The request went out via the comments, and upon reflection seemed like a very good idea for an article. The 2020 “season” such as it was, proceeded like a shambling wreck that reminded me more of an unattended demolition derby special in Islip, NY on a 1960’s broadcast of “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” (I miss that show...). We might have been an example of the hapless ski jumper in the “...agony of defeat...” snip; if it hadn’t been for the convincing win over UVA in the Commonwealth Cup closer.
Look, last season was a disaster. We had COVID issues that nearly crippled the team, and spare me the “other teams” nonsense. The nature of the epidemic and the way that it hit and affected each organization was unique and no two programs can be compared. Tech’s COVID luck was abysmal, and the season results showed... We were chronically short of coaches, personnel, support staff, nearly everything. It was a miracle that we even fielded viable teams for more than half of the games. To make 2020 a sop for the demand for perfection is, frankly, irrational. That season was all about program survival, and that’s the entire skinny.
So, there were some big offseason moves that will have some serious effects on the team. We’ll take the issues and changes in groups;
The Retention of the Head Coach - A- for the Decision C- for the way that it was done
I can see the steam and defiance blowing out of ears about now. The retention of Justin Fuente was the right move, and the ultimate grade is not a perfect A but it’s a reasonable A-. The “Hate Fuente” train rolled out of the gate after the disaster of the 2018 season. It’s nearly impossible to be the guy who follows “The Guy” and after a charmed season and a half of 2016 and 2017, the reality of the lack of program health and player depth finally caught up with the Hokies in 2018. Just figuring out how to get to .500 with a depth chart that rarely exceeded the #1s was difficult enough, but unrealistic fan expectation (completely forgetting the mess of 2011-2015) in some more vocal segments of Hokie Nation started to bloom. I am of the opinion (Yes, my opinion - based on examining the evidence, hearing people on background, and generally observing the situation.) that Justin Fuente’s job was never in serious jeopardy. Most of the anti-Fuente gas was rumor pumped into innuendo, and enveloped into half-truths and wrapped around a strong desire by a segment of the fan base to get rid of him, because of ‘reasons’. (mostly Winning at all costs... reasons.) The firing of Justin Fuente would have had a lasting negative impact.
Oh, and before you repeat the Baylor lie, please stop. I cannot divulge the source but the Baylor “thing” was unsolicited by Fuente and/or his agent. Fuente met with them to be polite - in neutral territory with Babcock’s full knowledge. Fuente then, immediately and politely refused the offer. The truth is that he and his family actually like it here; period.
The problem with the ‘retention’ was that it wasn’t put to bed when the issue got hot. I have noted time and time again, the Public Relations and Marketing Game by this Athletic Department is sub par in many respects. It’s one criticism that they seem to have listened to, and are trying to deal with. That’s why I game them a ‘C-’ instead of an ‘F’. Had the improved press access not started, it would have been an ‘F’. They need to be on warning that it could slide back to a Failing grade rapidly if they don’t continue to broaden and improve the PR and Marketing game.
The Budget, Wage Cuts (or chopped raises), and Staffing Cuts: C all the way around
There are no two ways about it, it take huge amounts of money to field athletic teams. And the 2020 Epidemic and Reaction created a huge drain on that income stream. Well, income streams. There was no stadium gate, at all. Other than people maintaining their purchase of their tickets even though they couldn’t attend games, everything related to ticket sales collapsed. That means seat premiums, club concession splits, parking fees, Hokie Club contributions, tickets, etc. were all non-existent. The town and surrounding area suffered, too. Restaurants and hotels that are normally booked solid from Blacksburg to Roanoke and Wytheville were empty. The Game Day economy and the short basketball extension were gone. The Athletic Department staff took a power hit (some of it that critical PR function) and as has just been released the coaching staff received much smaller raises (those aren’t pay cuts, BTW). The decisions for who got paid what might be arguable. There were some coaches who didn’t deserve a dime more, and some that deserved their full salary increases plus (hints about that later). The grade is mostly “imposed” by government and nature, but the reality could have been handled better.
