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February 17, 2014

Babcock anxious to make Tech athletics a place where dreams come true

By: Bill Roth

(left to right) Incoming university president Dr. Timothy Sands, outgoing president Dr. Charles Steger, new AD Whit Babcock, AD search committee chairman Ray Smoot and Larry Hincker, associate vice president for university relations, all pose for a photo at the news conference announcing Babcock’s hire as the new athletics director at Tech.

When Whit Babcock was introduced to Virginia Tech constituents two weeks ago, the 43-year-old Harrisonburg native sounded almost like the CEO of Disney World, as much as the university’s new director of athletics.

Babcock stressed that, among his goals, were for Tech’s athletics department to focus on “customer service” and “create memorable experiences” for its visitors.

“I think, today, there are so many competing interests for people’s entertainment dollar and their attention,” Babcock told me. “To get people off of a couch with a high-definition television and the comfort of their living room, you can’t just keep doing it the way you’ve always done it and open the gates and hope they come.

“Creating memorable experiences and the environment that only Virginia Tech can offer, I do believe mirrors Disney. They’ve done pretty well for themselves in that regard. Athletics has turned more into that industry.”

With those words, a new era in Virginia Tech athletics began.

Customer Service.

Creating memorable experiences.

Those words struck a positive note for Hokies everywhere who understand that the business of college athletics is changing. And yes, it’s more of a business today than it was just five years ago. And it’s changing fast.

Last year, Virginia Tech reported annual athletics revenues of $70.7 million. Of that, 52 percent came from donations (28 percent) and ticket sales (24 percent). That’s a much higher percentage than many of Tech’s peer institutions that rely heavily on student fees or taxpayer support to survive.

Revenue distributions from the ACC and IMG will increase dramatically in the coming years. But the lifeblood of Tech’s program is weighted heavily on raising funds and selling tickets.

That’s why Babcock’s background in athletics development was so attractive to the search committee who recommended his name – along with two others – to President Dr. Charles Steger.

“This [Tech athletics] will be over a $100 million operation in the coming years,” Steger projected. “Whit has substantial experience in running a large business enterprise.”

Babcock said he’d “diligently” look at Tech’s retention rates of both season ticket holders and Hokie Club members.

“Our numbers will never go down if we never lose a donor or a season ticket holder,” he said.

Winning and losing has a lot to do with both contributions and ticket sales, but Babcock is more holistic in his approach to cultivating and maintaining Tech’s ever-growing fan base.

“Winning games is great, but I can’t always control that. In fact, I can never control that,” Babcock said. “So we will try to control the experience people have when they come to campus and come to our events.”

Babcock wants you to leave Lane Stadium or Cassell Coliseum (even after a game that Tech loses) and say to yourself, “I can’t wait to come back!”

He himself has been coming to games on Tech’s campus since he was 7 years old, first serving as the batboy for his father’s baseball team at JMU and then later playing against the Hokies in Blacksburg. He recalled sitting in Cassell Coliseum as a teenager and watching Dell Curry star for Tech.

“Everyone knew it would take an incredibly unique and special situation for me to leave Cincinnati,” Babcock said. “The fit for me is being a native Virginian and my familiarity with campus and this part of the country. The fit is just ideal.”

He later called it his “dream job.”

“The opportunity is for me to take a great athletics program and hopefully build on it,” he said. “It’s the opportunity to be at a top-flight academic institution and a highly competitive, championship-caliber program.”

When asked, Babcock rattled off a list of his mentors: Northwestern AD Jim Phillips, Missouri AD Mike Alden, Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione and Duke AD Kevin White. Looking for a common thread among those four administrators? Each has a commitment to strong academic and financial success, NCAA compliance and acute business acumen. They all win, too.

Babcock is an example of the new-era athletics administrator – very much engaged to his constituency, yet very tuned in to the student-athlete as well.

“Being the product of the student-athlete experience, and being the son of a coach, I believe it gives me a perspective to understand things from a coaching perspective, a student-athlete perspective, and 20 years of administration,” he said. “That breadth of knowledge hopefully helps me in my day job. I believe it gives me a little bit of an edge.”

An edge, for sure. And an open mind as well.

Babcock is going to want to hear from you. He’s going to listen to your suggestions and pay keen attention to the experiential aspect of being a part of the Hokie Nation.

As a native Virginian, the son of a college baseball coach, a former Division I athlete, a fundraiser at successful programs, and as an AD at a BCS school, he is uniquely prepared for his new job.

“This is all I’ve ever known,” he said. “All I’ve ever known is intercollegiate athletics. This is a chance to give back to it.”

Of course, Blacksburg is not Orlando, and Lane Stadium is not Disney World.

But for hundreds of thousands of Virginia Tech alums, this place is very much their “Magic Kingdom.” Babcock is eager to make that Kingdom – and your experience – better than ever.

The Voice’s Mailbag

Hi Bill,

I'm both an alum and lifelong Hokie Club member. Becoming more and more evident is the declining state of football and basketball attendance. I know we can't have 10-win seasons in football every year, and it's becoming harder and harder to be competitive in ACC basketball. But is there a concern and/or recognition of this decline in attendance on behalf of the athletics department? If so, what are some tangible action plans that you/they can communicate to stop this decline?

