M e m o r a n d u m
Date: November 30, 2020
To: Mr. Whit Babcock, Director Virginia Tech Athletic Department
CC: Hokie Nation, Gobbler Country Staff
Subject: Operational Deficiencies in the Virginia Tech Football Program
Current Issues and Known Limitations
The Virginia Tech football program has suffered a dispiriting collapse since the end of the 2017 season.
There is little doubt about the trajectory of the win loss ratio since the Camping World Bowl loss to Oklahoma State. This game followed an encouraging 9-3 season, and the performance capped a season of declining offensive output. The program never recovered the early momentum of the hopeful transition period. Since the end of the 2017 season, the football program has posted 18 wins and 17 losses including both bowl games. The ACC conference record stands at 13-11.
The program has no consistency at critical positions.
Since 2016, the Hokies have fielded six different quarterbacks, and a running back committee numbering in the double digits. In addition, the receiver talent has bloomed and shrunk repeatedly as transfers and early out decisions have crippled the skill position group. The current offensive line is much improved, and the only unit on the team that seems to rate continued success. The remainder of the individual units are constantly in flux. The defense has also changed drastically, including nearly the entire staff. Some of these occurrences are normal for eligibility limited college football programs, and there is some blame that can be placed on the mixture of the COVID shortened practice season, and ill effects on the personnel. That blame is limited, however. The fact remains that the program was already inconsistent and struggling before the 2020 season.
The program image and presence in the fan base and community has waned precipitously.
There are few community events to present the players and coaches to the public as being part of the fan ethos. Scrimmages are closed to the public with few exceptions. The Spring Games for each season were steadily degraded from limited, but reasonable full squad games into situational practices and scrimmages. There is little coaching engagement in university and community activities, and there seems to be little public activity at events around the Commonwealth that could attract alumni interest and donations. This is most significantly an issue with the head coach, who supposed to be a field strategist and manager, but a primary salesman for the program. These roles have not been satisfactorily fulfilled. This perception is heavily related to the struggles with the wins and losses; but not completely structurally dominated by them. The program does not fully engage with the fan base and has built no reserve of good will within it.
There is both a perceived and actual problem with player retention and acquisition within the program.
Regardless of the permanence and persistence of the court mandated NCAA Transfer Portal, this program is having great difficulty maintaining player personnel, from season to season. The current COVID induced “opt out” availability has also put pressure on the player attitudes toward continuing in a program for which they have waning emotional support. There is no denying the effect. Those player losses under less than neutral conditions, have an effect on the remaining personnel. With the exception of disciplinary separations, Virginia Tech is unfortunately known as a program in which players would rather take a step down, elsewhere than continue.
The effects of losses are not being made up by effective recruiting and player development. The Hokies are near the bottom of the ACC in successful recruiting efforts. The added insult is that Virginia Tech is no longer a sought-out destination for Virginia High School football talent. There are many reasons for this; but the largest is a lack of systemic program commitment to developing an effective recruiting base within the state. There was a precipitous drop off following the embarrassing shoot-out loss to ODU, and the program has never recovered its in-state presence.
The program is neither financially nor qualitatively well ranked.
Best Football Colleges | NCSA Power Rankings 2021 (ncsasports.org) NCSA Sports ranks Virginia Tech football for the student athlete as a focal point. The ranking was 31, which is far below several ACC institutions including UVA. Niche rates Virginia Tech a spare 52nd. 2021 Best College Athletics - Niche. Again, these are not revenue totals these are rankings as they relate to student-athlete benefits. These numbers do not include the reality that as of this summer, Sports Illustrated reported that Virginia Tech Athletics ranked 42nd in total revenue. Virginia Tech Ranks 42nd in Reported NCAA Revenue, Per USA Today (si.com) The current operational situation is reportedly degrading that ranking as both revenue flows to the Hokie Club flag due to a lack of fan ticket funds, and related Hokie Club donations. This is not the fault of the program, per se, but a function of state government regulatory limits. The disappointment and frustration directed at the football program cannot help to improve those numbers as the 2020 season closes with another sub-par/par inconsistent effort. Since the football program is the primary driver of revenues into the athletic department and sports scholarship funds, this means that Virginia Tech is at an extreme disadvantage with student-athletes. It is also at a serious deficit when it comes to paying for the level of coaching staff required to maintain viability in a Power 5 conference.