The Assistant Coaching Carousel - B+ for Hires and C for Retention
There are few things more frustrating that watching carefully laid plans fall apart in pieces. There isn’t much to be said that already hasn’t been about losing players to the Transfer Portal. That reality is not fully dawning on most people, or if it is, they are just flat refusing to acknowledge the reality; however, this program is not in a position to take that sort of churn in the coaching staff. A program like Texas A&M, Alabama, LSU, or Ohio State is more than likely to lose assistant coaches after the end of every season. Virginia Tech is not one of those programs, and the churn of named and paid assistants over the past four seasons has not been a good thing for the Hokies. There have been too many critical misses and losses to make up with new hires to get beyond the ‘B’ level. The list of program level coaches lost has resulted in an average ‘C’ grade -this is not just for 2020 but for the program era. This is just field coaches, mind you. We will talk some staffing things another article.
Critical Changes and Reasons
Galen Scott - Defensive assistant supposedly designated to replace Bud Foster when Bud retired. This was a deeply personal and devastating loss to Fuente, and he hasn’t seemed the same since the parting. The reasons for the departure need not be rehashed. The effect of the loss has been a net negative on the situation.
Bud Foster - Assistant Head Coach, Defensive genius, and what amounted to a complete gutting of the defensive staff. Foster retired for health reasons that many people just refuse to pay much heed. He was not going to be the head coach, and has not returned to more than an occasional Tweet of encouragement, in public. His loss from the defense still has not been made up.
Zohn Burden - Burden was a hold over from the late Beamer era and was retained because of his potential for Tidewater recruiting chops. Unfortunately that banner fluttered to the ground, and Burden’s promise never quite panned out. By all reports he was a competent coach, but he just didn’t seem to click on the recruiting trail.
Holmon Wiggins - Look besides the loss of his friend Galen Scott, Fuente’s loss of another long term associate to Alabama (where he is still the Wide Receivers coach) was a serious blow and total negative to the coaching program. Wiggins “got the Fuente IT” and was a critical factor in teaching wide receivers to handle the complex ‘conceptual’ route trees and keying within Fuente’s offense. It was obvious that Wiggins’ departure seriously deflated the Hokie offense, and it hasn’t completely recovered. His loss was a serious net negative.
Brian Mitchell - As a Cornerbacks coach that ended up being a gap filler (he coached at Tech for 3 seasons), Mitchell served a purpose and then moved on. I doubt anyone saw any major impact one way or the other. Well, maybe the discovery of Caleb Farley’s talent at CB and giving Greg Stroman a chance to play.
Jerry Kill - Tracy Claeys - The Emergency Analysts brought in by Fuente, though rumors swirl about Whit encouraging the move, and wanting the relationship to continue - at least with Kill. The move saved the 2018 season from completely failing, and resulted in some functional consistency in program management. The whipsaw effect of having Kill show up, save things, and then depart always seemed to be followed by shadowy rumors of discord. We’ll never know exactly what transpired, but Kill’s departure for other opportunities was not a net positive. He had a beneficial effect on the program’s game management direction and the Hokies’ 2019 season would have benefitted from his retention. Claeys seemed to be a limbo hire that was supposed to help, he was a Kill related addition, but there doesn’t seem to be many of his fingerprints on the program at all.
Justin Hamilton - This young man (and he is a young man to yours truly) has a bright future ahead of him. He seemed to be an ‘emergency’ hire, and his first season, the dreaded 2020, as Defensive Coordinator was horribly marred by having no Spring season, almost no Fall practice season at all, and then his getting COVID and being benched for most of the first four games of the redone up 2020 effort. It would have been interesting to see how well he did with a normal stretch of teaching and learning at the DC level. The defense showed a marked improvement over the final three games of 2020, but being thrust into the DC roll so soon might have been easier to take without the epidemic restrictions and limits. Overall the Hamilton hire will end up as a serious positive. Hamilton seems to get “IT” and has opened the door to his potential.
Ryan Smith - This was the surprise flyer of the defensive transition period from Bud Foster. Smith had promise, but no one outside of Fuente and his immediate inner circle seemed to think more than this was a decent enough hire for a position coach. That ended up being a serious underestimation of the situation. Ryan Smith ended up being so important to this defense and so good at it that he was selected to fill in for Justin Hamilton during Hamilton’s absence, early in the season. Smith was setting the defenses and calling the plays on the field. Smith’s addition to the staff was a serious net positive, and the only down side is that someone higher up in the NCAA pecking order is going to notice.
