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Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)


BLACKSBURG — A college athletics director has a long list of duties, but two almost always are at the top.

Raise money.

Hire the right coaches.

The former is unending.

The latter is a delicate, sometimes intricate exercise. It 's a fact-based process, but is heavy on intuition and experience. Oftentimes, it's more art than science. And almost always, it has to be done quickly, requiring both sides to determine in a short period whether the fit will work.

So far in his three-plus years at Virginia Tech, athletics director Whit Babcock has worked quickly, made excellent use of his experience and intuition and is raising the art of hiring successful coaches to a new level.

Babcock faced his greatest challenge in replacing Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech's legendary football coach. Beamer held his job with the Hokies for 29 years and took the team to 23 consecutive bowl games.

Replacing him would be no easy task.

But Beamer presented Babcock with a helpful parting gift. The coach announced during the 2015 season that it would be his last on the job. Babcock had time to plan.

And the plan came together. Babcock was out in front of the field in the pursuit of Justin Fuente, who had rebuilt Memphis into a consistently successful program.

The hiring was quick, the transition smooth and the results better than anyone expected. In his first year on the job, Fuente revitalized the Hokies' offense, defensive coordinator Bud Foster maintained a strong unit, and the Hokies won the Coastal Division of the ACC.

They suffered a narrow loss to Clemson, the eventual national champion, in the ACC title game. Then, Virginia Tech came back from a 24-point halftime deficit to defeat Arkansas 35-24 in the Belk Bowl.

All the while, Babcock and Fuente made sure to honor Beamer for all he'd done to establish the Virginia Tech program on the national stage.

How the Beamer retirement/replacement/transition was handled should be a chapter in a textbook for a sports management master's program.

Babcock also wanted upgrades in men's and women's basketball and baseball.

Buzz Williams left Marquette to take the men's basketball job. Williams was coming off a 17-15 season, but had five straight NCAA appearances in the seasons before 2013-14. In his third season in Blacksburg, Williams led the Hokies to an NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 2007.

Babcock lured Kenny Brooks from James Madison to take the women's job. Brooks was perhaps the best women's coach in the state.

Last year, in his first season at Tech, Brooks' team had a tremendous start, 16-1 and No. 15 in the national rankings, before the realities of rebuilding a program in the ACC hit. An 11-game losing streak ensued, and the Hokies finished 20-14.

Brooks' history indicates losing streaks are not an every-season thing.

Thursday, Babcock introduced his most recent hire, John Szefc, a proven winner in the Big Ten and ACC. Szefc left Maryland to take the Virginia Tech job, and everyone will be surprised if he doesn't raise the level of the Hokies' baseball program.

"In its simplest form, you're only as good as the coaches you hire," Babcock said Thursday after introducing Szefc.

Of course, finding the best people possible and figuring out if they will fit in the diminutive hamlet of Blacksburg always is a challenge. Doing it quickly, often with huge amounts of money at stake, adds to the intrigue.

"It is a very interesting profession, when you talk about giving people, in football and basketball at least, tens of millions of dollars in contracts, and you sit in front of them for one day," Babcock said.

"What other business would do that? You really have to do a lot of vetting and homework and, knock wood, we've been fortunate, and I feel like we've done a very good job of that."

Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands has given Babcock the latitude to conduct the coaching searches as he sees fit. And Babcock sees two-person committees as the best fit to quickly identify the candidates, discuss the pros and cons of each and then lock in a new coach.

Babcock doesn't waste time.

"You can certainly have a wish list for coaches, but you better darn sure get that list down pretty quickly to who are the best coaches who will say yes to your job," Babcock said. "So far, we've had very good success in the one we want most also wants to be with us."

It doesn't hurt that Virginia Tech is in the ACC, one of the Power Five conferences. Babcock does not have a license to print money, but ACC members rake in enough revenue to keep them ahead of most other schools in the country.

"Out of 15 schools in the ACC, our budget is eighth or ninth, and we certainly would like to increase that," Babcock said. "But when you're at that level, you better hire and retain quality talent.

"We need to out-people people because we can't outspend them all, nor can we buy our way out of poor decisions. But if money was the only factor, Texas and Ohio State would never lose in anything."

Szefc had 149,000 reasons to be interested in the Virginia Tech job. That's the difference in his base salary in Blacksburg ($400,000 in year one) and Maryland ($251,000).

College athletics are a business and money matters. But money alone wasn't going to get Szefc to leave Maryland. He wants to compete for a national championship, which requires top-quality players and facilities. And the $18 million renovation to English Field at Union Park will offer an attractive facility for recruits.

Szefc also did his research on Virginia Tech and Babcock.

"Clearly the guys he's hiring are having success," Szefc said. "He makes people feel comfortable. It's not a take-it-or-leave-it-type attitude. I have a wife and three kids, and when I evaluate a situation, it's not just for the baseball aspects. I'm saying, 'Can I bring Barb (Szefc's wife) and those three kids into this environment and work for this man?' After the conversations I had with him, it wasn't even close. It was a layup of a decision."

Babcock prefers head coaching experience when he looks at candidates because, in most cases, the ACC is not a league for beginners.

"And I like to hire coaches who have had to hustle and scrap and maybe haven't had all the resources and have done more with less," Babcock said. "I'm looking for character and competence and the right fit for Virginia Tech."

Babcock is on a roll.

"Time will tell," he said.

Time is telling pretty well so far.

(804) 649-6444@World_of_Woody

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June 18, 2017


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