I don't want to be all doom and gloom. I think both football and basketball can turn the downward spiral around. It's just that the fans and alumni seem to have this on the front of their minds in the message boards, while the athletics department and administration have said nothing to address this new reality. You usually are good at looking at the upside of things, and I thought you might have some insights. Thanks, and Go Hokies! Brandon, Salt Lake City, Utah

Hi Brandon,

Thanks for your note and longtime support of the Hokies. In talking with Whit Babcock for the story above, it’s quite clear he would like the to change the way we “touch” or “engage” our fans nationwide. Dr. Steger said Babcock would “energize our fan base.” That quote in itself shows the administration in Burruss Hall shares your concern.

But I would like to make a very clear point here. Virginia Tech athletics overall finished 33rd in the fall 2013-14 Learfield Sports Directors' Cup Division I Final Fall Standings, which takes into consideration all sports across the board and not just football. Tech finished ahead of Oklahoma and Alabama and Auburn and Clemson, and even 36 places ahead of Ohio State, which has twice the budget of Tech (this isn’t a dig at the Buckeyes or what they do, or what OSU stands for, so please no e-mails from Buckeye fans). These are all fantastic programs and dynamite schools, but I would encourage anyone who feels any sense of “doom and gloom” to please take a look at these standings


According to you and Virginia Tech, Florida State has the longest active bowl streak. According to the NCAA, Tech has the longest active streak. What is your source? And why do you disagree with the official NCAA stats? Thanks. Russ, Atlanta, Ga.

Hi Russ,

Interesting question, with a long answer. Florida State has played in a bowl game for 32 straight seasons, which is the longest streak in the country. Virginia Tech is second on the list, having played in 21 straight bowl games. However, in 2009, Florida State was placed on NCAA probation and was forced to vacate 12 wins, including its 2006 Emerald Bowl win over UCLA. So the NCAA doesn’t officially recognize that the game was even played. However, the bowl does. Here’s a link to the official bowl site:

We discussed this internally and our thought process was as follows: first, Florida State did, in fact, play in the game, their players got rings, Lorenzo Booker was the MVP, and the records from the game still stand. But here’s what is really nutty about this: Had UCLA won, the NCAA would recognize this game, and FSU’s streak would still officially exist. Our thinking is that FSU’s sanctions were to vacate the win over UCLA and not to vacate the bowl bid itself. Per the NCAA, FSU’s record that season was officially 0-3. So had UCLA won the game, the NCAA would recognize FSU for being 0-4 on that season, and for having played in 32 straight bowls. Hope that isn’t too confusing, and thanks for your note.

Dear Bill,

What recruits do you think might be able to help the Hokies this upcoming season? Last year, Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson started and contributed right away. Can any of this year’s recruits do the same thing? Stuart, Richmond.


While they may not start, receivers Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips play a position where a.) Tech could use some playmakers and b.) freshmen can often contribute right away. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if Holland Fisher makes his way onto the field for Tech this season.

Among the young men who are already enrolled at Tech, tailback Marshawn Williams will go through spring ball and certainly will vie for playing time this season. The placekicker spot is clearly wide open after four different Tech kickers combined to miss 11 field goals last season. If Michael Santamaria has a good preseason, you might see him on the field this fall as well.

Dear Bill,

You made one comment that made the results of the football season a lot easier for me to swallow – all of the seniors graduated. Robert, Appomattox, Va.


It’s not just football. We have a great staff at Tech in our Student-Athlete Academic Support Services department. Read more about them here: Seven Virginia Tech varsity sports had 100 percent Graduation Success Rates (GSR) last year, according to the NCAA. Women’s basketball, men’s golf, lacrosse, softball, women’s soccer, women’s swimming and diving, and women’s tennis all recorded GSR’s of 100. Overall, Virginia Tech’s GSR combined for all sports was 90, which ranked sixth among ACC schools behind Notre Dame (99), Duke (98), BC (96), Wake (94) and Miami (92).

Dear Bill,

After reading your column, I feel the issue we are having now is 100 percent recruiting. We were lucky to go 8-4. Did you see all ACC teams? Tech didn’t have one single skill player on the All-ACC first, second or even third team. Or even honorable mention. There must have been 40 players mentioned in the ACC release on offense, and we didn’t have one!

If we don’t have ONE of the top 40 offensive players in the conference, we’re not going to win many games. I hope the coaches get some SKILL out there this fall because we need it! Love the Hokies and love your work. Go Hokies! Jim, Roanoke.

Hi Jim,

For the record, there were 25 offensive skill players (not 40) who were named to one of the All-ACC teams, but you are correct in stating that Tech didn’t have a single player. Some of that was youth and injury, but the Hokies need better players at the skill positions, as Coach [Frank] Beamer mentioned several times during the course of the 2013 season. Check out the bios of the new kids who are coming in for this fall. There’s an opportunity there for some fresh faces to make an immediate impact. Thanks for your note.

Dear Bill,

It was very nice to meet you at the BC game. Thanks for taking the time to visit with us. My question to you again: if you had $100 million dollars to spend on Tech athletics right now, how would you spend it? I’m so anxious to hear your response! Go Hokies! Dale, Charleston, W.Va.


How would I spend $100 million? You mean other than buying a yacht for the broadcasters?

Okay, seriously, I’m not the “money guy” around here, so I’d let the administrators handle it. But in general terms, paying off any debts we have from capital projects would be huge and making sure all our scholarships are endowed would be critical, too. If we had to spend it, I’d build the indoor football building and renovate Cassell big time. However, the conservative fiscal side of me says our little $100 million kitty would double in a few years if invested wisely. So the official/boring answer? I’d just invest it and try to double or triple that money. Imagine what we could do with $300 million!