BLACKSBURG — Whit Babcock is a college coach's son. He played college baseball and has worked in college sports administration for most of his adult life.
"Indirectly or directly, I've been preparing to sit up here for 43 years," Babcock said Wednesday as he was formally introduced as Virginia Tech's athletic director.
That seasoning and self-confidence were on full display as Babcock showed grace, humor, humility and polish. At 43, he's the ACC's youngest athletic director, but unless first impressions and the testimony of many who know him are off base, Babcock is a sage hire.
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Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, VA
"I'm not intimidated by the job, certainly," he said.
As you'd expect, Babcock called the appointment "a dream come true," and in his case, the statement passes the smell test. Just ask Georgia Tech AD Mike Bobinski.
Babcock comes to Virginia Tech from the University of Cincinnati, where he served as athletic director for two-plus years. Bobinski was the AD at crosstown rival Xavier, and prior to leaving last winter for Georgia Tech, he met with Babcock, by then a close friend, and asked about his career aspirations.
"He mentioned one place," Bobinski told me Wednesday morning. "Virginia Tech."
A fifth-generation Virginian, Babcock grew up in Harrisonburg and played baseball at hometown James Madison University, where his father, Brad, worked as baseball coach and, later, an administrator. He recalls his grade-school rolling in televisions so students could watch the ACC basketball tournament. He remembers traveling to Blacksburg as a kid to watch Hokies legends Dell Curry and Bruce Smith.
In short, this is a personal homecoming.
Professionally, Babcock saw Virginia Tech's considerable assets, chief among them quality people, fiscal discipline, top-shelf infrastructure and ACC membership. The Hokies' $65 million budget may pale to some, but as Babcock said, "If it was all about the biggest budget, Texas, Ohio State and Florida would never lose a game. So we've got to out-people people."
Babcock inherits an accomplished department led with integrity for 17 years by the retiring Jim Weaver. But like peer institutions nationally, Virginia Tech athletics faces challenges such as growing attendance, donor rolls and, subsequently, revenue.
There Babcock's youth, energy and innovations should serve Tech well. At 68, Weaver was the ACC's oldest athletic director, and as he is the first to concede, his Parkinson's Disease and related health problems slowed him noticeably.
"He's a really genuine guy," Bobinski said of Babcock. "He's not a guy who's trying to pull one over on you. I think that will come across on a day-to-day basis. He's a solid, both-feet-on-the-ground guy. He's very approachable, he's very comfortable meeting people. …
"He clearly had some difficult challenges to work through at Cincinnati. … He was dealt a very difficult set of cards, particularly once conference realignment started. I know how hard he worked and how forward-thinking he was through all of that. … In the face of adversity, he made a lot of positive things happen. … His resiliency was very apparent."
Indeed, the Bearcats did not land in a big-five league and are relegated to the American Athletic Conference, a splintering of the old Big East. But Babcock raised money for an $86 million football stadium expansion, restored scholarship funding to some Olympic sports and hired six head coaches, including football's Tommy Tuberville.
Cincinnati was his first AD job, but Babcock worked the previous 15 years in various roles at Auburn, West Virginia and Missouri. I've spoken to former co-workers of his from WVU and Mizzou, plus colleagues nationally, and the consensus is he's bright, organized and tireless, a leader who prefers to prowl the halls and monitor the department's pulse rather than hibernate in his office.
"You have to give (people) hope for something bigger than they already have," Babcock said of leadership.
Babcock, who jetted Wednesday to ACC meetings in Florida, also earned high marks for crisis management. Seven weeks after his Cincinnati introduction in 2011, the Bearcats' annual basketball game against Xavier ended with a bench-clearing brawl that prompted multiple suspensions on both sides and intense national and local scrutiny.
"We had to get to know and trust each other in a hurry," Bobinski said.