There was an impulse to add something to the title of this particular opening section, but at some point, the single word “Reality” just stuck. Well, it more than stuck, it stung like a hornet. There wasn’t even the anticipatory buildup like a bee sting, it was a needle driven hammer in the arm. The pain is immediate, and long lasting.
This review is a program level look. We aren’t going to dissect games or plays. We aren’t going to look at other teams and the risk windows involved in facing them (that article comes with 4 games left in the season.) We are going to talk program stuff, here, and some things that have to be said aren’t going to be on the “happy lovely” side of the ledger.
We’ll break this down into four main sections reviewing the general program health, coaching, player talent, and prospects for the future. No one is going to sugar coat anything, however we are going to look hard and try to highlight the positive movement as well. It’s only fair and frankly no one wants to kick someone who’s down and struggling to get up. Maybe it’s time to lend a hand instead of a foot? Y’all can agree with that approach, right?
Let’s get on with it, then, and see if we are looking at a rapid turnaround or we are in for a major half-decadienal “early Beamer-Era” rebuild from absolute scratch.
There would be a lovely rest for this if we could just say that the situation is in capable hands, the AD Whit Babcock has got this under control, and the Hokies will be back on the plus side in a relatively short time. This isn’t the case, however. Babcock has been forced, repeatedly, to shift gears as circumstances bloomed and died in distressingly rapid cycles. This has been true for most of the sports managed by his office. This one is about football, so we’ll stick to that major chunk of the energy and prestige in the Virginia Tech AD’s box-office cash drawer. We have to rehash this a bit in order to solidify the conclusion, so please be patient.
History and Context are Critical
The football program has not been outwardly healthy for nearly eleven years, now. It’s hard to believe that much time has passed since the referees in the Sugar Bowl handed the game to the Wolverines (and they objectively did). That wasn’t the starting point of the decline, but it certainly was its triggering event. The starting point was the 2007-2010 recruiting runs that couldn’t net a replacement for Tyrod Taylor behind center. There were flashes of good but the best post-Taylor Quarterback, Michael Brewer was handicapped by injury, and a team in decline as the running game evaporated, and the offensive line recruiting dropped to piecemeal replacements. Suffice it to say by the late Beamer Era the team was sliding downhill rapidly. Whit Babcock, in a move that didn’t shock anyone after his basketball coaching coup (of the time) with the Buzz hire, went out and found the best available head coach by media and analyst agreement in Justin Fuente. We know how that turned out… a brilliant 2 season flash followed by a fading ember and a huge bill for the displeasure of having to part company with a failed regime.
Face it, as reported third coaching choice Brent Pry signed his contract to take over as head coach, the Virginia Tech Hokie football program was all show and no go. Regardless of the level of Pry’s enthusiasm he was taking on a leaking hulk with a great paintjob. The indications are that he knew and understood that challenge. The Hokies just haven’t been very good for over a decade and getting over that slump was just not going to be a very easy task, especially for a program that can only generate revenues well below even modest programs. We still languish in the 40’s for critical numbers, and only manage to crack into the low 30s for “profit” which is modest because Athletic Departments are non-profit organizations, and that money goes back into the program in some way.
The upshot is that Virginia Tech’s Athletic Program is only modestly funded, and in an era of NIL, far behind the big dollar 4 and 5-star talent draw. We’ll do some digging on the particulars of the NIL contracts being signed by the players, but the reality is that those contracts are relatively small compared to the big money programs in other states with looser regulations and statutes governing such compensation.
What’s the Path in the Collegiate Sports Reformation Mad Scramble?
The Hokies just have some serious gaps to either close or acknowledge. Closing them might involve things and actions that this administration has been loath to indulge. Acknowledging them might also have some serious implications regarding level of play and competition in college sports, football in particular here.
The last issue in the program’s overall health is going to be very much out of the control of Whit, the Regents, or the coaches. That’s the massive (though quiet at the moment, as predicted) re-alignment of college football; whether it’s the retention of the NCAA amateur chimera and the 12-team playoff, or a complete reorganization of professional and amateur leagues. The open questions will remain unresolved until the actions are dropped on the floor like a tuna casserole.
Do the B1G and SEC form as two 20-team top tier semipro/pro leagues and leave the remainder of the P5 and G5 in the revenue dust? If so, where does Virginia Tech belong? The ACC will presumably be raided for top tier teams, will Tech go of to be a cupcake in those leagues? Will it decide to stay with the rump ACC and merge with some other rumps to form a mid-tier amateur, traditional college football conference? When will this happen and who chooses what?
The Elephant in the Parlor
What sort of Program does Virginia Tech’s power structure envision the university supporting? It’s a difficult question to discern because of the various feelings of the power groups involved in the decision. In many cases the poles in the argument have hardened positions and neither side is willing to entertain any sort of pushback from the other. The fight was here back in the 1970’s and only slightly tamped down during the successful years of the Beamer Era, but it’s back with an increasing volume. The empty student body stands in the North Endzone for the Miami Game is a picture of 10,000 words. Does this university community want or care about a big-time big-win football program? The indications are that an increasing number of students really don’t care, and a number of faculty would like to see that money spent on grants, academic facilities, and faculty salaries. That’s a battle that neither side is likely to win, nor compromise on, either.
