BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech's football coaches don’t keep their players waiting very often.
The Hokies arrived at the team meeting room in the Jamerson Athletic Center at 2:20 p.m. expecting to hear about the schedule for media day.
The guys started getting a little anxious as the minutes ticked off the clock, since they had been with the coaching staff moments before in Lane Stadium for the team photo. Concern grew when all the coaches headed directly to the back of the room once they arrived.
All of them, that is, except for defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who remained up front.
Linebacker Rayshard Ashby held out hope Foster had an impromptu motivational speech planned.
Instead, he informed them that 2019 would be his last season. According to multiple players, an emotional Foster made it through the speech without shedding tears, but paused several times to take off his glasses to keep his composure.
“The way he kind of started it kind of hinted toward that, but when he said it, it was just shocking,” Ashby said. “I wasn’t expecting it.”
Many of the Hokies sat stoned-faced as they came to grips with the message.
“He always came in [this offseason] reinvigorated and ready to work to right the wrongs of last season,” Ashby said. “I didn’t really have a sense of it at all to be honest.”
After they were dismissed, the Hokies' players made their way downstairs to the locker room, where the atmosphere was described as funeral-like by a passerby.
“It was dead silence in the meeting room and we went back downstairs and it was dead silent. …” Virginia Tech wide receiver Tre Turner said. “It was definitely the most silent I’ve ever heard a locker room.”
While Foster brought Tech’s Lunch Pail defense to national prominence as a tactician athletic director Whit Babcock described as “the greatest ever at his craft”, the sadness in the Hokies' locker room had little to do with X’s and O’s.
The normally soft-spoken Ashby, who Foster coached at linebacker and personally recruited starting in the 10th grade, detailed the impact Foster had on his life.
“I knew he always believed in me,” Ashby said. “He told me that from Day 1. He was the first coach to offer me. He told me he wanted me here. He gave me that chance. He knew how I felt, how I had a chip on my shoulder coming to college. I appreciated him. It wasn’t just about coaching with him, like said it was just being a great person. He always wanted me to succeed in everything.”
Sophomore linebacker Dax Hollifield offered a similar account.
“My dad is a coach and he’s been coaching for 30 years also, it’s basically like if my dad was retiring from coaching,” Hollifield said. “I’d probably have the same reaction. It’s hard.”
When discussing Hollifield during the spring, Foster said he recruited the linebacker more than any other player in his coaching career — he did a cartwheel when Hollifield committed on national signing day — and that relationship has only grown since the defender arrived on campus last summer.
Hollifield can't imagine going through next season without daily words of encouragement from his mentor.
“He’s always giving speeches before every practice and meetings, he’s always giving us little nuggets to get better and give us something to think about,’ Hollifield said. “He’s a great teacher.”
It was a painful day for Virginia Tech players like Hollifield, but one thing was clear as they spoke to reporters one after another on Thursday — no one in Tech's locker room resents Foster's decision.
“Obviously, it bothers me, I love him to death, but he’s doing what’s best for him, what he thinks is best for the program,” Hollifield said. “I trust him with my life. I’m definitely going to trust him with every decision he makes. I’m not doubting him. I know he’s doing what he thinks is right."