After he spent six seasons coaching the Virginia Tech football team, Justin Fuente and the school mutually agreed to part ways, Athletic Director Whit Babcock announced Tuesday.
Co-defensive line coach J.C. Price will serve as interim coach for the rest of the season, beginning with Saturday night’s game at Miami.
“We all learn from it,” Babcock said during a news conference Tuesday. “Justin didn’t fail. Our team didn’t fail, and when you hire someone in, it feels a whole lot different when you have to part ways. Just do the best you can. I thought we got off to a great start with Justin, and then it just didn’t go where we wanted it to go.”
Fuente, 45, was due a buyout of $10 million, per terms of his contract, if he was terminated before Dec. 16 and $7.5 million after that date, but the sides compromised at a figure of $8.75 million, according to Babcock, who hired Fuente to national acclaim in November 2015.
Babcock revealed during his news conference that he had lost confidence in Fuente last week while declining to specify a tipping point. The two met soon after and agreed it would be best for both sides to end the relationship.
A search for the next coach will begin immediately, said Babcock, who added that he prefers a candidate with head coaching experience but would not rule out assistants. Babcock also indicated he along with an unspecified group of confidants would decide on the next hire and that no formal search committee would be retained.
“I was just raised to unconditionally support coaches 100 percent until the day you can’t,” Babcock said. “It just got to a day that I couldn’t do it anymore. We came together on this. Justin handled it like a pro. I know how tough this is on him and his family.”
The Hokies went 43-31 under Fuente, including 5-5 this season. After reaching No. 15 in the Associated Press poll, Virginia Tech dropped five of seven games. It also lost three in a row at Lane Stadium, causing considerable displeasure among the Hokies faithful, who have grown accustomed to Virginia Tech’s supremacy in Blacksburg.
After the third consecutive loss at home, 41-36 to Syracuse, on Oct. 23, a pocket of fans remained at Lane Stadium and chanted, “Fire Fuente!”
Over Fuente’s first two seasons, the Hokies went 19-8. They won 10 games in his first season, 2016, and advanced to the ACC championship game behind transfer quarterback Jerod Evans. The decline began in 2018 with a 6-7 record.
Last season, with the coronavirus pandemic as a backdrop, Virginia Tech went 5-6 and opted out of a bowl game, ending the longest active streak at 27 consecutive appearances.
“We leave Blacksburg with many great memories, but above all else, our family cherishes the many relationships that have been established and that will always endure,” Fuente said in a statement. “To all of those players, coaches and staff who are still fighting on, know that the Fuente family is always cheering for you.”
Fuente replaced Frank Beamer, the legendary program architect who retired following the 2015 season. Beamer directed the Hokies to seven conference titles and 23 straight winning seasons, transforming the school into a national power.
Fuente arrived in Blacksburg hailed as an offensive wizard, particularly given his track record working with quarterbacks such as Paxton Lynch as the head coach at Memphis and Andy Dalton during his stint as offensive coordinator at TCU. The production of Hokies quarterbacks over the past several seasons, however, never approached that of Fuente’s previous pupils.
This year’s starter, Braxton Burmeister, a transfer from Oregon, has completed 122 of 224 attempts for 1,710 yards and 11 touchdowns with four interceptions. His passer efficiency rating of 131.2 ranks 11th of 14 starters in the ACC.
The Hokies lost quarterbacks Hendon Hooker and Quincy Patterson II to the transfer portal, and Fuente passed on adding a backup with extensive experience. Connor Blumrick transferred from Texas A&M but is out indefinitely after injuring his knee last month in a loss to Notre Dame.
Redshirt freshman Knox Kadum is the second quarterback on Virginia Tech’s depth chart.
It’s unclear what impact Fuente’s departure will have on recruiting. The early signing period begins in late December, with national signing day set for early February.
Virginia Tech has two games left in the regular season, including the finale Nov. 27 against Virginia in Charlottesville. The Hokies must win one of those games to be bowl eligible.
“We have amazing alignment and commitment and direction, from the president to the AD to the board of visitors, and our university has helped us tremendously and further shows this commitment to the next coach,” Babcock said. “This is a place to do something special, never before seen at Virginia Tech. Our next coach will get us there.”
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