BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech football owns the nation’s second-longest bowl streak, while the athletics department, unlike many peers, operates in the black. The Hokies are attaining new heights in the Directors Cup all-sports standings and rank among the national leaders in graduation success rate.
Yet as Whit Babcock succeeds the retired Jim Weaver as athletic director, there is, for lack of better word, an anxiety among Tech fans, and even department staffers, that the overall program has grown stagnant.
Monday was Babcock’s first day on the job, and Tuesday night we spoke for nearly 90 minutes in his office. I wrote a column on the interview, and as promised there, here’s a blog post that transcribes much of our conversation.
I’ll break the transcript into two posts, the first focusing on Tech, the second on ACC and national issues.
The first question I asked Babcock was about the anxiety I sense.
Answer: I don’t know that I’d phrase it as anxiety, but maybe you have your finger on the pulse better than I do. Technically, I’m on the job, this is my second day, but I think in any competitive environment you’re either improving, or you’re getting passed. Standing still is not an option, and this conference, nobody else is going to sit back and wait for Virginia Tech to beat them. Everybody is competitive and motivated.
So I do think there needs to be continual improvement. But I admire the work Jim Weaver did. I’m going to have coffee with him next Tuesday and get some of his wisdom. I think I see some opportunities of things we can do, but I think it’s probably premature to put (specifics) out there. I have a strong sense of urgency I need to fight a little bit, and what I mean by that is I really feel like I need to do that listening and slow down — it’s only been two days — and get the lay of the land.
But really to me it’s continual improvement and what can we do across the board to keep it moving forward. Virginia Tech has been on such an upward trajectory. There’s some pressure there to maintain it, but I’ve got good people around me, and I’m confident we can do that.
Question: Your background is in fundraising. Is that an area where you need to make strides?
A: Absolutely. I do think it’s something we can continue to work on, but I don’t think it can just be jacking up ticket prices across the board. I don’t think fans and consumers — there’s a lot of competition for their entertainment dollar — and it takes a lot to get them off the couch. I’ve talked about this, the high-definition TV and student attendance and all those things. It probably sounds like a broken record now, but that’s why we really have to focus on creating some type of experience that is more than just opening the gates and hoping they come.
I always think you can improve on fundraising. Tickets in the football stadium, at least as I understand it, were sold out every year until last year, so there’s certainly need for growth there. We need to reverse that trend. But I think from a revenue standpoint you have to look across the board at all your areas. …
Anyway, to get to your question, the fundraiser title I think is a little bit of a misnomer. It’s more relationship-building and quality experiences, and if you do those things, your customers, or fans, will keep on coming.
But we want to look at everything across the board. Everything from concessions to apparel contract to our IMG agreement on corporate sponsorship. And that’s something, at the risk of sounding arrogant about it, that’s just something, that for whatever reason, at each stop I’ve at least been able to look at it globally and pick our spots and make some improvements.
All of the external stuff. There’s a lot of people much smarter than me that will be great assets on the internal side. Things like compliance and sports medicine and academics, and yes, do I know enough about those things to be dangerous, absolutely. But that breadth of the overall external side of things I hope is a strength, and I believe it is. We need to look at every area there and see where we can improve it, tweak it and milk everything we can out of it.
The other thing is, can you limit your spending in others areas? That’s another thing I haven’t had a chance to look at yet. … Sometimes it’s just taking your existing budget, establishing the priorities that you’re going to have and then allocating.
I think what is a nice life raft, for lack of a better term, is the ACC television contract and things that come with that, and hopefully an ACC channel. It is nice, coming from the conference office end, to see that revenue stair-stepping up instead of going down.
So that’s probably the area, if it starts to jump by $3 million and $5 million and on and on, that’s a real shot in the arm. … We’ll look at it broadly on all our revenue areas. We’ll look at our spending and try to be strategic about that, and then we need to do everything we can for this conference and for it to get stronger in the television rights, because the SEC seems to be running off with that a little bit, and the Big 12 has a heck of a deal. But I commend (ACC commissioner) John Swofford for what he’s done. The Notre Dame piece will certainly help, Louisville.
That’s a nice piece, too, when you’ve got a conference that’s sound and revenues are projected to go up and up. I believe (university president) Dr. Steger referenced that in the not-too-distant future Virginia Tech would be a $100 million-a-year athletic department, I think that’s aggressive. We’ll get there in due time. We’re in the mid-to-high 60s. Maybe you could say 70.
