The Virginia Tech Hokies have a new athletic director now that former Cincinnati AD Whit Babcock has been hired to replace the outgoing Jim Weaver, as announced on their official website. It's a decision that will indelibly shape the program for the foreseeable future.
But how exactly might Babcock affect the Hokies?
The answer is largely unclear, but a closer examination of Babcock’s work with the Bearcats, and a consideration of the problems he’ll be facing, can provide some hints.
Babcock will have big shoes to fill, considering that Weaver presided over the program’s move to the ACC and some of its most successful years.
He’ll also have to work with new university president Timothy Sands to understand how his priorities differ from those outlined by former president Charles Steger, who, since being hired in 2000, had worked in lockstep with Weaver.
There’s new blood at the top of Virginia Tech athletics for the first time since 1997; head coach Frank Beamer remains a constant, but the leadership surrounding the football program is about to change drastically.
Well Regarded in Cincinnati
Babcock may have an uphill battle to live up to Weaver’s sterling reputation, but he’s already begun to build one in his own right.
He worked as AD at Cincinnati only since October 2011, but he made his mark on the program in that short time, as Mark Berman of The Roanoke Times explains:
Babcock was hired by Cincinnati in October 2011. Fourteen months later, he made a splash when he hired a big name as football coach — Tommy Tuberville.
Tuberville was the replacement for Butch Jones, who had left Cincinnati for Tennessee. Tuberville, who had once been Auburn’s coach, left Texas Tech to take the Cincinnati job. He steered the Bearcats to a 10-3 mark in 2012 and a 9-4 record last fall.
[Cincinnati president Santa] Ono said the Tuberville hiring was “one of the signature accomplishments” of Babcock’s time at Cincinnati, but he also pointed to a few others.
“He and I have worked very hard to enhance funding to the entire athletic program,” Ono said. “We’ve worked to renovate Nippert Stadium [the football stadium], which is underway.”
The renovation to which Ono alludes has been a mammoth project for the university. Nippert Stadium was built all the way back in 1924, but Babcock raised $86 million to fund expansions and upgrades for the facility, according to Steve Watkins of the Cincinnati Business Courier.
Most impressively, Babcock brought that money in only through private donations and personal seat licenses—an impressive feat for a program that resides in the lowly American Athletic Conference.
But this fundraising prowess shouldn’t come as a shock. Babcock led the fundraising efforts during his previous stops at West Virginia and Missouri, a pair of programs adept at raking in cash.
While Babcock’s abilities as a fundraiser and an evaluator of coaching talent are both positive signs, the best sign for his future success could be the respect he seems to have engendered in Cincinnati.
Just look at the way Ono responded to his departure:
Losing Whit is like losing a best friend. I will miss his entire family. But friends are for life and I am sure we will keep in touch.— Santa J. Ono (@PrezOno) January 25, 2014
Tuberville largely echoed this sentiment:
The most troubling indictment of any coach or administrator as they leave a school is faint praise that follows their departure; this doesn’t seem to be the case where Babcock’s concerned.
But the question is how he’ll use these skills to tackle the problems facing Tech’s athletic department.
Weaver leaves Tech’s athletics department in excellent shape, but there are still some major questions lingering that directly affect the football program.
The most immediate challenge facing Babcock is the construction of the team’s new indoor practice facility.
Weaver was able to help negotiate a compromise that led to the school’s Board of Visitors approving the construction of the facility on the team’s existing outdoor practice fields, per The Washington Post.
But this was a battle many years in the making. Weaver himself began his efforts to build the facility almost as soon as he took over as AD in 1997, getting initial approval for plans in 1998; yet the facility remains just a plan at this point.
Tech is hoping to start construction on the building early this year, but they still need to finish raising the $25 million for the cost of the facility, per The Washington Post. Babcock seems like a man up to the task, but that’s surely what Weaver thought when he began work on the project a decade-and-a-half ago.
Closely related to the team’s fundraising for a new practice facility is finding a new way to energize the program’s booster association, the Hokie Club.
For years, Tech’s athletic department has defied the rest of college football and operated at a profit instead of a loss, but that might not be feasible in the long term.
Part of the reason is the deficient support of the program’s boosters, at least compared to the rest of college football’s powerhouses.
In 2011, per the Business of College Sports' Kristi Dosh, Tech brought in about $16 million from contributions. That is quite the pile of cash, but when compared to national champions and fellow ACC program Florida State’s $23 million or national runner-up Auburn’s $29 million, it just doesn’t measure up.
Growing the program’s fundraising base will be a primary goal for Babcock going forward. The Daily Press’ David Teel writes:
Tech athletes thrive in the NCAA’s academic progress rate and graduation success rates, and to improve, to put in place the upgrades Ballein advocates, requires money. The department is among the few nationally that operate in the black, but...rising tuition, plus expected NCAA legislation allowing schools to offer athletes stipends of approximately $2,000 annually, threatens that fiscal soundness.
Tech relies solely on Hokie Club donations to fund scholarships while using department and ACC revenues to finance operating budgets.
We’re at a crossroads right now financially with our scholarships. We’re at a point right now where our scholarship funding may have to be taken out of our operating funds, and you’re not going to be successful with that. … We need to increase our Hokie Club membership. … We need to build relationships, and we need to start young. I took the NFL shield and made it HFL. Hokie For Life. Start in high school, the minute they sign their admission offer from Tech. …
I don’t think we thank enough people that give to this university. If we took every student-athlete, 512 of them, and we took every employee of the department, approximately 200 of them. If we took those 712 people and divided up 9,953 Hokie Club members, that would give each one of those individuals 14 people. Couldn’t we call 14 people a year and thank them for what they do for Virginia Tech? It’s a small thing, but I think we get away from it. I think we tend to forget those people that are giving … and that’s not the route to go.
Despite getting passed over in favor of Babcock, Ballein has indicated he’s interested in staying with the program and working with the new AD on these types of issues, per Teel's report, and it’ll be crucial that they get addressed very quickly.
The final, and perhaps most difficult, challenge that faces Babcock is the fact that he’ll likely be the man to find Beamer’s replacement.
He’s off to a strong start in that department, as nabbing Tuberville and his SEC bonafides to replace Butch Jones was a surprising feat, but it can’t compare to replacing a legend like Beamer.
Beamer’s current deal lasts through 2016, and he seems likely to coach at least until that point, if not longer. However, the 67-year-old doesn’t seem willing to coach into his 80s like Joe Paterno, so it would seem the end is in sight for his tenure at Tech.
That leaves the tricky feat to Babcock. There are several internal candidates that could succeed Beamer, from his own son, Shane, to longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster, but the arms race in assistant salaries could cause some attrition on the staff between then and now.
Generating more revenue from the Hokie Club to help raise coaches’ salaries will be just one part of Babcock’s mandate to try to prevent defections like the one the program just suffered with Jeff Grimes.
Besides, both Foster, per College Football Talk's John Taylor, and the younger Beamer, per Pete Roussel of CoachingSearch.com, have already received overtures from other programs. Babcock will have to hope he can retain these coaches or hope he can do an equally impressive job hiring from outside the program as he did in Cincinnati.
Overall, Babcock seems to be up to the task. He’s an up-and-comer in the industry and is no stranger to big-time college football.
But a job that was once one of the more stable positions in the country is now surrounded by uncertainty at all sides.
Babcock should be a positive influence on the Hokies, but only time will tell what he can do in Blacksburg.