Justin Fuente has made the often-uncomfortable job of replacing a coaching legend look easy.
Fuente, in his first season as Virginia Tech’s football coach, has led the Hokies to a 9-4 record, a spot in the ACC championship game earlier this month and a berth against Arkansas in Thursday’s Belk Bowl at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium.
It’s the kind of season that became routine for the Hokies under former coach Frank Beamer, who retired after last season.
In stepped Fuente, who hasn’t toiled in Beamer’s shadow. Instead, he’s flourished in the bright sunlight cast by a former coach who won 238 games in 29 seasons at Virginia Tech and is one of the school’s most beloved figures.
A lot of how successful you are is dependent on who you replace.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema
“The transition has been as smooth as it could possibly have been,” said Hokies junior receiver Isaiah Ford. “(Fuente) did a superb job of not barging in and changing everything, of saying, ‘do it my way, or leave.’ He did a great job of taking the things that coach Beamer left behind and adding a little twist to them. That just adds to what he has done.”
Fuente came to Virginia Tech from Memphis, where he led the Tigers to a 19-6 record in his final two seasons. At 40, he is the fifth-youngest coach at a Power 5 school.
Among Fuente’s first moves at Blacksburg, Va., was to make contact with Beamer.
“(Beamer) made it an easy transition because of the way he is,” Fuente said. “He has a genuine love for Virginia Tech and is so humble. He’s been so supportive.
Under coach Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech’s team has maintained the high standards set by former coach Frank Beamer.
“The things that everybody thinks are huge hurdles weren’t. He’s allowed us to coach the football team and we’ve handled the transition internally. We haven’t had to deal with a bunch of external things that weren’t there.”
Beamer still lives in Blacksburg and maintains close ties to Virginia Tech. He works as a special assistant to athletics director Whit Babcock and is the spokesman for the Hokies’ “Drive For 25” athletic booster-club fund-raising effort.
“I know coach Beamer is still around there a lot,” said Arkansas coach Bret Bielema. “A lot of how successful you are is dependent on who you replace. I know (Fuente) has said coach Beamer made a smooth transition possible because of the man he is.”
238-121-2 Virginia Tech’s record in 29 seasons under Frank Beamer
Bielema, who came to Arkansas from Wisconsin in 2013, understands the dynamic. When he was hired as Wisconsin’s coach in 2006, he replaced Barry Alvarez, who brought the Badgers program to national prominence. Alvarez remained as Wisconsin’s athletics director after Bielema was promoted from his job as the Badgers’ defensive coordinator.
“When I took over, the legend I was replacing was my boss,” Bilema said. “We probably met less than four times on Xs and Os when I was a coordinator and never when he was AD.
“I think that person has to kind of step back. He has to keep ownership in certain respects, but also let the coach do what he needs to do.”
Fuente has maintained ties to Beamer in both tangible and intangible ways. He retained Bud Foster, one of the country’s top defensive coordinators who had been on Beamer’s staff since 1987, as well as defensive line coach Charley Wiles.
“I was kind of worried, because me and coach Foster were really close and I was worried about him leaving,” said senior defensive end Ken Ekanem. “But he stayed and now we have the best of both worlds. We have a great head coach and a new offense – but the defense is the same.”
Fuente also paid tribute to Beamer by having a different special teams player each week wear jersey No. 25 – Beamer’s number when he played at Virginia Tech. Beamer’s teams were known for their outstanding special-teams play, known as “Beamerball.”
“Coach Fuente has already learned a lot by being around our culture and knowing what it means to be a Hokie and to live in Blacksburg,” said senior defensive tackle Woody Baron. “We don’t have to teach him a thing.”