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Barber: Justin Fuente's Baylor flirtation ramps up the pressure on Virginia Tech in 2020

Barber: Justin Fuente's Baylor flirtation ramps up the pressure on Virginia Tech in 2020


College football coaches love to say that no one puts more pressure on them to win than they put on themselves. Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente? He doubled down on that notion this week.

Fuente incurred the wrath of a good number of the Hokie faithful when he met with Baylor officials about their coaching job on Wednesday.

By the time Fuente tweeted out Thursday morning his intention to stay in Blacksburg the damage had been done and 2020 might have been elevated from a pivotal point in Fuente’s Tech tenure to a win-or-else campaign.

News of Fuente’s involvement with the Baylor job came out publicly Tuesday night, first reported by Yahoo’s Pete Thamel. That was also when Fuente informed his boss, athletic director Whit Babcock, of Baylor’s interest in him.

(Baylor never reached out to Tech, Babcock said, eschewing a step that had previously been considered a college normality.)

The pairing of Fuente — who played at Oklahoma, is an Oklahoma native and coached at TCU — and the Big 12 school made sense, but the timing worried Tech officials.

After all, most coaching moves have been made — and most recruits have been signed — by the time Jan. 1 rolls around. Babcock and the Hokies would have been sent into scramble mode had Fuente jumped ship on Jan. 16.

“Not much fun,” Babcock said Thursday, joking he was concerned about his blood pressure spiking if Fuente left. “I had a little stress.”

Babcock indicated he would have preferred Fuente’s conversation — he did not want it labeled an interview — with Baylor had stayed private, but acknowledged that’s hard to accomplish in today’s media-saturated climate.

We will never know the source of the leak, but whether it came from Baylor in an attempt to gauge booster reaction to a potential Fuente hiring, from Fuente’s camp as a bargaining chip (an assertion Babcock firmly rejected) or from the Tech side in an attempt to accelerate the process, the result is clear.

Fuente, who tells recruits not to take other visits after committing or risk losing their scholarship offer, doesn’t seem to fans to be as committed to the Hokies program as he once was, despite his boss’ strong declaration that Fuente’s “loyalty is probably not as widely known as it should be.”

Fuente’s star was on the rise after he rapidly turned around a struggling Memphis program. He won 19 games over his final two years there, making him Babcock’s choice to succeed the legendary Frank Beamer.

Things went well early for Fuente. Off the field, he drew praise for the respectful, deferential manner in which he transitioned the Hokies from Beamer Ball to Fuente time. On the field, Fuente posted the school’s first 10-win season since 2011, won an ACC Coastal Division title and extended the program’s two beloved streaks — beating rival Virginia and going to a bowl.

But things have been declining since then. His win total dropped each of the past two seasons.

After the 2018 season — a year that included an embarrassing road loss at Old Dominion and required a win in a rescheduled game against Marshall to extend the bowl streak — Fuente saw a flood of players enter the transfer portal and acknowledged issues with the team’s chemistry.

Then this year Tech got drilled at home, 45-10, by Duke on the night it honored its great 1999 team, and lost to rival UVA in the regular-season finale, with a division title on the line.

It lost to Kentucky in the Belk Bowl, its third straight bowl defeat under Fuente.

Tech fans are still smarting from basketball coach Buzz Williams’ decision to leave after last season, a year that saw him guide the suddenly relevant hardwood Hokies to a Sweet 16 berth. Williams left for Texas A&M.

Fuente’s flirtation with Baylor rubbed salt in the wound for a fan base desperate to not have its program viewed as a stepping-stone job, a JMU football or VCU basketball.

The good news for Fuente is he should return a roster expecting to be a contender in the Coastal. Quarterback Hendon Hooker, whose insertion into the lineup after the Duke loss fueled this year’s in-season turnaround, will compete in the spring with Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister, who sat out 2019.

Tech expects to return nine starters on offense and 10 on defense.

Maybe this episode will be forgotten by fans this time next year, if Fuente has delivered another season reminiscent of his first.

Or maybe it will be among the reasons that Tech makes a change next winter.

Either way, one thing is clear — the pressure to win is on.

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