Va. Tech hires Whit Babcock as AD, and his first order of business may be ‘the basketball problem’


Virginia Tech’s James Johnson, left, coaches up Devin Wilson during a timeout against Wake Forest. Since Johnson took over for Seth Greenberg, wins and ticket sales have been lacking. (Matt Gentry/AP)
January 24, 2014

Virginia Tech has named Whit Babcock as its new athletic director, President Charles Steger announced Friday evening. He will be officially introduced during a news conference next week.

Babcock spent the past three years as the athletic director at Cincinnati, where he spearheaded the school’s $86 million renovation and expansion of its football stadium and hired football coach Tommy Tuberville from Texas Tech.

A native Virginian who grew up in Harrisonburg, Babcock previously served as an administrator at Missouri, West Virginia, Auburn and James Madison, his alma mater.

He replaces Jim Weaver, who retired last month because of health concerns after 17 years in the position. Babcock, known for his marketing and fundraising ability, received a five-year appointment and his tenure at Virginia Tech will officially begin March 1.

“An opportunity to come home to Virginia and become part of the Hokie family is truly a dream come true,” Babcock said in a school-issued statement.

John Ballein, Virginia Tech’s director of football operations and the lone internal candidate interviewed, said this week that, outside of reinvigorating the Hokie Club — the department’s fundraising arm — one of the first decisions for Babcock will be determining how to “fix the basketball problem.”

Whether the solution involves Virginia Tech Coach James Johnson remains to be seen. The Hokies (8-10, 1-5) travel to Charlottesville on Saturday to play Virginia at sold-out John Paul Jones Arena. The matchup will feature two basketball programs headed in opposite directions.

With another win, the Cavaliers (14-5, 5-1) would be off to their best start in ACC play since 1982-83, and they are on track to earn a second NCAA tournament bid in three years. The Hokies, meanwhile, have lost seven of their past eight, including five in a row, and are on pace to finish in the ACC cellar for a third consecutive season.

Off the court, things aren’t much better at Cassell Coliseum. Attendance for home games has fallen every year since 2007-08, the campaign following Virginia Tech’s only NCAA tournament appearance since 1996, but it has dropped dramatically following the firing of former coach Seth Greenberg in April 2012.

Through 13 home games this season, the Hokies’ average attendance is 4,559, a 45.6 percent decline from Greenberg’s last season, when Virginia Tech finished in a tie for last place in the ACC standings.

According to figures provided by the Hokies athletic department, season ticket sales have dropped from a high of 5,322 in 2007-08 to 3,414 this season. Only 379 students bothered to buy season tickets this year, down from its peak level of 2,134 in 2007-08.

During the Greenberg era, students had to purchase season tickets to guarantee themselves a seat for big games. But single-game student tickets are free, and with the program’s recent downturn, fewer students are worried about getting a good seat.

“Our marketing office has surveyed students and they stated that they knew they could get in the game free so they didn’t want to buy a season ticket,” associate athletic director Tim East wrote in an e-mail.

Johnson’s second season as coach is on a similar trajectory as his first, when Virginia Tech closed the year with 12 losses in its final 14 games.

“They’re looking at me, see how I respond, see how I act coming into practice,” Johnson said after the Hokies lost to Wake Forest, 83-77, on Wednesday night. “I think this team still has confidence, still has fight.”

But on top of embarrassing losses (to South Carolina-Upstate and UNC Greensboro, in particular), there also has been turmoil. Team captain Cadarian Raines has been in and out of Johnson’s doghouse, not even coming off the bench in four games. Forward C.J. Barksdale was suspended the first three games of the regular season, the second time since Johnson took over that Barksdale was disciplined for a violation of team rules. Freshman guard Malik Mueller, from Germany, was ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA during the preseason.

In addition, the Hokies have seen three of the four members (Dorian Finney-Smith, Robert Brown and Marquis Rankin) of their 2011 recruiting class, once considered the best in school history, leave the program for various reasons. Top 2012 recruit Montrezl Harrell switched his commitment to Louisville after Greenberg’s firing, and scouts now project him to be a future first-round NBA draft pick. The program’s top-rated 2013 recruit, Donte Clark, was not admitted to Virginia Tech and is taking a redshirt year at Massachusetts.

Johnson, though, has received encouraging returns from freshman guards Devin Wilson and Ben Emelogu this season, and three more recruits are on the way next year. The lowest-paid coach in the ACC, Johnson signed a five-year contract worth $680,000 annually when he was hired.

“I hope everybody’s patient with him,” Clemson Coach Brad Brownell said after the Tigers beat the Hokies at Cassell earlier this month. Brownell lured Johnson, then a Hokies assistant, away from Virginia Tech after the 2011-12 season, setting off the chain of events that eventually prompted Weaver to fire Greenberg and bring Johnson back as head coach.

“I hope they understand this league is so hard and . . . it can be unmerciful,” Brownell added. “It’ll pay off for Virginia Tech here in the next couple years.”

Johnson’s players also haven’t given up hope. Following Wednesday night’s loss, a game in which Virginia Tech fell behind by 20 in the game’s first 13 minutes despite being backed by the largest student-section showing in months, a forlorn senior Jarell Eddie came to his coach’s defense.

“We’ve got a coach that’s really working with us, and he’s really implementing our system. It’s in the right direction,” he said. “We’re still confident in what we’re doing. We’ve just hit a rough patch in the season. We’ll get through it.”

Mark Giannotto covers high school sports for The Washington Post.
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