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Virginia Tech Hokies Football: Big Show and No Go - Where are the Horses?

It’s giving me a serious headache to review the game, but we need to take some stock in the situation. Bryan had his say, I guess I’d like a crack at it, too. Getting to the nature of the problem. GO HOKIES!!!

Messy, disorganized overcrowded...
John Schneider - SB Nation

The Parable

The animal science division of a large agricultural university held a major press conference for several equine publications. Dr. Fizz Phazz was standing behind the podium behind a spray of several microphones. He was announcing major progress on a new experimental program to convert old newspaper, and various other waste products into cheap horse feed.

The presentation included slides highlighting the recycling and remanufacturing process. It also highlighted the major jumps forward in reprocessing the paper, removing, and reprocessing the ink, and the machinery for turning the end results into chewable pellets for the horse feed. It was impressive stuff, and the ready to scale operation was set to go, as assured by Professor Phazz.

During the Q and A session after the presentation, one horse loving reporter asked the good professor, “gee, that’s all nice, but where are the horses? There aren’t any in your presentation.”

Dr. Phazz, responded “Oh! The horses? Oh, we’d have them in the presentation, but they just don’t want to cooperate. They just seem to keep dying before the experiment ends.”

The Needed Rehash

When I started writing for this little web publication, and signed my first SB Nation contract the Hokies were in a relatively disappointing decline as a football program. The basketball programs were sort of noodling around doing less than sterling work, and the other sports were bumping along, with baseball barely hanging on with par performances. The Beamer Era was drawing to a close, and the wear and tear was finally starting to show.

Virginia Tech was no longer the premier choice for Virginia, West Virginia, and close North Carolina high school players. That recruiting tree had bloomed, drawn huge external big money FBS attention, Ohio State, Michigan, Clemson, Florida State, Miami to name a few. The big note of change that signaled the beginning of the end was the recruiting battle for Tahj Boyd. Phoebus High’s star quarterback went to a rebuilding Clemson program. It seems that the success in pulling in, thankfully, Tyrod Taylor from Hampton High for the winter 2007 signing class was really the last truly spectacular “757” pickup by the Hokies. The recruiting tree began to dry from constant interest from 4-star prospects, to struggling to fill the critical skill positions with 3-star and 2-star quality players.

As we have noted in the past, and sometimes some of our readership hasn’t been too pleased with the observation, Virginia Tech’s roster management problems began in that season, and accelerated at a steady pace over the final seven years of the Beamer Era. They got so bad that Tight End (who is now a star professional TE for the Commanders) Logan Thomas was talked into being a quarterback. And transfer QB from Texas Tech, Michael Brewer (who was our last really high quality consistent QB) were near desperation signings.

As we have noted over the years, we have gotten a few really wonderful players, and some professional quality draft picks, but in general, those have not been at the critical skill positions that make the offense relevant, QB, RB, WR. While there were a few early good things about the Fuente era (we aren’t re-hashing just noting the momentum issue as key) the recruiting and retention problem began to spin out of control almost immediately. Transfer Jerod Evans bolted after one season, lots of rumors on that one. He was the main reason for the success of the offense in the 2016 season, even with perplexing and frustrating losses.

There were some stellar defenses during that period, but the offense steadily degraded to the point where there were no recruits, no successful game plans, and certainly nothing consistent happening in either the quarterback or running back rooms. Maybe Evans staying for another season would have made all the difference; maybe not. What was plain is that there was an almost complete evaporation of the regional recruiting effort, and not enough staff and capability to mine the new transfer portal for replacement talent.

Hope Springs Eternal, Reality Intercedes

So, we arrived at the Pry Era off of a complete football program collapse. This was doubly painful since new athletic director Whit Babcock had managed to turn around both men’s and women’s basketball, softball, baseball, track, wrestling. You name it, nearly every other sports program fielded by Virginia Tech Athletics began to sustain quality recruiting, and reasonable success. Over the past several years Tech has hosted early rounds of NCAA playoffs in softball, baseball, and women’s basketball. The baseball team won an ACC regular season championship, the men’s and women’s basketball teams won ACC Tournament Championships, and the women made it all the way to the NCAA March Madness Final Four last season. Frustratingly, the “big money” program languished.

For those calling for Babcock’s head, you fail the basics of the new type of thinking in the peloton of college sports programs. Remember, the Athletic Department is only connected to the university/college by a limited board representation of the President/Chancellor and the foundation/regency boards. In the modern era, university presidents have alternate views of what is a successful student-athlete sports program, and football is a problematic venture for them. In many, not all, cases we are speaking of image and associations not pure money. Timothy Sands and the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors is highly unlikely to part company with a man who has brought the bulk of the athletic department’s sports programs out of the pit of mediocrity, especially Title IX responsive activities. Babcock is earning high praise for his hires and successes on the track, wrestling mat, ballfields, basketball, and volleyball courts.

The reality is that win or lose, under the ACC Grant of Rights and as long as the ACC stays intact as a conference (Cal, SMU, and Stanford have guaranteed that if there are three major departures) it doesn’t matter whether the program wins or loses, and now just reaching a bowl -any bowl- just nets a little more of the long green. That means the ACC will eventually slide into the middle tier of football competition and probably spend more schedule time competing against the former G5 programs.

The significance of all of the ACC schools being listed in the top 100 universities and a huge pile of them in the top 50 (including Tech), means something huge to university administrations. And remember, except for football of which they play five games, Notre Dame is a voting member of the ACC. So that’s 14 programs in the top 100 academic institutions.

This is not trivial, folks, and that list also included at least Cal, SMU, and Stanford. So, my surmise is that the AD is not going to be under any significant pressure or heat. It’s just football, and other than the show, there seems to be little in the line of worry right now. It could be mayhem behind the scenes, but we are unlikely to see it. The gas will be coming from the sports addicted big donors. Will they have some presence at the table? Who knows?

The Big Stallion is Still the Gridiron

The trouble is that the last five football seasons have gone from par (already a serious problem) to sub-par, to flat out ugly. At some point, the “blame the players’ execution of my brilliance, and lack of talent” excuse just stops being an observation and jumps right into being abusive. We have issued our complaints about the coaching staff and methodologies in prior articles. We’ll just review without going into gory details, again. The team needs:

  • A major change in offensive coaching, play-calling, personnel, and game management.
  • A better perspective on the transfer portal vs high school recruiting. The efforts there have been par and no more.
  • A narrowing of responsibilities on each staff where the OC and DC positions are staffed by experienced coaches. On the Job Training is for the lower tiers.
  • A massive change in the form, format, and organizational discipline levels – we’ll be following up later with this one, it’s more critical than you think. Examples: Pregame warm-ups are disorganized messes, and that speaks of deeper issues.

The players are not giving up, but there are signs that the coaching staff is lost trying to stomp out fires, plug holes, and assemble a coherent game plan (any game, just name it) that maximizes the talent that they have and provides the best opportunity for the players to compete, let alone nab some wins.

That’s probably the ugliest thing. The people who are supposed to be building a program, recruiting tree, and new long-term path to success, are just not making the turn. They continue to say that they are following a “process” and it is working.

There are lots of presentations and slides. Everything is just perfect. The show, the video games, the new cafeteria, the paint, the pictures, the updated offices, and such. Marshmallow roasters and thumping boom boxes for entrances and warmups… Tons of visitors crowding the sidelines and choking the field with cell phone cameras, Hokie gear on, and pre-game field badges. VIP field passes for big donors. Silly games on the Jumbotron. It’s a great show, isn’t it?

Yes, but where are the horses?

Next up, the first third of the season is over, and we revisit the Risk Chart for some ideas about the next games.