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Lord knows, there were plenty of things in yesterday’s Virginia Tech-Pitt game to be unhappy with.
But for me, it wasn’t the predictable play calls, the missed tackles, the going for it on 4th and 4 and only getting 3, or losing by a wide margin to a team that had lost 4 of its last 5 and had 16 players out.
It was a single answer by Justin Fuente to a fair question by Richmond’s Mike Barber after the game.
The question involved the Hokie offense and the perception of a lack of imagination in play calling that has been voiced by many Hokie fans on social media. The team had gotten off to a great start offensively, averaging over 40 points a game and going 3-1 in their first four games.
But a wheel seemed to come off the high-scoring bus at Wake Forest, as Virginia Tech was held to only 16 points in a loss to the Deacons. The Hokies have now lost 4 of their last 5, and instead of averaging 40, they scored 16 against Wake, 24 against Miami and only 14 yesterday against Pitt.
During those games, there have been flashes of versatility and imagination that led to big plays. But when things got tight, the Hokies seemed to crawl back into their shell and run the same handful of plays they always run, specifically a quarterback keeper by Hendon Hooker.
Because of that, Barber asked the question many fans would like to know the answer to: With an open date coming up, which would allow for some changes to be made that would address some of the shortcomings shown during the current 3-game losing streak, would Fuente consider taking over play calling for the final two games of the regular season?
Fuente reacted with not only disgust, but almost contempt for Barber. “That’s the most ludicrous crap I’ve ever heard. Next question.”
I’ll take that as a no, coach.
There is a rich history of this type of back and forth between reporters and coaches in sports, so it’s not like this has never happened before. But there was something about Fuente’s tone, his body language, his “how dare you ask me that?” expression that struck a note with me.
Virginia Tech pays Fuente millions to coach football, but his responsibilities go well beyond that. He’s expected to not only know X’s and O’s, but also be the face of the flagship sports department of the university. To be a leader. To be the guy who stays level when there is chaos everywhere around. To be a calming influence and teacher who can show the way out of a dark tunnel.
It’s the same in being a president or director in the business world. The troops reflect the attitude of the head man. If sales are dropping, products aren’t working out the way you thought and you stalk around the office talking about how if things don’t get better everyone’s going to get fired, guess what’s going to happen?
Everyone’s going to get fired.
The head man’s job, in addition to industry knowledge, is to hold things together. Be serious, but keep the atmosphere light. People don’t respond to veiled threats. I can’t tell you how many big presentations I’ve been involved with where the last thing I told the team before we went in was “Remember, they can’t eat you. Now let’s show them why they need to make us even more overpaid than we already are.”
Seeing your boss in a press conference answering a fair question with “that’s the most ludicrous crap I’ve ever heard” would not leave me with a feeling of “this guy’s holding everything together.” It would make me wonder if the pressure is getting to him. Or if he’s so confident in his own abilities he doesn’t even realize the barbarians are at the gate.
It’s even worse when you consider that this has been the knock on Fuente for some time. Good coach, not a great warm and fuzzy communicator. I’ve never met him, so I can’t say. But as he was telling Barber about “ludicrous crap,” I couldn’t help but wonder what he’d say to an assistant coach who questioned something in practice. Or a player.
Or a parent of a player.
I also can’t help but wonder where Whit Babcock is in all this. If I’m Fuente’s boss, we’re talking this morning about how you can’t act this way. Be frustrated all you want in the privacy of your own home, but you represent a lot of people when you’re sitting at that table with a mic and camera. Acting like that does not project confidence that you’re in control of a multimillion-dollar program and have the gravitas to fix what’s wrong.
Particularly when so many people are questioning your ability to coach the team in the first place.
Many people get all wrapped up in how Fuente limits access to the program versus Frank Beamer, and I’ve never thought that really matters versus just go win games. But now I’m intrigued. Does he snap like that at his staff? Are players afraid to ask him anything? Does he routinely view any questioning of his point of view as “ludicrous crap?”
Frank Beamer won a lot of games, but even when he didn’t, he projected an image of someone calmly in control, someone who would find a way to fix things, and someone who would listen. It resonated with his assistants, players, the fans and parents of the players.
It’s why everyone loved him. It’s why he also signed a lot of great players who helped him win a lot of games.
Justin Fuente didn’t do that last night. He’s also not winning a lot of games these days either.
Maybe the two are related.