Stop the Bleeding and Find a New Direction
The Athletic Department has made some strategic personnel moves over the last five years, that have resulted in some solid progress. The hiring of Buzz Williams in 2015 provided for a new foundation in the basketball program. His premature departure was disappointing but had been expected since the beginning of the 2018 season. The hiring of Mike Young has yet to bear fruit, but the program is still on track to produce revenues for the department. The baseball team has a quality head coach, the Track and Wrestling teams are ranked. Both the women’s basketball program and the softball team, are performing, and though both men’s and women’s soccer have struggled a bit this season, they are competitive. The issue is that none of these sports generate much in the way of capital funds for the Athletic Department. There is a planned upgrade, improvement to Cassell Coliseum that will absorb the bulk of donations to the department for the near future. That means there needs to be a serious address made with the big revenue generating football program. Eventually the athletic program will need to choose what character, and even conference best represents its long-term interests.
Coaching Changes are Needed
Regardless of the condition on the field and in the locker room, it is obvious that the current coaching regime has lost the confidence of a very vocal and numerous segments of the fan base. This condition will negatively affect the revenues to the department. The problems are obvious to anyone but the most disinterested casual observer. There are three potential courses of action to take, none of them are advantageous. None of them are without cost, either.
Option 1: Pay off the current Head Coach’s contract after the season finishes outside of the 3-day $2.5 million dollar buffer clause.
There is obviously a serious monetary issue involved with this course of action. The contract pay-off would likely require some form of revenue enhancement from more monied donors, and would also include the extra funds to sever the contracts of several assistants, some of whom are Hokies. There are some of those coaches did not receive a fair opportunity implement their ideas or contribute to recruiting. In addition, there are several coaches that might be well placed in any replacement staff so should be encouraged to negotiate with any incoming administration. The assumption, here, however is that the entire staff is subject to dismissal. There are serious implications involved in that move, and completely replacing a staff, and most of a football team will result in nearly a decade long rebuilding effort.
Option 2: You as Athletic Director, remove the ineffective coaches; Offensive Coordinator, Receivers Coach, Defensive Coordinator, Linebacker Coach, and Quarterbacks Coach (in this case the same individual as the OC). The Defensive Coordinator is a solid coach, and should be retained if at all possible, but to go back to his initial position of coaching the defensive secondary. The others would be offered their contract buyouts. This would leave the head coach in a position of either performing with the staff provided and producing, or voluntarily leaving the program as he sees fit to arrange. If at the end of the 2021 season (assuming that it is a full schedule with full practices and normal developmental efforts) the operation has not improved then Option 1 should be exercised.
Option 3: Allow the current situation to continue with some peripheral affordable adjustments to the current staff levels and player personnel order. The Option 2 stipulations would remain, the head coach and coaching staff put on notice of their unacceptable performance, but that the monetary situation does not provide for contract termination at this time.
Caveats and Warnings
In any of the above options, there will be a likely loss of player personnel. Option 1 is likely to cause the most disruption, with immediately eligible players entering the Transfer Portal to leave, either to a new team with the current regime, or other programs, entirely. This would leave the program in very deep talent hole that will take nearly a decade to fill. Option 2 is unlikely to cause mass exodus since the separated coaches have little recruiting investment in the current personnel mix. There is a strong possibility, however, that a contingent of protesting players will enter the portal to register their dissatisfaction with the program as a whole. Option 3 and Option 2 are similar, but unlikely to solve the serious offensive deficiencies plaguing the program since the 2017 season.
The current situation is untenable. The program is presented with a coach determined to force player personnel into a system that does not fit their skill sets. The recruiting effort is perceived as disorganized, unfocused geographically, and often noted in public as being indifferent to potential players. Successful organizations move forward on momentum, perceived confidence, and actual performance. Currently the Virginia Tech Football program has none of those elements.
This is an extremely difficult year, with limited resources. The winning programs in both the Power 5 and Group of 5 conferences are largely those programs that already dominate in funding and personnel. It is therefore necessary for this department to examine, not only its current resources, but its future revenue flows. Virginia Tech Football has arrived at a decision point. The decision taken should be taken quickly, and explained fully in public. There are no truly ideal options on the table.