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It looked like a perfect pairing.
Virginia Tech, the program that rose to prominence under Frank Beamer and improbably stayed there for 15 years, needed a successor of high character and tremendous creativity. Justin Fuente, who turned Memphis from the worst job in America into a winning program, was ready for a power conference gig but wanted to go to a place that would appreciate his understated, all-business personality rather than lust for a showman.
All the evidence suggested that Whit Babcock, the Virginia Tech athletics director, hit a home run when his weeks-long pursuit of Fuente was finally consummated on Nov. 30, 2015. He had even pulled off a secret meeting between Fuente and longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster that convinced the two of them they could work together, providing a link between the past and the future.
Virginia Tech had slipped a notch in Beamer’s final years, but with the succession plan in place and a proven program-builder coming to Blacksburg, the Hokies should have ACC titles in their future.
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Instead, on Oct. 23, 2021, we can pretty much declare the Fuente era over. It’s not official, of course, until the press release comes from Virginia Tech and the buyout money – $10 million if the decision is made before Dec. 16 – is in place. It may take several more weeks, or Virginia Tech may pull the plug soon. We’ll see.
But with the Hokies falling at home to Syracuse 41-36, the answer is no longer a mystery. Not only did Virginia Tech lose its third consecutive home game to fall to 3-4, but the Hokies blew a 36-27 lead with 5:36 remaining against a team that had lost 10 straight ACC games.
It happened in a way that has become all too familiar for Hokies fans in late-game situations. After giving up a big kickoff return and failing to mount much defensive resistance as the Orange cut the deficit to 36-34, Virginia Tech played conservatively and punted the ball away with 1:04 left. That was enough for Syracuse to go 70 yards, completing a 45-yard touchdown pass with 19 seconds left to hand Virginia Tech a second come-from-ahead loss this month. Just a few weeks ago, Virginia Tech led Notre Dame 29-21 with 3:55 left and somehow lost in regulation. The Hokies lost a third close one earlier in the year against West Virginia when they had first-and-goal at the 3-yard line with a chance to win and couldn’t score on four plays.
For Fuente, there’s simply not enough goodwill in the bank to survive a season like this. The recruiting has been unimpressive. Player retention has been a big problem. And the results just aren’t there: 6-7 in 2018, 8-5 in 2019, 5-6 in 2020 and another .500-type season on deck this year.
“Football is important here, we must and will do better,” Babcock said after last season when the decision was made to bring Fuente back in 2021. “Failure is simply not an option, that is crystal clear to me and Justin and everyone here. That is the standard and that’s what we signed up for. We have a plan and we have hope for the future and we did what we thought was best.”
To be fair to Fuente, there’s no way to know whether post-Beamer Virginia Tech is equipped to win at the elite level in modern college football. It’s a fairly remote campus in a tiny mountain town without an obvious recruiting advantage. Its best in-state recruiting areas are in the Hampton Roads and Washington, D.C., regions are more than four hours away.
The first coach to replace Beamer was always going to be a risky test case, but what frustrates Virginia Tech fans most is that Fuente was no accidental hire. He was the guy the administration targeted early, believed in and kept for at least two years after fans started to get antsy.
Now, it appears the fans were right, the program is in worse shape and they did nothing but waste time getting to this point. Though change is imminent, that makes Virginia Tech No. 1 in this week’s Misery Index, a weekly measurement of knee-jerk reactions based on what each fan base just watched.