That’s way too long of an answer, but again, it’s looking at it globally. I wish I had a concise, silver bullet answer, but I still need to get my hands around it.
Q: Booster club memberships vary around the country. N.C. State has more than 20,000, Florida State more than 16,000, Clemson 15,000. Virginia Tech has almost 10,000, which is more than many, also. Are you underachieving there?
A: I don’t think they’re underachieving, or we’re underachieving there. I’ve known the people in the Hokie Club for a number of years. There’s a lot of different models. The (Clemson) model, the N.C. State model is bigger numbers of people, lower-level giving. More grassroots, and there’s certainly merit to that because a lot of time your grassroots people go on to become big — everybody’s first gift is their smallest if they have a good experience — and it stair-steps up. So the number of donors, yes, I’d like to be more broad-based.
I think a big opportunity for us is with our young alumni because if you don’t get them early, well, first off, you have to get them as students. They have good experience as students and then they go off, find a significant other and get a job, and then they want to come back for homecoming and tailgating and it all kinds of builds on itself. So to grow that number, I think we’ve got to start with our students. And again, relationship-building there.
But the Hokie Club actually does very well in this regard. They’ve averaged about $22-24 million per year in fundraising. And that’s — I haven’t looked at everybody’s numbers recently — that’s really good in the industry and very respectable.
So I wouldn’t get really focused on that donor number. West Virginia probably does close to $19 to $20 million off 6,000 donors. So … the dollar figure is critical. I just think there’s a balance. Sometimes the grassroots stuff, you get a lot of people giving $50 a year. …
I think the Hokie Club has gotten beaten up unfairly a little bit lately by social media and a couple news articles. Do I think they can improve? Absolutely, and I look forward to working with them to figure that out. But they’ve done a heck of a job, and there’s been a lot of really good things built around here.
The other challenge is, a lot of the Hokie Club’s efforts have been to bricks and mortar. There’s been a great building campaign here, and our scholarship bill is going higher, so we may have to balance that bricks and mortar with an endowment campaign.
Yes, we can grow it. The first thing we’d better do is treat the 9,500 we have now really well and keep them.
You have to look at some short-term gain on the major giving front but you have to invest some money with our students and young alumni to reach them because the older demographic of donors, they won’t be with us forever. And what are we replacing them with?
You’ve probably seen a lot of articles lately about student attendance going down, and we refer to that as the head-down generation, because as soon as there’s a break in play , they’re looking at their hand-held devices and phones and again, so much more competition for their entertainment (dollar).
Q: And it starts at the high school level. Fewer and fewer high school kids attend games.
A: Friday Night Lights is not as big a deal as it used to be when we went to school. There wasn’t as much to do, I guess. So I don’t know. Even a guy like (Oklahoma AD) Joe Castiglione, I saw his quote today, he said we all realize what’s happening, but it’s happening so fast we’re not really sure what to do about it.
So you’re fundraising absolutely needs to be revenue-driven but it better also be repopulating your donor base, and how do you balance the two?
Q: How does one become adept and comfortable at the external fundraising part?
A: (Laughter) Yes. The best experience I had was going from James Madison University, my first job in college (athletics), where I was sweating bullets asking people for $500 … and my next stop was Auburn, and I had a great mentor there who … took me along and opened my eyes. He was asking people for a half-million, a million or more, and I just couldn’t believe people had that kind of money to give, much less were happy to do it.
What I learned — and it still will make your heart race a little bit when you have to walk in front of somebody and ask them for seven figures — but if you build that relationship, and I know I keep going back to that, you have to be trustworthy to the people you sit in front of, because you can build a relationship for 20 years and screw it up in 20 seconds. So you’ve got to build the relationship. I think people have to see you very often when you’re not asking for something.
But usually, when I go in to ask somebody to give, it’s not a surprise to them. Usually I’ll tell them, ‘Hey, the next time I come, I’d like to bring some information on this project and ask you to get involved at a leadership level. Would that be OK?’
There’s not many people, even if they have it, who on the first visit are going to fork over a million bucks. So you better have a good prospect pool, you get in front of them, you build the relationship, show them a need of how they can help. There’s a little bit of an art to it. It’s not rocket science, but it’s a little bit of an art.