Look, no one is fooling anyone. If someone said upon the prior regime departing, that Brent Pry was going to be the head coach of the 2022 and beyond (however long “beyond is”) Virginia Tech Hokies football program, you’d have been laughed out of the room. Who? For Defensive Coordinator, maybe? And why would he take that demotion? The reality (again we return to “reality”) is that only two or three coaches on this staff have experience at the levels at which they are performing; JC Price and Joe Rudolph are performing parallel jobs. Everyone else is subject to the “Peter Principle”. I don’t normally sight Wikipedia but this works fine. That includes the Head Coach, the Offensive Coordinator, the Defensive Coordinator, and the Special Teams Coach. Well, gee isn’t that really everyone who counts. That’s an affirmative. Another “reality” is called for, here. Whit Babcock is taking a very calculated risk. He did the “safe” and expected thing before and was burned. This time he’s gone ahead and dived into the tank headfirst without testing the water. At mid-season of the first year, it’s not expected that very much will be done until after December, but there are indications that some of the subjects are perilously close to the operational disaster outlined in the definition of the “Peter Principle”.
So far, the new coaching staff, and with the exception of the defense’s JC and PP this staff is brand new to the situation, has had its ups, downs, dithers, and teething problems. It’s the “stuff” that makes up a program, and getting it done properly is critical. Fixing the stuff that isn’t working is also critical, and often personally painful as well. There is a danger lurking in every rapid though and that’s the swirling eddy behind the big fat rock. It might be a good fishing hole if you were fishing for trout, but it’s not a great place to be if you are trying to shoot the rapids to get downstream to the campground and lunch. The result of hitting an eddy is going in circles that you have to work to get away from. In either case, wrong or eddies, the results can ultimately be painful for individuals or the entire team. The prior regimes both ended up stuck in circling eddies that created pain for everyone.
What’s gone right, wrong, and what looks like it’s continuing to go in circles. Maybe we’ll uncover some clues as to where the next steps are, but that’s a bit along in all of this.
Let’s start on a positive note. Brent Pry shows all of the signs of actually really, honestly wanting the job, and looks like he’s trying to dig himself in for the long “Beameresque” haul. Brent might have visions of old, gray, experienced Head Coach Emeritus Pry in the 5th floor box near the 40 right next to the broadcast booth. This does not seem to be a “waypoint” where Pry moves on to higher levels. Right now, he sounds genuinely committed to hanging around (we saw that before… especially in year one… so don’t hold your breath too much).
Pry’s got the Public Relations angle going in the right direction. A huge part of the job of head coach is lead salesman for the program. The job is marketing, and the target audience is talent. Of course, with that talent comes different levels of appeal, family, coaches, peers, and unfortunately promises of remuneration (We’ll just talk of the above table scholarship and NIL related funds… Since the Dooley era recruiting fiascos, avoiding the dark side has been a mission for the AD.)
Pry hasn’t been big on pressers loaded with coach talk, deflection, and maneuvering. He’s been surprisingly straight forward and openly critical (both positive and negative) of the team’s efforts. He hasn’t spared too many in his observations, either. He publicly called out his Offensive coaching staff for being ineffectively “vanilla” among other things after the Miami loss. He’s also been self-critiquing and mindful (at least in public) that he has to take his lumps, too.
The new head coach is openly cognizant of the shortcomings of his personnel situation without pointing bloody, hurtful fingers at individual players. The operative word here is “public”. Brent Pry strikes the average analyst as one of those “old fashioned” no nonsense butt kickers behind the scenes. I don’t think that there are too many ears, for both talent and coaching, that haven’t had an ear singed here and there. Does that translate into teaching, learning, and success? That’s a question for time to answer.
Where to begin this one? There are so many little things and some big ones, but ignoring the little things ends up creating a huge headache in the end.
The first thing that we are running into is that the talent is just not there. There are individual flashes of brilliance, single game performance standouts are joined with some stout-hearted experience to keep the team on the field, but overall, this team hasn’t the experienced talent left in the cupboard to cover a full season, and more often than not a full game. This isn’t a fault of Pry, it’s the fault of the prior two regimes, and the disassociation with recruiting success, player development, and roster stability that has resulted in upper-level talent loss in the skill positions to the transfer portal. We’ll talk about the talent factor next but finding it and developing it is a coaching “thing” that has been sorely lacking for the last decade. We aren’t talking “who got to the NFL” sorts of coaching success. We are talking about winning most of your games and your bowl game sorts of talent. Pry and company must fix this, and he seems genuinely aware of the problem. This a time factor cure that few people have the patience for, so the going wrong part in it is major.
Fans are not going to put up with a rebuild that involves lots and lots of losses. Those of us with gray hair remember those critical years of the early Beamer Era when his job was on the line and his kids were being hassled and threatened in school. Those were unforgivable events, but frustration in fan bases has dark attributes. The time that Frank had including odious sanctions from the Dooley era, would never be granted in today’s college football universe. Missteps and failures are not tolerated well in any case, and not now in particular. Which is one of the “wrong” things. The fanbase really needs to step back and be patient for many reasons one of which is that they have no idea about what college football is going to look like after 2025 and this madhouse transition with merger mania and media contract driven leagues.
