Justin Fuente out as Virginia Tech Hokies football coach

Justin Fuente, who had a 43-31 record in six seasons at Virginia Tech, is out as the Hokies' football coach, athletic director Whit Babcock announced Tuesday.

Defensive line coach J.C. Price will serve as interim head coach for the remainder of the season while the school starts a national search to fill the position.

Babcock said it was a mutual agreement to separate. Once it became clear that Babcock could not guarantee another year, Fuente decided it would be best to leave rather immediately rather than finish out the season.

Babcock said the buyout was negotiated down from $10 million to $8.75 million to be able to make the move now. Had the Hokies waited until Dec. 15, the buyout would have decreased to $7.5 million.

"I understand Justin's point that, 'Hey, if I'm not the guy, you don't believe in me, that we need to do this,'" Babcock said. "I don't want to paint Justin in a corner. I don't think he quit on anybody. I think his meeting with the team today was great."

Including his four seasons as coach at Memphis, Fuente has a career record of 69-54.

"To the many incredible young men that I had the privilege to coach, so many of you have made a lasting impact on our family," Fuente said in a statement. "I can't thank you enough for your dedication and your commitment to doing your very best, whether that was on the field, in the classroom or in your personal lives.

" ... Thank you to the fans of Hokie Nation. I would encourage all of you to continue cheering on this football team -- your support means so much to all of them."

Entering the 2021 college season, Fuente was one of seven Latino head coaches in Division I, according to Dr. Mario Longoria, who has authored a pair of books on Latinos in football. The others: Oregon's Mario Cristobal, Baylor's Dave Aranda, Miami's Manny Diaz, Boise State's Andy Avalos, UNLV's Marcus Arroyo and New Mexico's Danny Gonzales.

Fuente was hired from Memphis in 2015 to replace legendary Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, and initially the move was applauded for a variety of reasons. Not only had Fuente resurrected a struggling Memphis program in four seasons -- including a 10-win season in 2014 -- but he also agreed to keep on defensive coordinator Bud Foster, one of the pillars of the Hokies' success under Beamer.

Fuente was also known for his ability to develop quarterbacks, both during his time at Memphis and previously as offensive coordinator at TCU -- and offense was the biggest area Virginia Tech needed to address. In the final years under Beamer, it became a constant struggle to make bowl eligibility with an offense that was not nearly as productive as it needed to be.

At the outset, Fuente found great success, going 10-4 with a close loss to Clemson in the ACC championship game. The next year, the Hokies won nine games. But soon, issues started coming to the surface. Foster no longer was as effective as defensive coordinator and that unit started to struggle. He stepped down after the 2019 season.

Virginia Tech was hit particularly hard by player transfers as well. By May 2021, the Hokies had lost 43 players to the portal -- including former starting quarterbacks Josh Jackson (Maryland) and Hendon Hooker (Tennessee). Fuente struggled to recruit in the Virginia area, but perhaps the biggest failure of all was his inability to develop a quarterback after Jerod Evans left following the 2016 season. That Hooker has gone on to find immediate success with Tennessee this season has only served to underscore that point.

Asked multiple times to answer what went wrong over the last several years after early success, Babcock declined to elaborate, saying only the team did not have consistency nor a true identity.

"If you look out there, there's not many ADs that maybe we haven't missed on one," Babcock said. "It's kind of like a five-star recruit -- sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't. You just do the best you can and I thought we got off to a great start with Justin and then it just didn't go where we wanted it to go."

In addition, Fuente rubbed some people in Blacksburg the wrong way when he had discussions with Baylor about its open head-coaching job in 2020. Babcock said Tuesday the Baylor situation had no bearing on the decision to let Fuente go.

Despite all the negativity that was swirling around the program once 2020 ended, after a 5-6 season, Babcock made the decision to stick with Fuente for one more season.

"I believe in Justin," Babcock said at the time. "It's not always the fashionable thing to keep somebody when everybody is yelling, but he's our guy and I believe he gives us the best chance to be successful."

Babcock stood behind the decision Tuesday, saying, "I wouldn't change the decision we made last year. It was well thought out."

But the same issues persisted into this season, as Virginia Tech sits at 5-5 headed into its game at Miami on Saturday. Most striking, of course, are the continued struggles on offense -- where Braxton Burmeister has been unable to get things turned around at quarterback for the Hokies. Add in stinging last-minute losses to West Virginia, Notre Dame and Syracuse -- with the Hokies blowing chances to win late in each game -- and it became too untenable to continue with Fuente as coach.

Babcock on Tuesday said he believes the football program is in position to compete for ACC championships every year, noting the recent investments made to facilities and enhancing its overall staff size. In looking for a head coach to take over the program, Babcock noted a proven track record of success, engaging in the community, recruiting the footprint, developing players and the ability to thrive in a new NCAA era.

Though he did not rule out assistants, the preference is a candidate with head-coaching experience.

"We've gone through the difficult transition after a legend, and we're more prepared, more sound to have better infrastructure than we did a few years ago and I still do believe we can be the preeminent program in the ACC," Babcock said. "It goes in cycles. It was the Hokies for a while and then the Seminoles and Clemson and it's right there for the taking. So I think we have one of the best jobs in America. Every AD will say that, but I think it stacks up with anybody."