Photo courtesy of University of Notre Dame

A familiar face in college football is joining Virginia Tech’s football staff.

Head coach Justin Fuente announced this past Monday that 40-year coaching veteran Jon Tenuta will join the Hokies in a senior defensive analyst role. He’ll be there to provide insight to Fuente and company. Tenuta is the father of current Virginia Tech offensive lineman Luke Tenuta, so there’s the family connection. 

The Significance

Although never a head coach, this is a very Jerry Kill-like hire for Virginia Tech. Kill, the former Minnesota head coach, was hired in the middle of the 2019 season as “special assistant to the head coach.” He was praised by Virginia Tech’s staff and players as a great asset to the program.

Kill added multiple angles on what he saw, and served as a great right-hand man for Fuente. He ended up leaving for the same role at TCU after the season to reunite with his friend, Gary Patterson.

In a way, the Hokies are now getting that type of personality back. Tenuta can bring a new spark into a program that needs it, but is on the right track with the offseason it has had. 

How else can he help? While the defensive coaching staff are all seen as rising stars in the game, overall they’re incredibly young. A 19-year defensive coordinator veteran himself, Tenuta can help mold Justin Hamilton more and more each and every meeting that defensive staff has together.

He can slide into that mentor role vacated by former linebackers coach Tracy Claeys, a longtime defensive coordinator, and also ironically enough, Kill’s successor at Minnesota. Claeys retired from coaching a couples weeks back, and is relocating to his home state of Kansas.

Tenuta can also help tune up rookie linebackers coach Jack Tyler. The combination of Tenuta’s experience and the young, but talented coaches in Blacksburg could make for the perfect marriage for Virginia Tech. 

No Stranger 

So where has Tenuta been? Well, there’s a lot. 

The Columbus, Ohio native’s career actually includes a lot of anti-Hokie stops with a lot of typical Virginia Tech foes. For starters, it began in Charlottesville. 

Tenuta was a standout defensive back for the Virginia Cavaliers from 1978-81. He spent the 1982 season as a graduate assistant for the ‘Hoos while receiving a graduate degree in physical education and health. He then moved on to Maryland to take that same position in 1983 before packing his bags for Nashville to accept his first full-time assistant coach position at Vanderbilt the following year as the new defensive backs coach. 

Tenuta ended up leaving Vandy two years later to become the defensive backs coach at Marshall in 1986 and eventually the defensive coordinator in 1987 – his first year in that position for any school. His travel tour continued as he moved on to Kansas State to become defensive coordinator for just one season. Tenuta served under head coach Stan Parrish just a year before the Bill Snyder era began. 

Snyder was then hired and Tenuta was not retained. He became the defensive backs coach at SMU in 1989 – its first year returning to play since being given “the death penalty”. The Mustangs did not play football for the two seasons prior to his hiring. 

1990’s

Tenuta was promoted in 1990 to defensive coordinator for the Mustangs. He remained in that role until 1994. 

Here’s where the Virginia Tech connection that doesn’t involve his son comes into play. Tenuta left SMU prior to the 1995 season to become the defensive backs coach at Oklahoma. He never coached him, but in his lone season in Norman, the defensive backs coach landed a big recruit out of Tulsa.

That recruit? Quarterback Justin Fuente.

Tenuta left the Sooners after just one season. Tenuta then returned to his birthplace to take the same position at Ohio State. He remained there until the 2001 campaign.

With the last season in his hometown being spent as the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator, he was not retained after head coach John Cooper had been fired by the university. Tenuta ended up becoming the defensive coordinator with a now ACC foe – the North Carolina Tar Heels.

ACC Campus Tour

Tenuta then spent the next 15 seasons at a current ACC institution. He only spent one year in Chapel Hill before moving on to Georgia Tech prior to the 2002 season to become its new defensive coordinator.

The well-traveled coordinator spent the 2002-07 seasons in Atlanta. He was there firsthand for Virginia Tech’s arrival in the ACC.

The Yellow Jackets put up at least seven wins in each season Tenuta was on “the flats”. He spent his last game wearing the “old gold” as the interim head coach. He filled in for fired head coach Chan Gailey in a 40-28 loss to Fresno State in the Humanitarian Bowl.

Tenuta was not retained by new head coach Paul Johnson, and moved on to Notre Dame as the assistant head coach and linebackers coach in 2008. He added defensive coordinator to that title in 2009.

Brian Kelly didn’t retain him in South Bend after Charlie Weis was canned, and Tenuta moved on to NC State to become the linebackers coach for the Wolfpack in 2010. Later during his tenure in Raleigh, he earned the title of assistant head coach.

He was then another victim to the coaching carousel as Tom O’Brien was let go at NC State. Both he and O’Brien ended up back at a familiar spot for the 2013 season. Tenuta was heading back home to his alma mater, becoming the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator under Mike London at Virginia from 2013-15. 

The Cavaliers failed to make a bowl game in any of his three seasons back in Charlottesville. In each of those years, the season ended with a loss to Virginia Tech. No shocker. 

Final Path To Blacksburg

Tenuta took the 2016 season off after London was relieved of his duties before joining Luke Fickell’s Cincinnati staff as safeties coach prior to 2017. He was there for these past few magical years for the Bearcats.

It all started with a 10-win season back in 2018. That year was capped off with a win in the Military Bowl over Virginia Tech on New Year’s Eve.

His final season as a position coach was spent with Cincinnati in 2019. The Bearcats finished ranked 21st in the country with a record of 11-3. That included a win over UCLA and a Birmingham Bowl demolition of Boston College.

This past year, Tenuta took a step back, but observed the Bearcats as a senior defensive analyst in 2020. He had a front-row seat to see Cincinnati complete an undefeated regular season, win an American Conference Championship, nearly upset Georgia in the Peach Bowl, and finish No. 8 in the country. 

64 years old next week, he gets to come finally watch his son play. He’ll do so as a senior defensive analyst for the Hokies. 

He’ll sport a familiar logo that he’s used to seeing on the opposite side for the last 20 years. Being on the other side of the Commonwealth Cup rivalry…got to be weird, right? 

Not only does Tenuta have a lot of familiarity with Virginia Tech as an opponent, he now does as a father. He concedes that’s what ultimately brings him to Blacksburg. 

Although a low-profile and low-key role, look for Tenuta to have a big impact on Virginia Tech football in 2021.