Tag Archives: George Welsh

An Unlikely Virginia Football Contrarian…

I was out of town this weekend when kickoff for the Virginia/Pitt game rolled around. The bartender was either unwilling or unable to find RSN. There was no doubt in my mind that my fellow bar patrons included few UVa fans, so I am not sure if the failure to locate the game was due to a lack of coverage in the area or by design to keep the bar filled and happy.

Frankly, I am not sure it matters. I read the articles and studied the box score. Another convincing Virginia loss. The second in a row as Virginia remains one win shy of bowl eligibility. If I was going to completely miss a game, this was probably a good one. The anatomy of the loss – the shortcomings of the offensive line, a high school caliber field goal kicking game, and squandered opportunities inside the Pitt 40 yard line are not the biggest challenges for the program right now.

I think the biggest problem for the program is that fans are perilously close to or have already thrown in the towel on the season and some on the football program at large. I got several texts during the game, while I was out for a hike in the Virginia mountains, that predicted a 5-7 season and another bowl season without Virginia as a participant. They were done, waiting for basketball season.

It is hard to blame them. Virginia has been consistently pretty bad over the past 10 years. Al Groh and Mike London each had flashes success during their tenures, but ultimately both were major players in the disintegration of the Virginia football program. Bronco’s first season at 2-10 didn’t do much to repair the damage. Fans are justified in their short fuse.

I understand the sentiments of those who have seen enough. Virginia athletics has a long and storied history of leaving its fans at the alter, especially in the “money sports” of football and basketball. While Virginia has built itself into a national player on the basketball scene, there is no doubt that recent teams had final 4 potential, yet have fallen short of basketball nirvana. Football has been a train wreck since George Welsh was prematurely pushed aside. I get it, for many it’s time to move on.

I’m not there yet. While the playing margin for error for Virginia football is razor thin and the tolerance for injuries among the starters is even thinner, I think there is another win in this team and a bowl game on the horizon. I’d love to cite a mountain of stats that back up my position, but they aren’t there. In fact, the stats clearly support the opposite position. If I were at the blackjack table in Vegas, I’d be the hated player going with his “gut” hitting a “15” while the dealer shows “6”.

I think that Quinn Blanding and Micah Kizer will rally this team for one more win this season. As it sinks in on the rest of the team that these warriors may go their entire college career without a bowl appearance, I think the rest of the team will dig deep and find a way to pull off a major upset victory.

Virginia will be the betting dog the rest of the season. The Wahoos opened as an 8.5 point dog to Georgia Tech, which will likely be the smallest spread we see the rest of the way.

In past seasons, undermanned Virginia teams have stymied the maddening triple option to upset the Jackets in Charlottesville. I think it is possible again this Saturday, but I think the options this week are polar opposites. Virginia will either eek out a close victory or get blowout by 25 points or more. If it is close, Virginia can will its way to victory. If the roof starts leaking early and Virginia struggles in the first half, it will get ugly in a hurry. The triple option is not a riddle you solve at halftime. It is a puzzle you unravel the week before the game.

Let’s hope for a good week of practice and a sharp performance on Saturday, otherwise I’m the guy that took the dealer’s bust card. You’re welcome.

Perspectives on Virginia Football from the Glory Days

I had the pleasure to meet a former UVa football star at a cocktail party recently. He was an iconic figure from the salad days of Virginia football. A George Welsh recruit and player. A football warrior and a very nice guy who laughed when I asked him if he had any eligibility left because we sure could use him next year.

I have no doubt that he has endured the same conversation a hundred times with UVa fans looking for insight and inside scoop on the state of football affairs in Charlottesville. He was engaging, patient, insightful, and generous with his time. His perspective was thought-provoking at best, distressing at worst.

I asked if he thought Virginia was going to be better this year, if we were heading in the right direction. I hoped for a big smile and confirmation that indeed football at UVa was emerging from its 10-year funk. Instead I got a dose of reality that made me wish I’d gotten a double scotch before I started the conversation. The facial expression was one of concern, from someone who clearly wants UVa to get back to its winning ways. The net of his comments – we don’t have enough athletes. I rattled off a few of names of kids I viewed as top notch players…no confirmation, no bright smile, no “yes, that kid is a player”. Just sincerely held concern that we don’t have enough athletes.

