BLACKSBURG—Virginia Tech football coach Justin Fuente has received plenty of interest from teams with coaching vacancies during his four-plus years in Blacksburg and turned them down without listening to their pitch.
Baylor came calling earlier this week, and it was different.
Fuente, who grew up right in the middle of Big 12 country as an Oklahoma native, and played during the conference’s first two of existence for the Sooners, wanted to hear what they had to say.
Baylor representatives flew out to the New River Valley on Wednesday to sit down with Fuente, who for the first time since taking over for Frank Beamer in November 2015, contemplated a future elsewhere.
Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock detailed the 72-hour saga in a conference call with reporters on Thursday afternoon. Babcock admitted he went to bed on Wednesday night not entirely sure what Fuente would decide.
“Of course you never love it when your coach is talking to other people, but he has turned down a number of other opportunities—a lot of money—and his loyalty is probably not as widely known as it should be,” Babcock said.
Babcock spoke to the media on Fuente’s behalf after the coach desired to “get back in the groove” at work Thursday.
“He has been in the coaching staff meeting room and recruiting room all morning andI’m glad he’s doing his day job,” Babcock said.
After going 33–20 in four seasons with the Hokies, Fuente was among the candidates considered to replace Baylor coach Matt Rhule, who was hired by the Carolina Panthers. The job apparently will go to LSU’s Dave Aranda; the Waco Tribune–Herald reported Thursday both Fuente and Louisiana coach Billy Napier withdrew their names from consideration after speaking to Baylor officials.
Fuente came to Tech after turning around Memphis’ program that won three games combined in the two seasons before his arrival. The one-time TCU assistant has coached Virginia Tech to four straight bowl appearances (extending the program’s streak of consecutive bowl appearances to 27), won the ACC Coastal Division in 2016 and twice had teams finish the year ranked in the AP Top 25 football poll.
His contract with the Hokies runs through 2023 and pays him more than $3.5 million annually in the contract’s remaining years.
Babcock said he was told of Baylor’s interest by Fuete himself on Tuesday. Babcock thought he might hear from his counterpart, athletic director Mack Rhoades, but didn’t have contact with anyone from the school.
The two reconnected on Wednesday night at Fuente’s house after the Baylor meeting. Babcock spoke generally about the conversation, but made one thing abundantlyclear—“it wasn’t a leverage play.”
“We certainly want to focus on general operating budget, recruiting, the facilities are certainly coming along, but there were no demands or leverage,” Babcock said. “We talked strategically about wise positions to add and where we wanted to invest some infrastructure money, but that wasn’t a negotiating point or part of the last couple days.”
Babcock characterized those discussions as an extension of the ones they had just two weeks earlier at their annual year-end meeting.
While Babcock would not confirm that Fuente was offered the Baylor job, — “it’s not my position to speak to that” — Tech’s athletic director certainly believed he could wake up with having the difficult task of rebooting the Hokies’ coaching staff he did worry he would have to reboot the Hokies’ coaching staff.
They parted Wednesday night with Babcock committed to Fuente as Tech’s coach and hoping Fuente would ultimately come to the same conclusion. Babcock got his answer when Fuente called him before the team’s 7 a.m. staff meeting.
Fuente made his intentions known publicly by tweeting out a picture of the coaching staff gathered for the meeting shortly after that.
“I did not know with certainty, but I felt after talking with him last night that his heart was at Virginia Tech,” Babcock said.
As the situation unfolded, Babcock didn’t have any discussions with the coaching staff. He acknowledged that it was likely a stressful couple of days for some of the newly hired coaches — defensive backs coach Ryan Smith was added to the staff the day Baylor reached out to Fuente — but the coaches acted as if it was business as usual.
The staff spent much of the week reviewing recruiting film ahead of getting back on the road and preparing for the arrival of the newcomers who are enrolling for the spring semester.
Babcock said he understands some Tech fans might be frustrated over Baylor’s very public courtship of Fuente, but the situation did nothing to damage the coach’s standing within the athletic department.
“He was straight-up in my book and [I had] no problem whatsoever with it,” Babcock said. “In fact, I think it shows even bigger commitment on his part. He’s not Frank Beamer and he’s not Bud Foster — and we don’t want him to be. So he’s a little more private that most.
“But when you know the Justin that I know, you know how much of a Hokie he is and how much he fits.”