BLACKSBURG, Va. — When Virginia Tech Athletic Director Whit Babcock first walked into his new office, he looked out the window at Lane Stadium and for a moment reverted to the awestruck batboy who stepped on campus for the first time decades earlier.
“This is a pretty big freaking job,” Babcock remembers telling his wife, Kelly.
But by all appearances, those initial jitters have been short-lived.
Four months after taking the helm at Virginia Tech, Babcock, 43, has wasted little time putting his stamp on an athletic department not used to internal change. His aw-shucks persona, armed with a self-deprecating joke about how he pursued his line of work only because a baseball career at James Madison never panned out, disguises the nuanced pedigree of a modern college athletic director with business savvy, an active Twitter account and a record of splashy hires.
Babcock is considered a rising star in his profession — ESPN recently declared Virginia Tech’s hiring of men’s basketball Coach Buzz Williams “the best pickup of the 2014 coaching carousel.” With summer on the horizon and the chance to further cement his vision for the department, Babcock knows maintaining the balance between his behind-the-scenes bravado and humble charm will come to define his time in Blacksburg.
“How do we respect tradition and all the great that’s been done here but also pick our spots and strategic change and do some things to keep moving it forward?” Babcock asked rhetorically in an interview last month. “It’s not my style — it wasn’t at Cincinnati, nor here — to come in and clean house to prove there’s a new sheriff in town.”
Still, Babcock admits his time so far in Blacksburg has felt like a “sprint.” He fired men’s basketball coach James Johnson, who had been on the job just two seasons; surprised the college basketball world by luring Williams to Blacksburg; watched the school’s board of visitors approve plans for a $21.3 million indoor football practice facility that still needed close to $9 million in funding; by his own admission stretched the budget with Williams’s new contract and Johnson’s buyout; and conducted one-on-one interviews with nearly every athletic department employee.
Babcock’s predecessor, Jim Weaver, ran the school’s athletic department for more than 16 years before retiring in December because of health concerns, and all but one of the school’s associate athletic directors have been in place since 1999. But Babcock hinted at more changes last week, saying, “I would anticipate some staff turnover.”
Babcock arrived on campus Jan. 28 after emerging as the top candidate during a three-month search, in large part because of his reputation for galvanizing donors during 27 months as the athletic director at Cincinnati and a 20-year rise up the college administration ladder in the Big 12, Big East and Southeastern conferences. His father, Brad, is a former administrator and baseball coach at James Madison.
Virginia Tech’s athletic reputation was built on Coach Frank Beamer’s football program, its facilities and fiscal responsibility — it has operated in the black each year since 1997. But tweaks were needed. In 2013, the football team’s 15-year sellout streak at Lane Stadium ended, and there are mounting concerns the department’s fundraising efforts, customer service and communication strategy — while still effective — have become outdated.
Babcock’s hiring of Williams — less than two years after Babcock convinced football Coach Tommy Tuberville to leave a Bowl Championship Series program at Texas Tech to come to Cincinnati — proved to be the first signal a new era had arrived.
A day after firing Johnson following the program’s third straight last-place finish in the ACC, Babcock used a news conference to dial down expectations and explain that Hokies fans “might have to Google” the name of the program’s next coach. Then he spent the next 72 hours negotiating a seven-year contract worth more than $18.2 million to lure Williams away from Marquette.
Babcock’s investment in basketball — Williams’s initial salary is triple what Johnson earned last season, the assistant coach salary pool went from approximately $500,000 to $725,000 and Williams will have an additional $325,000 to hire new support staff — was a definitive statement.
Weaver had always been budget conscious. The football team, which remains the department’s biggest revenue producer, has the smallest support staff in the ACC.
“I think many people in the ACC are already at those [compensation] levels . . . and if we’re going to get in here and play in the nation’s toughest conference, I felt like Buzz Williams wouldn’t look down the floor and be intimidated,” Babcock said. “It’s going to be a stretch [financially], especially for the first couple years. But if we can take a shot at a guy like this, then let’s do it. Time will tell if that was the right decision, but I feel like it was.”
His challenges won’t stop there, although they became easier to deal with last month when his wife and three children finally moved into a house in Blacksburg.
Babcock, like many athletic directors, may have to contend with cost-of-attendance stipends and unionization for student athletes. He likely will be in charge of finding Beamer’s successor whenever the 67-year-old decides to retire. A football game against West Virginia in 2017 or 2018 in the D.C. area is also in the works.
And just last week, during his first experience at the ACC’s annual spring meetings, Babcock admitted to feeling like “the junior senator” among the league’s athletic directors, reticent of revealing too much in new surroundings.
Except he became one of the deciding votes in the conference’s debate over playing eight or nine league football games each fall. He voted for eight games in the 8-6 decision, once again eschewing awe for action.
“This is what I’ve been working for,” Babcock said. “And now I’ve got it.”