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VON STORCH: Two coaches, two different trajectories

The arrivals of Bronco Mendenhall and Justin Fuente in 2015 have led to a rivalry more competitive than it has ever been

<p>Virginia football Coach Bronco Mendenhall (left) and Virginia Tech football Coach Justin Fuente (right) have led their respective programs in different directions since both joining in 2015.</p>

Virginia football Coach Bronco Mendenhall (left) and Virginia Tech football Coach Justin Fuente (right) have led their respective programs in different directions since both joining in 2015.

Within a five-day span in late November and early December of 2015, Virginia football Coach Bronco Mendenhall and Virginia Tech football Coach Justin Fuente were hired to their respective programs. Both coaches were hailed for their success in bringing national attention to traditionally lesser-known programs — Mendenhall with BYU and Fuente with Memphis. However, the circumstances for their arrivals and the resulting trajectories at each school could not have been more different — a fact now made plainly obvious with Fuente parting ways with Virginia Tech Tuesday morning.

Mendenhall’s rebuild

Mendenhall was brought to Charlottesville by former Athletic Director Craig Littlepage with the daunting task of reviving a despondent football program and bringing energy to a fanbase that had all but given up on its Cavaliers. Under the direction of former Coach Mike London, Virginia put together a disappointing record of 27-46 in six seasons. Game attendance was poor, and a program that held strong through the mid-2000s had seemingly hit rock bottom. It was Mendenhall’s job to fix it.

As it soon became evident, this process required Mendenhall to completely strip the program down to its bare bones before slowly and steadily building a foundation and culture that would lead to success on the field. It revolved around establishing a program known for developing young men off the field before their development on the field could be realized. This approach was to the dismay of those who sought an overnight turnaround, and the growing pains involved in the rebuild were on full display in Mendenhall’s first season as the Cavaliers went 2-10 and lost to rival Virginia Tech in an embarrassing 42-point blowout.

However, little by little, Virginia clawed its way back to relevance. Mendenhall’s team put together a six-win season in 2017, earning a bowl appearance for the first time since 2011. Despite being blown out by Navy 49-7, it was evident the Cavaliers were moving in the right direction. The following season, Virginia reached bowl eligibility before the end of October, and Mendenhall recorded the program’s first bowl game win since 2005 in a 28-0 dominant performance over South Carolina. Additionally, the Cavaliers came remarkably close to ending the 15-year losing streak to Virginia Tech, falling in overtime. It just felt as if Mendenhall and his staff were on the verge of a breakthrough.

That breakthrough came in 2019. Virginia went 9-5, defeated the Hokies for the first time since 2003, won the ACC Coastal Division and earned the right to play in the Orange Bowl against football powerhouse Florida. Led by former quarterback Bryce Perkins in his last season at Virginia, there was a buzz created around Cavalier football that simply had not existed for nearly a decade. While Virginia lost to Florida in a hard-fought battle, the national attention Mendenhall garnered for his transformation of the program was crucial in establishing a new name for Virginia football.

After a down season in a year impacted by COVID-19, the Cavaliers have returned to form in 2021 on the back of an electrifying season from junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong. It is clear that Mendenhall envisions future progress, but from when he started in 2015 to now, the program is light years ahead.

Fuente: Frank Beamer’s successor

Fuente, on the other hand, took over the coveted position in Blacksburg as the successor to college football legend Frank Beamer, who amassed 238 wins across 29 seasons in his time with Virginia Tech. While it appeared Beamer’s run with the Hokies had begun to lose some steam by the end of his career, Virginia Tech remained an established name in the college football landscape — and Beamer’s replacement would no doubt face immense pressure to maintain what had already been built. 

Fuente has led the Hokies in nearly an opposite trajectory than Mendenhall with the Cavaliers. Following a stellar 19 wins in his first two seasons — an improvement from Beamer’s last two years with Virginia Tech — that led to two bowl appearances and a Belk Bowl win in 2016, the Hokies have gradually faded. In 2018, Virginia Tech needed a win against Marshall in its last game of the season to just barely keep its incredible streak of 26 consecutive years with a bowl game appearance intact. 

The Hokies showed improvement in 2019, with former quarterback Hendon Hooker taking over the starting job and leading the Hokies to several key conference wins. However, Fuente lost an important piece of program pride when his team lost to Virginia for the first time in 16 years. Despite cruising to a victory over the Cavaliers the following year, it seemed like with the Virginia win, the dynamics of the rivalry had shifted. For the first time since 2003 it was possible that a shift of football power occured in the state of Virginia, and many around the Virginia Tech program pinned Fuente as the scapegoat.

A season with under six wins in 2020 — albeit in a season shortened by a game — for the first time since 1992 certainly did not help Fuente’s case. Currently, the Hokies sit at 5-5 and many have Virginia Tech pegged near the bottom of the conference in ACC power rankings. This ultimately led to the dismissal of Fuente early Tuesday morning with a positional coach J.C. Price taking over as interim head coach — ushering in a new era of Virginia Tech football.

Regardless of whoever will be Fuente’s eventual replacement — whether it be Price or, more likely, an outside hire — it is clear that the battle for the Commonwealth Cup is more competitive than ever. With Mendenhall at the helm, Virginia has ascended to what appears to be a higher baseline for success with potential for growth in the future. Gone are the days that Virginia Tech is consistently one of the top teams in the nation, and the combination of these two trends has brought the in-state rivals to a level playing field — it is hard to imagine that either school will embark on a 15-game head-to-head winning streak. As much as Hokie fans may not like it, Mendenhall and Fuente have contributed, in their own ways, to a rivalry that is as healthy as it has ever been.

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