clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A quiet coach took over blue-collar VT. His major debut's at a 150,000-seat NASCAR track.

Justin Fuente, replacing 29-year Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer, will introduce himself to most of college football during one of the biggest spectacles in the sport's history.

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Juco transfer quarterback Jerod Evans and the Hokies beat Liberty 36-13 last week, but Justin Fuente's real debut as Virginia Tech head coach will come Saturday night at The Battle at Bristol against No. 17 Tennessee.

Most media members, myself included, lauded the Fuente hire for its cultural fit. He's media shy and earnest; Blacksburg is insular and fiercely supportive. He's a renowned offensive coach; Virginia (especially the Tidewater) is rife with talent for a system that averaged 38.2 points per game the last two seasons at Memphis.

Fuente already has cache with the locals, after retaining longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster from Frank Beamer's staff and announcing the assignment of the No. 25 jersey (Beamer's number from his VT playing days) for a different special teams player each week.

"[Foster] was completely Justin's call. I believe in letting coaches sink or swim on their decisions," Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock said on Tuesday. "I told Justin, ‘Hey, I'll support whoever you hire for defensive coordinator, but the first time we give up a first down [if we don't retain Foster], our fan base will say, ‘Bud Foster wouldn't do that.'"

Fuente embraced bringing on former authorities even when he became head coach of Memphis at 35. Last year's Tiger staff featured four former head coaches, all older than Fuente, and one -- Bill Blankenship -- who was Fuente's high school coach

Before a crush of job speculation around Memphis' 8-0 start caused a media blackout on Fuente last season, SB Nation spoke with the then-Tigers' head coach:

"I felt like it was important to hire someone that had been a head coach on staff," Fuente said. "Someone had thought about all the things I was going to deal with. I knew how we were going to practice, how offseason would work, how our days were going to look. I walked in ready to go because I loved the way we did it at TCU. But I knew enough to know things would come along I hadn't thought of. I'm comfortable with it. It doesn't bother me. They're comfortable enough in their skin, comfortable voicing an opinion. And I'll make a final decision, and we'll go out and make it work."

"I don't know if you can control the awe [at 150,000-seat Bristol] other than focus on the task at hand," said Fuente this week. "To me, that's the main thing. It's the same thing for both teams,€” us getting focused on understanding that it's just a different stage.

"It's still a game."

The coaching transition between Beamer and Fuente has been seamless.

Extraordinarily so, considering Beamer's tenure and legacy in Blacksburg and Southwest Virginia.

If Beamer was the last of a generation of "lifetime" head coaches at major programs, his exit was arguably the most mutually respectful of any of his peers.

Babcock credits Beamer for approaching him during the 2015 season with his retirement plan. That allowed for a public announcement Nov. 1 and gave Babcock room to operate freely on the market.

"Certainly we didn't want to be in that position [of looking for a new coach] when Coach Beamer was still running the program, because that man deserves all the respect in the world. He came to me and said he wanted to make the announcement then, so that we could get a head start on what we needed to do," Babcock said.

In VT's case, Babcock was given total faith by president Timothy Sands to make the school's first football hire in 29 seasons, with discretion at a premium. Babcock eschewed hiring a search committee in favor of a "smaller, quieter process."

He also had the benefit of mutual interest and luck.

Fuente was at the top of the Hokies' list and vice versa, and a mutual agent connection through a previous coaching hire (Fuente shares representation with Cincinnati basketball coach Mick Cronin, a Babcock hire at UC) who helped connect the two parties. VT was able to get Fuente locked up quickly and quietly, allowing Beamer to finish his legendary run without being upstaged.

Such a low-key process is increasingly rare. Babcock credit's Beamer's foresight into the current job market for coaching as the key to success.

Randy Edsall was fired by Maryland Oct. 11. A day later, Steve Spurrier suddenly retired from South Carolina and Steve Sarkisian was fired by USC, setting the Power 5 coaching search cycle in motion earlier than normal.

It's something of a trend: Lane Kiffin was fired by USC on Sept. 29 of 2013. Kansas fired Charlie Weis on Sept. 28 of 2014.

"I don't know if it's a trend, of if it continues on. I hope it doesn't go in that direction. Every A.D. and every president has their reasons, but I don't know that I love coaching decisions made so early during the year," Babcock said.