech come with asterisks. Remember the big win over Florida State to begin the 2018 season? Little did we know how far that mighty program had fallen.
I spoke with multiple former players in regards to Fuente. No one personally trashed him. However, they spoke of times they were here, either for a game or stopping by campus and the head coach did not even acknowledge them.
That’s a bad look.
You want — and need — former players to give back, yet you have a head coach who can’t take a few seconds to shake their hand, say hello, or thank them for their contributions to this program?
Everyone understands the financial hurdles Virginia Tech is facing. However, if this regime lasts much longer, things are going to be much worse.
It’s time to end this — now.