Is the donor’s motivation to help the student-athlete? If so, you’d better be perceptive enough to pick up on that and talk about scholarships. Is the donor’s motive to leave a legacy and a name on a building? Then you better figure that out. Is it the husband, or the wife, or both that are making the decision?
All of us as fundraisers are trained to talk, but if you listen and you’re perceptive and you read people and you build relationships and you show a need, we have a saying. If you ask for the right project at the right time for the right amount, the answer will be always be yes.
So it does take a little while to get over than anxiety, and it still makes my heart beat. So you just play it cool, I guess.
Q: Much has been made about your firing of four coaches (volleyball, baseball, women’s lacrosse and women’s soccer) at Cincinnati.
A: It is by far the most miserable part of the job. Any time you have to remove a person from a position. Anyone who likes that would be a jerk to work for. So is it a necessary part of the deal? Yes, and I think as leaders we’re called on to do what’s in the best interest of the group, right? What’s in the best interest of Virginia Tech athletics?
Do I like doing it? Absolutely not. I don’t think I have a quick (trigger) finger on that. Anyway, there are just times the people you have are not the right fit, or they’re not getting the job done and they need to go find their happiness and success elsewhere. At Cincinnati I had to that, and I did what I thought was in the best interest of the organization, and we moved forward. Hopefully they worked, and every now and then you hire some that don’t.
And I have said this, when we’re evaluating coaches, the wins and losses, absolutely. As long as we’re keeping score, that’s going to be part of the evaluation. But you also have to look at how are they in the department? Are they good to work with? Do they care about their student-athletes? Can they recruit? Are they in NCAA compliance? Do they help you fundraise? …
What we will do moving forward, and I’ve gotten asked about both basketball coaches, and it’s brutal for those guys to have to read about that stuff in the paper, I truly mean this: We’ll evaluate every coach, even one that goes undefeated, and I hope we have some of those, and I’ve been in this long enough to know, don’t make your decision while the race is still going on. Evaluate their body of work at the end on all the factors.
Q: You hired six head coaches at Cincinnati, three of whom had head-coaching experience, three of whom did not. So it appears you’ll consider candidates of varying backgrounds. Fair assessment?
A: That is a fair assessment. It depends on the sport, too. It’s mighty tough in this league, in certain sports, to hire an assistant coach. And you know what? I was an assistant AD, so somebody has to give you a shot somewhere.
On the baseball coach hire we did at Cincinnati, it was an Ohio guy who recruited the Midwest that (as an assistant) built Indiana baseball out of nothing into a College World Series participant. We hired a lacrosse coach as an assistant who played at Ohio State and was all-world and still plays. So she was 29 years old, and we thought that her being on the USA team as a gold medalist would help recruiting, and it has. And then you have the other end of the spectrum, which is Tommy Tuberville (in football after Butch Jones went to Tennessee), and we put our chips in on that literally and figuratively, and that was the right move.
I don’t ever set to say this is going to be an assistant or a head coach or a male or a female, you just do the best you can. … We promoted one head coach from within (men’s track) and the others just happened to be outsiders. But I believe you have to vet your candidates a lot. I’m really big, too, on can they recruit the region of the country I’m in? …
Would I ever hire a coach from California to come here and coach? Maybe, but I’m much more interested in someone who can recruit the Mid-Atlantic or the southeast. Can I envision them sitting in somebody’s living room and genuinely selling Virginia Tech and believing in it? That’s a big part. Do they fit? I like coaches that can get along. I like coaches that go to other sporting events. I hear Frank Beamer goes to other events, got on the bus with our women’s soccer team to congratulate them when they got back (from the Final Four). That stuff’s great. I don’t like coaches that just think it’s about them and they coach their sport and that’s it.
So there’s a lot of things I look for. I hope I’m decent at it. It is an inexact science. I do think growing up in the household of a coach helps a lot, since I never have coached. I hope that gives me an edge, but you now what? You do the best you can, and they better work out more often than they don’t. But sometimes they don’t. …
The thing is, if you whiff a few times in a row … you’re turning over coaches every three years, you’re missing a recruiting class and having to start over from scratch, and before long, if you miss on two or three in a row, you’re in a 10- to 15-year hole.
So, there’s a lot of pressure on that, and you guys have a job to do. You guys don’t make it easy on us to do hires in confidentiality. And social media. And then you have coaches’ agents that leak their names on purpose to leverage you and leverage the school they’re at. Have never done this, but I’ve seen athletic departments that will leak names out as a litmus test to their fan base. So whenever we do have a coach search, I’ll say something right at the beginning, and then the media and our fan base won’t hear from me on that until we’re introducing our next coach. But it is a high-stakes, high-pressure poker room with a lot of different motives.
