Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente wasn’t going to push his counterpart at Oklahoma State Mike Gundy out of the news.
Gundy made headlines on Tuesday when he told reporters he was hoping players would be back on campus by May 1, and it was important for football to return “because we need to run money through the state of Oklahoma.”
Fuente is comfortable in his role as a football coach, and avoided any speculation about a possible return date for football when he spoke with reporters for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic forced Virginia Tech to cancel spring practice.
Virginia remains in a shelter-at-home order by Gov. Ralph Northam through June 10. Virginia Tech moved all summer courses online this week, while the ACC has canceled all athletic-related activity through the 2019-20 academic calendar.
When Fuente is given the all clear, he will be back on the sidelines, but until then he will continue to coach the team from the program’s new makeshift headquarters in his basement.
“I think it’s important that in this world that we live in that’s so up and down that we continue to focus putting one foot in front of the other,” Fuente said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “Not worry about what may or could happen, listen to the advice of the experts and do our job to get all of this over with.”
He didn’t call out anyone specifically, but cautioned listening to “macho tough guys.”
“Everybody wants to be [one],” Fuente said. “The real answer is us to do our job and listen to the experts and continue to do this trusting that we will find a way to get past all of this.”
Fuente along with Virginia Tech’s athletic director Whit Babcock want to see football come back in the safest way possible. If that means waiting until January when other sports overlap, that’s fine with them. If fall camp gets cut down, that’s fine, too.
“It used to be back in the day, summer time all the kids went home, they showed up on August 1 and practiced for a month then played football,” Fuente said. “I know times have changed. Traditionally our kids are here all summer and the day we start fall camp they are in really good shape. Having a little bit of time to work them in the shape and also teach and prepare for a game, I would like to have as much time as possible. I know that’s really stepping out there, if we had to do it in a month and the alternative not doing it at all, I think we could find a way to make it work.”
The line Babcock is hesitant to cross is having games without fans, and not because of any revenue-related concerns.
“I would never say never because we were going to play the NCAA [basketball] Tournament without any fans, but I would have to lean if it’s not safe enough for fans and students to come back, I would have a hard time operating a football game under that premise,” Babcock said. “But if I’ve learned nothing else, it’s that things change very rapidly.”
The university is working on all sorts of contingency plans, which is also happening at the ACC offices. The conference’s athletic directors have multiple conference calls a week to discuss the COVID-19 outbreak.
“There has been modeling on entire seasons, shortened seasons and everyone right now is interested in playing that full season anyway possible,” Babcock said. “But we realize that could change.”
It’s why Babcock didn’t want to even speculate about what the financial impact would be for Virginia Tech if there was no football season.
“The state of operations for the fall is unknown, not just for football but for the whole university and country,” Babcock said. “So if nothing else this time period gives us every opportunity to plan and not get ahead of ourselves on that.”
Virginia Tech football accounted for $51.7 million ($18.1 million surplus) of the department's $96.7 million in revenue in the 2018-19 financial report the university submitted to the NCAA earlier this year. The football team accounted for more than 80% of ticket sales revenue ($17.3 million) and a similar percentage of the media rights money comes from football ($20.6 million). The numbers were similar in 2017-18 with the football team reporter $57.6 million in revenue and $25 million surplus.
Virginia Tech men’s basketball made $2 million, and the university’s 20 other sports lost a combined $20.7 million dollars in 2018-19. They lost $15.2 million in 2017-18.
“We have one sport that generates revenue, we have one sport that breaks even and we have 20 that operate off what football generates,” Babcock said. “Football’s important for football’s sake, but for the entire student-athlete experience in every sport, football is critical. If we’re about the student-athlete experience, we can come at it that way. If we’re about the revenue part, we can come at it that way.
"And we also want to play football if it’s on the moon in January.”
Fans remain cautiously optimistic about the season taking place in some form given the team’s ticket sales over the last month. Babcock said the “numbers are down a little bit” with many people dealing with financial uncertainty, but the department has stretched out giving deadlines and monthly payments to accommodate fans.
Virginia Tech also has a refund policy in place for the fall if there is no football season.
“What I’ve heard from other ACC schools on their ticket sales is that, like us, they’ve been pleasantly surprised that it’s been as good as it is,” Babcock said.