Virginia Tech, coach Justin Fuente part ways in sixth season: What’s next as Hokies begin coaching search

Coach Justin Fuente is out at Virginia Tech before completing his sixth season with the program. The Hokies on Tuesday announced a mutual parting of ways with the coach who led the team to a 43-31 (28-20 ACC) record since 2016.

Co-defensive line coach J.C. Price will serve as the interim coach for the remainder of the 2021 season. Athletic director Whit Babcock will hold a press conference at 10:45 a.m. ET to discuss the move.

Fuente, 45, took over at Virginia Tech in 2016 fresh off winning 19 games in his last two seasons at Memphis. He was considered one of the hottest up-and-coming coaches, a modern offensive mind who was a coup for a Hokies program looking to replace the legendary Frank Beamer.

After seeing success over his first two seasons — Virginia Tech went 19-8 (11-5 ACC) finishing among the top two teams in the Coastal both years — Fuente and the program quickly fell on tough times. Virginia Tech is a combined 24-23 (17-15 ACC) in the four seasons since without a single bowl game victory.

Virginia Tech beat then-No. 10 North Carolina to open the 2021 season, but things turned south soon after the Hokies rose to No. 15 in the AP Top 25 following a Week 2 win over Middle Tennessee. They lost a 27-21 heartbreaker at West Virginia the following week to begin a stretch of five losses in seven games that torpedoed their chances of competing in a wide open ACC.

The Hokies also have the 20th ranked class in the 247Sports Composite team rankings for the upcoming recruiting cycle, and at 5-5 (3-3 ACC) this season, need to win at least one of their final two road games at Miami and Virginia just to go bowling. 

Fuente will be owed a $10 million buyout. That would have decreased by $2.5 million after Dec. 16, but things are moving quickly on the coaching carousel that Virginia Tech felt it had to actively join the coaching market. In making a move Tuesday, the Hokies clearly prioritized replacing Fuente sooner than later to aid recruiting over financial considerations or on-field results.

“We sincerely appreciate the contributions that Coach Fuente made to our football program and the positive impact he made on our student-athletes during his time at Virginia Tech,” Babcock said in a statement. “While it is never easy to make a change, I believe in order for our football program to attain the type of sustained success that is expected at Virginia Tech, the time was right for new leadership of our football program. Virginia Tech is one of the most attractive football jobs in America, competing in one of the nation’s premier conferences, the ACC,” Babcock continued. “I’m extremely confident that we’ll be able to identify and hire a new head coach who can build on our rich history and winning tradition.”

Added Fuente as part of a lengthy statement: “Thank you to the fans of Hokie Nation. I would encourage all of you to continue cheering on this football team — your support means so much to all of them. … To all of those players, coaches and staff who are still fighting on, know that the Fuente family is always cheering for you.”

What went wrong for Fuente

When Fuente stepped in following Beamer’s 29-year tenure, he entered the job regarded as a rising star following his resurrection of the Memphis program. The Tigers had gone 5-31 in the three seasons before Fuente arrived from an assistant role at TCU. But he worked wonders and posted a 19-6 mark in the final two seasons of his four-year Memphis tenure that included transitioning the Tigers from Conference USA to the American.

An innovative offense was the hallmark of Fuente’s success at Memphis with an attack led in 2014-15 by quarterback Paxton Lynch, an eventual first-round NFL Draft pick. The Tigers ranked 19th nationally in total offense in 2015, but Fuente never quite replicated that success at Virginia Tech.

In his third season, 2018, defense was the issue. After ranking in the top 20 of total defense during Fuente’s first two campaigns, Virginia Tech fell to 98th nationally in total defense during the 2018 season as the Hokies finished 6-7. This may have been, at least in part, to the departure of many of Beamer’s prized defensive recruits.

The defense rebounded to 42nd nationally in 2019, but the offense fell from 39th to 86th as the team finished 8-5. Legendary defensive coordinator Bud Foster retired after the 2019 season, and that change, combined with disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sank Virginia Tech to 103rd nationally in defense in 2020.

Fuente rarely had his offense and defense clicking simultaneously, and one explanation could be the program’s middling recruiting performance under his direction. The 2018 signing class, which was ranked 24th nationally, was his best. The Hokies’ 2020 signing class ranked 76th nationally and last in the ACC.

Virginia Tech is an attractive job

With its athletic department revenue ranking 38th nationally, according to USA Today’s database, Virginia Tech does not have the finances of the ultra-wealthy Big Ten and SEC schools. However, the Hokies are a tradition-rich program with enough resources to compete for ACC titles.

The job should appeal to plenty of quality candidates, especially considering how open the ACC appears. While Clemson is an established national power under Dabo Swinney, even the Tigers have struggled in 2021, which has opened the door for programs like Wake Forest, NC State and Pittsburgh to emerge as competitors for the league title.

Getting the Virginia Tech program to a point where it is competing for ACC titles is a relatively manageable ask as the league has no clear standard bearer outside of what is now a scuffling Clemson program. With Miami and Florida State down, the right coach can make progress quickly.

Virginia Tech unveiled a $4.5 million upgrade to its strength and conditioning facilities in March. At the same time, the school announced the creation of a new sports nutrition area. In 2020, the football program began using nine new position meeting rooms as part of the overhauls announced in March.

The national landscape

With so many other programs also on the hunt for new coaches, and with that number likely to increase in the coming weeks, Babcock will have some competition on the coaching market. LSU and USC are clearly the most-attractive jobs currently available, but Virginia Tech could now be considered the next-best opening in the eyes of some candidates.

While the program’s heyday under Beamer is long gone, the changing dynamics of the Big 12 should make the ACC a more desirable landing spot than with TCU in the Big 12. As for Washington State, the Hokies have better resources and fan support, and they  don’t have anyone as strong as Oregon in their division. 

Babcock, who hired Fuente, has been at Virginia Tech since 2014. His most noteworthy other hires so far on the job include men’s basketball coaches Buzz Williams and Mike Young, who have each been successful.

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