Darryl Tapp - Darryl was a major addition, Hokie Hall candidate, journeyman NFL veteran of 12 years and all Hokie all the time. Tapp never got the chance to stretch his recruiting legs, and the San Francisco 49ers lured him away from the team before he had more than a first blush impact. The in and out of Tapp will remain the what would have, and could have been of the last five years. While I understand the ‘whys’ of his choice, I don’t have to like the effects much. His loss was not a happy thing.
Bill Teerlinck - Besides driving the spell checker crazy, Teerlinck’s addition to the defense was a serious professional level addition to the staff. Teerlinck brought a different intent and thought pattern to the defensive line. Being a pro coach, he started something that we hadn’t had in a generation... Think Big and Fast... or Big and Powerful. Fast is fine sometimes; but inside you’ve gotta be BIG on the Defensive Line. The D-Line is in transition and from the looks of things the TnT combination started some serious effort to GET BIG on the inside. Teerlinck’s retention for the 2021 season lends some consistency. Hopefully he can stick around for long enough to have a long term impact. This hire was a net positive.
Jack Tyler - Former Virginia Tech Hokie Walk-on star Linebacker Jack Tyler has been with the program for a while working GA and assistant positions, Quality Control things. He was learning the ropes, and seemed to be coaching the excellent, underrated, Hokie Linebacker corps from behind the curtain for the 2020 season. Well, it seems that this former Hokie player just hit the ranks of official Assistant Coaches. (Hokies might not be heavily represented in the playing ranks, but between the NCAA and Pros, Hokies are showing up big in the coaching arena.) Jack Tyler seemed like he was destined to coach, from his Senior year on. I always wondered when and where we’d see his name pop up, and many of his fellow Hokies were pleased and excited to see him land is first official Assistant Coach role at his alma mater. Tyler brings energy, discipline, playing knowledge, and that unique brand of ‘former walk-on’ attitude to the job. He’s a big net positive for the program on the field and we’ll see how he fits into the mix when it comes to recruiting.
Adam Lechtenberg and Jafar Williams - The former is the current running backs coach, the latter the wide receivers coach. Both men started at some point in 2019 at their current positions. Williams has a long parallel and intersecting history with the Fuente trail including Illinois State. Lechtenberg also comes with a history of working for Fuente at Memphis. He came to Tech in early 2017. Since this, presumably will be the first complete season as field coaches for the Hokies, their impacts have been difficult to gauge.
The Latest Additions:
J.C. Price - Assistant Defensive Line Coach and Recruiting Coordinator is the current title, but Price is someone who breaks the long term Fuente associate mold, again. First, for those of us who remember “Starter” jackets, young bespectacled Bud Fosters, and Frank Beamer’s with just a touch of gray on the sides... J.C. was the man of the Hokie defensive interior. After a two year GA stint at Tech, he embarked on a notable career as a highly rated assistant at JMU during their championship years, and then Marshall. Price coming home to Blacksburg was a real boost for many who had deflated a bit after Darryl Tapp left for the pro coaching ranks. It was a first rate hire that will eventually pay bigger dividends as time rolls and more coaching shuffles happen. His pickup was a net positive, and his recruiting and collegiate experience, here at Virginia Tech will only be additional emotional momentum in that direction.
Jon Tenuta - Tenuta is not coming to Tech as a field coach. He’s going to be up in the booth doing the defensive analytical work. He came from four seasons at Cincinnati where he coached the Bearcats’ Safeties. His history is a two to three year stint bounce across many teams in the NCAA FBS ranks - many of whom are ACC teams including Georgia Tech, NC State, and Virginia - of all places... Frankly, I am not exactly sure what Tenuta will be doing and the hire, though nice for OT Jon Tenuta, is a bit odd. We shall see how it shapes up.
Summing It All Up
So, that’s the list... I think... It’s not trivial folks, and this level of churn when your program is still not particularly strong or balanced after a major transition does not help the situation much.
Overall, the Hokies seem to be on the B+ side of the coaching curve, but critical losses and some unfortunate retentions (Well, just one, and there will be an article on that subject, soon.) leave the coaching staff grade at a B+ with a shade toward B. All of that could change if the current situation morphs into a solid and successful effort for 2021. What’s successful? A winning season, a stable conveyor for player talent, final stability on the coaching staff, best described as moving in a positive and sustainable direction. An ACC Coastal win would be tonic. A serious challenge to Clemson for the ACC Championship would be an excellent outcome. We’ll see.