Here's the $15 million question lingering over Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech Hokies head coach Justin Fuente leaves the field after the game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. (USAT)
Virginia Tech Hokies head coach Justin Fuente leaves the field after the game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. (USAT)

Late Friday night, when the inept veered toward the unwatchable at Lane Stadium, a defining moment came for Virginia Tech’s football program amid a listless 45-10 loss to Duke.

Up by 28 points in the middle of the fourth quarter, Duke faked a punt in Virginia Tech territory and later scored following a fourth-and-7 conversion. The conversation on social media revolved around the sportsmanship of the fake punt and whether Duke was running up the score on Virginia Tech.

You want a searing mile marker of how bad things have gotten for Virginia Tech? A moment that screams changes are needed?

For the last two decades, the notion of Duke running up the score on Virginia Tech in football would fit snugly in the alternate reality files.

What in the name of Michael Vick, Bruce Smith and the Fuller brothers is going on in Blacksburg? On the 20th anniversary of Virginia Tech’s team that played in the 1999 national championship, Tech put on a jarring display of how far away they are from that level. The loss was Tech’s worst at home since 1974, further transforming Lane Stadium’s reputation from hostile to accommodating.

Athletic director Whit Babcock finds himself at a compelling crossroads with Frank Beamer’s replacement. It would cost $15 million to fire Justin Fuente after the regular season, a number that drops to $12.5 million after Dec. 15. That’s considered unlikely, as Babcock has stated publicly– on Twitter this summer, no less – that Fuente isn’t on the hot seat.

Fuente is a respectable 27-17 in his fourth season, but he’s hurtling toward a third straight season of regression. If the season ends hopeless and Tech is hemorrhaging money on season tickets, moving on Fuente is something it is going to have to consider. (It’s hard to blame Tech for extending Fuente’s contract, as Tennessee, Florida State and Arkansas all expressed interest during their recent searches.)

Tech (2-2, 0-2 ACC) projects only to be favored against Rhode Island and Georgia Tech the rest of the season. That puts the program’s 26-year bowl streak in peril, especially because Tech will play two FCS teams and will have to win seven games to reach a bowl. Fuente has gone 10-4, 9-4 and then 6-7, authoring Tech’s first losing season since 1992. The biggest indictment of Fuente in his fourth year is that the roster is both devoid of a competent quarterback and a clear identity, the alleged expertise of a coach hired from Memphis with a strong offensive background.

On defense, the issue is simple, according to an opposing assistant coach familiar with Tech. He said there’s been a precipitous drop in talent: “It’s not even close to 2016,” he said, referencing Fuente’s first season with Beamer’s players. “I bet they don’t have one NFL player on defense. In the past, those defenses were stocked with NFL guys.”

So far this season, Virginia Tech has gotten thumped on the road by Boston College, trailed Furman 14-3 at halftime and gotten the atomic wedgie at home against Duke. They also lost to Old Dominion last season, got blown out by league peers Pitt, Miami and Georgia Tech and lost to Cincinnati in a bowl game.

Some of those games, taken individually, wouldn’t be considered concerning. But collectively, they provide a reminder that Virginia Tech isn’t a blue blood in football where you can sleepwalk to 10-win seasons. The near totality of the program’s historic national relevancy can be attributed to Hall of Fame coach Frank Beamer, and Fuente’s struggles are a reminder just how anomalous his success there was. (Bill Dooley did have some solid seasons in the 1980s prior to Beamer, but a far cry from Beamer’s heydays that included eight straight double-digit win seasons.)

Justin Fuente of the Virginia Tech Hokies speaks to his team inside a huddle prior to the game against the Furman Paladins at Lane Stadium on September 14, 2019 in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Getty)
Justin Fuente of the Virginia Tech Hokies speaks to his team inside a huddle prior to the game against the Furman Paladins at Lane Stadium on September 14, 2019 in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Getty)

Virginia has rocketed past Tech in the ACC standings and national relevancy. Recruiting is sputtering, as Tech is dead last in the ACC at No. 72 overall on the rankings. And in an ACC where Clemson dominates and Virginia and Wake Forest are arguably Top 25 teams, Tech’s deterioration under Fuente is part of the ACC’s gaping hole in national relevancy. (Miami, Florida State and Louisville each get a heaping slice of blame pie there.)

Here’s Babcock’s conundrum condensed. Fuente needs to replace iconic defensive coordinator Bud Foster after this season, as he announced his retirement earlier this year. In retrospect, that shotgun marriage appears to have deteriorated from a win at the opening press conference and signing day to a schematic liability. While there’s been no in-fighting, something isn’t working.

The ultimate issue facing Fuente potentially coming off back-to-back flops is that it’ll be difficult to lure a high-end replacement for Foster, as no million-dollar defensive coordinator will be eager to join a sinking ship. (And Babcock isn’t a rube like Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer, who hands out guaranteed three-year deals like they’re Halloween candy.)

If Fuente survives this season, he’ll be the face of hot-seat lists next summer, which complicates the larger staff issues. One of the parts of Fuente’s Tech tenure that’s been underwhelming is his staff, as there are currently few coaches there that other programs covet. Staff changes would mean firing some guys who helped him get the job – Feunte brought many friends – and the most qualified candidates will be seeking more stability.

Whether it’s $15 million or $12.5 million, that’s a lot of money for an ACC school. Babcock certainly has an affinity for Fuente and wants him to succeed. Babcock is measured, calculating and has shown a strong enough spine over his career to tune out fan noise. He lured Buzz Williams in basketball for a strong run and had a deft handling of the Beamer transition.

The thorny part for Fuente is that the issue at Tech appears to be talent more than scheme, although it’s fair to say that Fuente’s program has failed in developing a distinct schematic identity on both sides of the ball.

If Virginia Tech’s talent deficit is big enough that they looked hopeless against Duke, how are they supposed to compete with Clemson? As a program that built its success on player identification and player development, there’s really no way to microwave the roster back to competitiveness. Tech has only five seniors, the least in the country, but if the young players aren’t competitive it’s difficult to sell hope to a fan base spoiled by winning.

Tech’s patience with Beamer, who went 2-8-1 in 1992 before going 9-3 in 1993, has become a part of the school’s lore. When others would have capitulated to pressure, Tech knew they had a Hall of Famer who needed time.

Can Babcock show similar patience? It may depend on precisely how many more ACC teams get accused of running up the score on the Hokies.

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