I was taken aback, but who was I to argue about talent levels with someone who had been there and knew first hand? How could I question what it takes to win in the ACC with one of the many star players who had won in the ACC through his entire career under George Welsh?

So, after I got home, before I changed, I poured another drink and spent an hour or so looking at some of the rosters from the George Welsh days. The days when Virginia won a lot of football games. When Virginia was clearly the best team in The Commonwealth and one of the best teams in the ACC. A scan of the rosters of the late 1980s &1990s yielded the same conclusion – there was a lot of talent in the program in those years. I needed to pick a point of comparison for the current roster, so I picked one outside of my conversation and settled on the 1998 team. While a little bit of a “cherry pick” this was not the No. 1 team in the nation nor the team that featured the Barbers of C’ville in the final years in orange & blue.

The 1998 team was a good one, however. They went 9-3 overall, 6-2 in the ACC, and lost a heart-breaker to a good Georgia team in the Peach Bowl. As I looked at the roster, my heart sunk a bit, as did my expectations for the 2017 football season.

Let’s bounce around a few names from the Cavalier roster in 1998:

Aaron Brooks, Thomas Jones, Antwoine Womack, Anthony Poindexter, Terrence Wilkins, Casey Crawford, Billy Baber, Chris Luzar, Monsanto Pope, Noel LaMontagne, John St. Clair, Antonio Dingle, Patrick Kearney, Wali Rainer, Byron Thweatt, Donny Green, Antwan Harris, & Maurice Anderson. If you are keeping score at home, that is a count of 18 players…all of whom played at least 1 season in the NFL. Several had exceptional NFL careers. At least 2 had exceptional careers in the NFL cut short by injuries they sustained at UVa. There was also a pack of players who were borderline NFL talent that played big roles for UVa in the late 1990s. Guys like Anthony Southern, Kevin Coffey, Ahmad Hawkins, Brad Barnes, Tyree Foreman, & Tim Spruill.

Wow! Anyone want to send George Welsh a heartfelt thank-you note for all he and his staff did for Virginia football? Recall before Coach Welsh arrived, Virginia was a joke program, de-emphasized by design by the big dogs in The University administration. Virginia lost to good teams. Virginia lost to bad teams. Virginia lost to a mediocre Wake Forest team by 50 points not long before coach Welsh arrived. Yet there we were in 1998, with 18 future NFL players on the roster, playing toe-to-toe with the SEC (Virginia went 1-1 versus the SEC in 1998 beating Auburn on the road before losing to UGa in the Peach Bowl).

With all due respect to Kurt Benkert, Daniel Hamm, and Jack McDonald, the comps to Aaron Brooks, Thomas Jones, and John St. Clair are not encouraging. So where does that leave Virginia football with the 2017 season only 3 months away and counting?

Scanning the 2017 roster, it is not void of NFL talent. Quinn Blanding and Andrew Brown are solid NFL prospects and likely low to middle round picks in next year’s draft. After that, it gets hard to find kids destined to play on Sundays. My guess is Bronco will develop a few, but if the comparison for talent & depth is the 1998 roster, there are not 18 NFL players on the 2017 roster. Virginia might be fortunate if there are half that number.

This talent reality leaves Virginia fans pinning their hopes and guarded optimism on Bronco and his system. Going back to his BYU days, Bronco never had herculean high school players on his roster. However, during his tenure at BYU he sent 25+ players to NFL careers which shows his eye for undervalued talent and his talent for player development. I think this works for Virginia. At least it works for Virginia right now.

Virginia football needs stability. It needs discipline. It needs to learn how to win. It needs coaching grounded in fundamental football that results in strong player development. Bronco can deliver these things. I think Bronco can consistently deliver 5-7 wins a season. That might be good enough for Virginia football. It is certainly an improvement.

