Whit Babcock has ambitious vision for Virginia Tech athletics

BLACKSBURG Whit Babcock is going to modernize Virginia Tech athletics. Dramatically and subtly. Short- and long-term. He's going to push the department to promote, fundraise, recruit and win like never before.

Less than a week on the job, the Hokies' new athletic director is progressive, confident and engaging, conversant on issues local and national. He loathes monotony but has no intention of summarily cleaning house to show everyone that he's large and in charge.

Those are my primary takeaways from a nearly 90-minute conversation we had in his office Tuesday evening prior to Virginia Tech's basketball game against Virginia. A published transcript would sacrifice far too many trees, but I'll post Babcock's full remarks online to give his views their fullest context and to best give eager Hokies faithful a measure of the man who welcomes the challenges ahead.

Here, I think it's best to provide an overview of Babcock's early vision for Virginia Tech's teams, facilities and external outreach. So some bullet points:

•Babcock believes the Hokies should aspire to be, and can become, the ACC's "preeminent" athletics program. This measured by broad-based competitive success and the department's continued academic excellence and NCAA compliance.

Suffice to say, this is ambitious. Virginia Tech is the only ACC school never to have won a team national championship. Since joining the conference a decade ago, the Hokies have become top-50 staples in the Directors Cup all-sports standings, but they've never finished better than 35th. Duke, North Carolina, Florida State and Virginia routinely are among the top 20.

How to make that considerable leap?

"I think I see some opportunities of things we can do," Babcock said, "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."

•Babcock is keenly aware that elevating Tech's programs will require additional, and perhaps reallocated, resources. Moreover, as an accomplished fundraiser at Auburn and Missouri as an assistant/associate athletic director and, most recently, at Cincinnati as AD, he is comfortable massaging donors and asking for XXL gifts.

Tech athletics' fundraising arm, the Hokie Club, has just shy of 10,000 members, far fewer than ACC colleagues Clemson, North Carolina State and Florida State, but far more than Babcock was accustomed to at Missouri, Auburn and Cincinnati.

At 43, Babcock is the ACC's youngest AD — Jim Weaver, his predecessor, was the oldest at 68 — and a daily consumer of social media. He knows that the Hokie Club has come under recent fire there, but he considers the criticism "unfair" and said the group's annual raising of approximately $22-$24 million compares favorably with peers.

Babcock stressed that Tech, like others, needs to better cultivate younger donors and to make the stadium/arena experience more appealing to a generation spoiled by high-definition television, less inclined to attend sporting events and never inclined to let go of their phones and/or hand-held devices.

Apparel and multimedia contracts — Tech is affiliated with Nike and IMG College — are other areas Babcock plans to explore, though he cautioned that university president Charles Steger's recent statements that Hokies athletics soon will be a $100 million annual enterprise are "aggressive."

"We'll get there in due time," Babcock said. "We're in the mid-to-high 60s. Maybe you could say 70 (million). … I wish I had a concise, silver bullet answer, but I still need to get my hands around it."

•Similarly, Babcock has yet to fully examine Tech's most-parsed program of late: men's basketball. Nor has he decided whether to retain James Johnson, a fledgling head coach who is 6-26 versus ACC competition in his two seasons.

Babcock said he evaluates all coaches at season's end based on record, recruiting, academics, compliance and character. He said he likes Johnson, admires his work ethic and believes the team is playing aggressively.

"I know you guys have to ask that question (about job security)," Babcock said, "but man, I feel for our coaches when they know I'm getting asked that question."

•Babcock acknowledged, with a heavy heart, that he dismissed four head coaches during his two-plus years at Cincinnati: baseball, volleyball, women's lacrosse and women's soccer. But it is incumbent to note that none of those changes came during his first six months on the job and that all of the coaches had been with the Bearcats for at least five seasons.

In short, Babcock is no hair-trigger executioner.

"It is by far the most miserable part of the job," he said.

•Though Tech basketball has reached only two NCAA tournaments in the last 25 years, Babcock believes consistent contention for a bid is possible by finishing among the top half of the new-look, 15-team ACC.

"It's going to be big-boy basketball here," he said. "It already is, but it's not going to get any easier. … 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."

•Opened in 1961, Tech's Cassell Coliseum is the ACC's second-oldest basketball facility — Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium opened in 1940. But Babcock said he appreciates more traditional arenas such as Cassell and envisions a possible premium-seating project there rather than a new building.

•Growing up in Harrisonburg during the time when hometown icon Ralph Sampson played basketball at Virginia, Babcock is well-versed in ACC lore and considers the conference an ideal home for the Hokies.

"(Commissioner) John Swofford and I have talked about it," Babcock said. "He's thrilled with Virginia Tech. It's a great fit. … Virginia Tech has a really good name in this league, and I do think if we handle business right, we can be the preeminent school in this league. I really do believe that."

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.

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