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Virginia Tech AD defends coach Justin Fuente's buyout clause in times of tight finances

Virginia Tech AD defends coach Justin Fuente's buyout clause in times of tight finances

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Virginia Tech football coach Justin Fuente (right) chats with President Timothy Sands (left) and athletic director Whit Babcock in December 2017.

BLACKSBURG — Finances were a frequent topic in Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock’s news conference on Monday.

Babcock spoke to reporters for the first time since the athletic department announced pay cuts and layoffs earlier this month to make up some of the expected $18.6 million shortfall in its 2020-21 annual budget.

Tech’s finances also tied into the discussion about football coach Justin Fuente’s job status given the eight-figure buyout in his contract.

There was rampant speculation on Tuesday that the timing of Tuesday’s news conference was no coincidence given the stipulation in Fuente’s contract that his buyout decreased by $2.5 million on Dec. 15 to $10 million.

As The Roanoke Times reported on Monday, Babcock said the buyout wasn’t a consideration in his decision making.

“The decision on Justin’s future here was never made about money,” Babcock said. “Yes, we are in a bind financially and yes, there’s buyouts, but we were determined to make the right decision either way, because I cannot imagine a working relationship where you have to have somebody around you don’t believe in, that you just keep for money. So that was absolutely not the case.”

Babcock renegotiated Fuente’s contract in January 2018 after the team went 19-8 in his first two seasons and made the ACC title game in his first season. There also was reported interest in Fuente from Florida State at the time before it hired Willie Taggart.

Tech extended Fuente’s contract through 2024 with an annual salary upward of $4 million and a buyout that started at $15 million. Babcock thinks the contract was a win for both parties at the time, and still does.

“If you do your research and homework on it and learn about contracts, guaranteed money, fully guaranteed, all of that, I’m not bothered by Justin’s contract at all,” Babcock said. “I believe he’s due to make $18 million or so on the way out and it’s $10 million if we had made a change, so I’d say he’s left some exposure out there as well. The contract’s solid.”

According to Babcock, no changes were made to Fuente’s contract coming out of the four-hour meeting they had on Monday.

Planting the seedsCollegiate athletic departments across the country have taken a financial hit from the COVID-19 pandemic and Virginia Tech is no exception. The university has lost upward of $60 million, but Babcock is working hard to increase the football team’s budget into the top third of the ACC.

Babcock said the football team’s budget is currently ranked sixth in the ACC, and that’s “not good enough.”

“The seeds have been planted to improve these resources,” Babcock said. “We don’t mind overachieving, but the harvest is coming soon ... Virginia Tech will move successfully to a challenger brand to a champion brand.”

Babcock said they have received donations from 15 to 20 people totaling $12.5 million over the next five years and the athletic department hopes they will get additional funds from the university in hopes of improving the team’s recruiting budget, recruiting staff and possibly adding some additional analysts.

Tech’s athletic department reported revenue of $96.7 million last year and a $2.8 million surplus. The football team reported revenues of $51.7 million with $17.3 million coming from ticket sales, $5 million from contributions and $20.6 million from media rights deals.

Babcock made it clear that this wasn’t money shifted over for Fuente’s buyout. He called reports of him calling donors to raise money for the buyout “misinformation.”

“I didn’t make a single call or connection with anybody to say, ‘Hey if we make a change will you pay for this,’” Babcock said.

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