Q: You a search firm guy?
A: I do like to use them a little bit for the vetting process. Background stuff. We can call the NCAA and find out. It depends. A few searches I haven’t used them, and some I have. They can do things some times in confidence. In other words, it’s pretty easy for someone to say I’ve never heard from XYZ University. It gives everyone a little plausible deniability, a little cover. … I like them to find out and dig pretty deep on candidates. So having a little help doesn’t hurt, but I don’t believe in just totally turning it over to a search firm either, because after we hire the coach, I gotta live with them and work with them, and the search firm has their check and goes home.
Q: You mentioned it, and I don’t think anyone would deny, that the elephant in your room is men’s basketball and its recent struggles with a second-year head coach (James Johnson). You’ve been around Sweet 16 basketball teams each of your last three stops (West Virginia, Missouri and Cincinnati). What do you envision for Virginia Tech basketball? And as the son of a coach and someone who has supervised coaches, is two years long enough to even judge a head coach’s suitability?
A: All I know is this, and I know it sounds like a broken record. Right now, all I’m interested in doing is supporting our coaches, not replacing them. We’ll evaluate the body of work at the end of the year. Coach Johnson knows that. Hopefully all our coaches do. That’s what they signed up for.
Q: The kids haven’t quit on him.
A: You have to look at that, too. If they start to mail it in. … The last game we won, they were attacking and playing loose. And James seems to be a really, really good guy. You have to do more than that, but he’s working his butt off, and I know you guys have to ask that question, but man, I feel for our coaches when they know I’m getting asked that question. …
But this league, you asked me about the vision for Virginia Tech basketball, as long as you’re getting better every year, that’s a good place to start. But with Louisville and Notre Dame coming in, and Pitt and Syracuse, I’m a fan of the old Big East, but this league is going to be the best league in the country, if it isn’t already.
So it might get eight NCAA bids? Maybe? Seven? Of 15. Ultimately, we want our program to be, and it sounds like you’re shooting low, but if we’re in the top half of this league, then we’re going to be in the NCAA tournament more times than we’re not. … It’s going to be big-boy basketball here. It already is, but it’s not going to get any easier. I’m also biased. People think the old, ugly defensive battles of the Big East, I like ‘em. I’m fine to win games 51-50.
Q: It’s not an impossible job. From 2007-11, Seth (Greenberg) was 50-40 in the ACC, and only Duke and Carolina were better.
A: I just knew they were always knocking on the door. And wasn’t that before we built the indoor practice facility?
A: At Cincinnati we sold the fact that you had a big city, and that worked there. But there’s just as many kids that I think want to get out of the city. So I think you can use a rural college town setting to your advantage. But if you have good coaches and good facilities, and you’re not very far here from really good basketball talent, whether it’s your neck of the woods, or D.C., or Baltimore, or Charlotte even. So I wouldn’t say it’s the easiest job in the country, but I would say it’s a really good job here.
Q: As you walk around Cassell Coliseum, do you think, What’s the shelf life here? The practice facility is off the charts, but there’s no revenue stream at Cassell unless you start gouging for tickets. Have you thought about that?
A: Even though I’m only 43, I’m kind of a throwback guy on basketball. I like the traditional arenas, and this one has a lot of character. … And even the other night, when we beat Miami, I realized, it can get pretty loud in here, and it wasn’t even half-full. So I think if we fill the place up, this would be a really tough place for opponents to play.
Would I like the concourses to be a little wider? Yeah, but I’ll tell you what, our facilities people have dressed it up and taken an old building that really presents itself well. I like that. I think on down the road we look at our seating. Do you take some out and add loge boxes or premium seating areas? But no, I think we’re a long ways from trying to go tackle a $90 million, brand-new basketball facility. … It’s clean, it’s nice, it’s loud, it’s history, which I like. … I mean, Cameron Indoor Stadium isn’t the Yum Center in Louisville, either.
Q: I’ve never been to the Yum Center. I’m eager to get there.
A: It’s amazing. They make more money on basketball in that place. I don’t think I could get away with having vodka bars and whiskey bars (like Louisville).
On that amusing note, we'll conclude part one of the transcript. I’ll post part two Friday.
I can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
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