Justin Fuente Has Lots of Work Ahead to Rebuild Trust If He Returns

By: Tim Thomas | @TimThomas1996 | Jan 15, 2020

Editor Note: Comments from Virginia Tech AD Whit Babcock have negated certain points made in this article. I am maintaining this article as is as many points remain the same, but acknowledge that I unintentionally, wrongly interpreted from our limited information that Fuente did not inform Babcock of his interview prior to Wednesday. Whit Babcock has stated that he was informed on Tuesday though the exact time remains unknown. I apologize for the inaccuracy in my reporting and analysis.

Justin Fuente had plenty of highs during the first two years of his tenure with 19 wins during his first seasons including an ACC Coastal title in his first season after Virginia Tech had no more than 8 wins during the previous 2 seasons. It included a pair of 9+ win seasons and some dramatic victories including an incredible 24-point comeback at the 2016 Belk Bowl and a 2017 season-opening win against rival West Virginia.

At that point, Fuente looked like the real deal and answer at Virginia Tech even quickly rebuffing interest from Florida State.

Since then, Fuente has gone through a 2018 that was a disaster from the Galen Scott scandal to a 6-7 season and one of the largest transfer portal exoduses in the country. 2019 was a year of improvement though it took a disaster against Duke to get Fuente back to himself.

Despite a rough couple of years, a team that returned almost all of its starters gave Tech fans plenty of reason for confidence in the future with Justin Fuente at the helm. Entering this offseason, there still is plenty of optimism about how good Virginia Tech could be next season all around the program.

More importantly may be the fact that athletic director Whit Babcock has stood as steadfast as an athletic director could beside Fuente. Part of that is due to Fuente's first 2 seasons, but part of that is because of the competence and trust that Babcock gives his people to put the people they feel are best to get the job done.

Babcock has stood by Fuente as strong as any AD could without ever even considering throwing him under the bus from the Scott scandal to the chaotic 2018 season both on the field and off the field to standing by Fuente in the most steadfast manner by ignoring the mass frustration after the disaster against Duke.

Babcock has given Fuente the rightful space to run his program as he wants to even if that means moving on from long-time defensive assistant Charley Wiles because of recruiting concerns and differences in defensive approach for where Virginia Tech wants to evolve, understandable motives even if the move would be hard to swallow (though hiring Bill Teerlinck and Darryl Tapp has made it a lot easier).

Whit Babcock has stood steadfast while many Hokie fans and donors followed Babcock's lead and rallied behind Fuente with optimism about the future even if things haven't been perfect.

The reward for that support, a blindsiding interview for the Baylor vacancy that not even most in the Virginia Tech athletic department; including Whit Babcock, likely knew about.

Much of this is from the fact that everything we had been hearing around the program was excitement about next season for Virginia Tech that, at its core, was coming from head coach Justin Fuente.

Want some evidence that would seem to suggest that Tech had no idea beyond the fact that everything around Fuente and his program was excitement about next season, take a look at this from Whit Babcock.

Now I'm one to rarely read into stuff on Twitter, but Babcock is one person who never lets anything about publicly. Yes, no one should be surprised that Babcock has reached out to players today to show support, but the fact that Babcock is even sending a subtly public message is an indication that Babcock was caught off guard by Fuente.

At this point, it's also starting to become clearer that Fuente is seriously looking at jumping to Baylor rather than this being some sort of leverage ploy to get more resources or something at Virginia Tech. Even if it is a leverage play to get more resources or something else, the attempt was poorly planned and has become a complete disaster.

What's clear now is that Justin Fuente has burnt bridges on a level that only Jerod Evans and Buzz Williams surpassed when leaving Blacksburg. (Editor's Note: Comment has been updated to provide a more accurate reflection given the circumstances.)

Some of those bridges of trust will be irreparable unless Fuente wins a TON however much longer he is here. Others are still repairable, but it will have to start by rebuilding the trust of the man who hands him his check, Whit Babcock.

If you're going to go behind the back of your athletic director and have an interview with another Power 5 program, especially one that would be a lateral move, you better be confidant that you're going to land that job, or have quite the explanation for why you made that move.

If Fuente does return, he'll have a lot to explain to Babcock, one who has stood by Fuente as much as anyone over the tumultuous past 18 months, about why he decided to not even give Tech's athletic department a heads up that he would be considering this.

If he would have, Tech may not have been happy about it, but there would at least be a healthy communication and line of understanding that would keep the relationship healthy throughout the process.

Instead, Fuente's first objective, if he returns, is going to be rebuilding Babcock's trust in him. Babcock likely still does have a limited amount of trust in what Fuente can do on the field, but Fuente likely has a lot of work ahead to rebuild it off the field, and understandably so.

Then, Fuente will have the rest of the job of giving his non-senior players and coaches, especially his new hires, that he isn't going to be looking for the exit ramp throughout 2020. Lastly, he's going to have to sell that both to recruits and to donors who are as stunned as anyone by this news.

All of this will require plenty of work starting with a Fuente mea culpa of sorts in a public manner. For a man who likes to keep things private, it will undoubtedly be uncomfortable especially with part of that likely requiring opening more things to media and fans including practices and public availability of him and his staff. Additionally, Fuente will likely have to spend more time than usual repairing those relationships with fans and donors in addition to players, the athletic department, and likely even some of the coaches he's just hired.

Is rebuilding some of that trust still doable for Justin Fuente? Absolutely.

Will he ever be able to regain the full trust he had before interviewing at Baylor? No