There are some fundamental changes that the coaching staff could make to brighten the transition a bit, though. Fans will be willing to suffer some par seasons and booger bowls IF there is progress being shown, and if the coaching staff shows the fans some innovation, adaptivity, and a touch of “nothing to lose guile”. So far, we have seen very little or none of that in the first half of 2022. The word on the street is that the coaching staff is going to implement their plans and their “thing” regardless of the results on the field. Well, bluntly, that’s bunk and a methodology that’s led to firing after firing. There is a certain measure of the “do it my way or the highway” mentality that works, and a huge measure in the world of the transfer portal and NIL that makes that old fashioned philosophy program suicide.
Pry needs to be a head coach, not a defensive coordinator. If he wanted the DC’s job, he should have applied for it, and most folks would have scratched their heads at the move. Pry needs to concentrate on his job, which means leading the charge to the fix the offense. He should let his prize student Chris Marve take over the defense, full time. That’s really Pry’s only substantive mistake, to date. There is time to fix that or make it worse. It’s his choice.
Going in Circles
Since the post 2017 season crash that started with the unexpected Camping World Bowl loss to Oklahoma State, the downward flow of the program trajectory showed the 2016 and 2017 seasons to be largely anomalous blips on the radar of the mediocrity of the post 2010 season. Since then, the Hokies have been mired in a circulating morass of mediocrity… a pool of muddy quicksand too sticky and difficult to climb out of and not deep enough just to drown. Maybe Brent Pry musters enough resources to save a booger bowl by winning four more games of the five left on the schedule. We’ll talk about those odds after we see how the Hokies perform against a Leary-less NC State.
The fact remains that Virginia Tech’s risk level as presented to other teams has been trending toward moderate to moderate-low for a decade. We have yet to find a successful offense of any level of consistency, and the defense has continued to suffer from a distinct lack of size and speed in the box. That does not throw shade at the young men putting their all on the field, but they are facing teams with better talent and deeper rosters, in many cases. Mostly, we do face teams with equal talent, but then the Hokie coaching, planning, and execution have been sub-par.
Whatever problem breaks or solves first is going to lead this team out of the eddy of “perpetual stuck” in one direction or another. This coaching staff has to find some way to break the gloom, establish some sort of consistency in preparing for games, and most of all how to finish leaving all the effort on the field. At the moment, Virginia Tech has been good at one thing, and struggling at another. One game the defense is good, but the offense can’t find its way out of an up-sot paper bag. The next the defense can’t tackle or defend more than deep passes, and the offense scores but nowhere near enough. In another game the defense and offense perform well enough to win, but not for long enough. Even with the 2 wins, those games were not complete, and struggles existed where there should have been none. Oddly, we look a lot like our old rivals from the Big East, Boston College. Things are just not running right and there is no synchronization of any sort in the flow. The end result is taking the field in a roar, and then meowing at the end.
Perhaps more than anything this team just has not gained enough confidence and unit spirt to demonstrate a personality. Great teams have great personality, not the external canned ultra-pasteurized sort of imposed personality that so many programs push in public. This team hasn’t had a personality since “Beamer Ball” faded and ball hawking defiant defenses faded into memories of past glory. Our turnover ratio has been disappointing. Our plays on Special Teams have been non-existent, and even the Lunch Pail ended up sidelined and left in the locker room. It’s up to the coaches and players – there is no one else who can fix this; not Hokie Nation and certainly not Whit Babcock.
Where Are We Then?
As a program, the Virginia Tech Hokies are at an intersection that will define then next decade. The offense woke up too late in the Miami game to close the deal, and some mistakes and miscalculation slammed the door on a near miracle comeback from a shutout. Does this team use that fourth quarter offensive turn and 2nd half defensive stand as a leverage point for the next five games of the season? If it can there will be a sixth, and if it can’t the holidays are going to be a time of soul searching and re-organizing. This program can ill afford to limp out of 2022 and then into a revamped schedule for 2023. It needs to pick itself up off the turf, earn a bowl bid and keep the Commonwealth Cup. It has to learn to win, because in the grander scheme of things in the great peloton of the middle of the road the difference between winning and losing is often how effective both the coaches and players are at turning good intentions into victories on the field.
If Brent Pry can pull that off with this team, he’ll go a long way to calming the waters and giving himself some time to build something truly lasting. We won’t think of the converse it’s too painful at this juncture.
Time to Give Your Prediction for the End of the Season
Predictions for the 2022 Season Record
This poll is closed
Losses - NC State and Wins GT, Duke, Liberty, UVA - 6-6 and a Booger Bowl Bid.
No Losses - Wins for all the rest, nicer booger to wrap it up at 7-5 for the regular season. No promises for the Bowl though.
Losses to NC State, Duke and Wins over GT, Liberty, and UVA. Close but no cigar at 5-7.
I don’t care at this point as long as we beat the Wahoos we’ll lick our wounds and restart for 2023.