That said, Virginia is never going to be truly and consistently competitive if Clemson and Florida State have 25 or more players on their teams who are a step faster and push-up stronger than Virginia – discipline and player development be damned. It is hard to consistently win against teams that not only have better athletes, but that have a lot more better athletes.

I would never have thought this absent my recent conversation, but maybe Branco is a transitional coach for Virginia. Maybe he stops the bleeding. Maybe he brings discipline and a culture of winning more than losing to Virginia football and then hands the keys over to the next young hotshot coach who can build on Bronco’s foundation by recruiting 18 NFL caliber players on the same roster.

In this context, I think Bronco is the right guy for the Virginia job. Certainly, he’s the right guy for right now. If 5-7 wins a year with an occasional bump to 8 wins is good enough for Virginia fans, maybe he is the long-term answer too. I still think it is a coup that Craig Littlepage and Jon Oliver brought Bronco and his staff to Virginia. At some point however, Virginia is going to need “the athletes” to win consistently in the ACC and beat top-shelf SEC opponents on the road. Maybe winning will allow Bronco to ramp up his recruiting, though winning at BYU didn’t change his recruiting results dramatically over time. Maybe that is a function of BYU.  Maybe unfettered by BYU’s strict college experience, Bronco can compete with the national programs and close on 4 and 5 star recruits. Maybe.

I wish I’d had more time to ask more questions about the progress of Virginia football to someone who knew about winning and player development, but I had probably intruded too much already and as noted before, due to my short-sightedness, my drink was glass was empty. After the brief conversation and doing a little homework afterwards, I might want to keep a full drink glass for the coming season.

E-mail David at david.rayner@campuspressbox.com or follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.


Getting It Mostly Right, Unfortunately

In a new twist to keep myself entertained during a 2-9 season, I wrote this “game summary” at 9:00 Saturday morning, 3 hours before kickoff. I was hoping I would be dreadfully off base in my musings. However as I wrote this I had visions of Matt Johns overthrown passes going for picks. Visions of 2015 danced in my head. For the first half it looked like I was going to be dead wrong. Then we played the second half and I got this one more right that I had hoped:

While I don’t think any Virginia fans expected the ‘Hoos to be 9-2 eleven games into the 2016 season, I don’t think many expected 2-9 either. If this is the process of getting back to football respectability, at least we have 1 year under our belts and can look forward to improvement in 2017. George Welsh was 2-9 in his first season at Virginia as well, so at least we have that going for us…which is nice.

Listening to the team, especially the seniors, speak about the season that is about to conclude, you would never imagine that the won/loss record was so abysmal. The chatter is optimistic. It is about winning. It is brimming with enthusiasm. Unfortunately, when you have a young defense that has sustained more than its share of injuries going up against the triple-option of Georgia Tech, execution is more important than enthusiasm. Virginia learned that lesson in a big way on Saturday in Atlanta. Hopefully Saturday’s loss will help them when the Jackets visit Scott Stadium next year.

Ga Tech’s unique offense always carries with it the advantage of style. Very few teams run the triple option and defensive coordinators struggle at times to alter their schemes for the “one off” game against the Jackets.While not dominant, the Georgia Tech offense was “effective enough” and most importantly, effective when it had to be. Virginia continued its trend of giving up big plays at inopportune times. Usually following tackles for loss or in 3rd and long situations. Georgia Tech’s triple option was good enough when it had to be and Virginia had no answer on ether side of the ball.

In true Virginia fashion, even the upside of Virginia’s game against Ga Tech has a downside. While I think most if not all Virginia fans think the world of Matt Johns and were glad to see him have solid game in a return his role as Virginia’s starting QB, the fact that he was back leading the Virginia offense did not speak well of the performance to date of Kurt Benkert, Virginia’s opening day quarterback.

I was glad to see Johns running the show again. By all accounts he is a great kid an outstanding leader with a bright future ahead of him. His penchant for picks at just the wrong moments however, is the reason his future prospects do not include holding a clipboard on the sidelines on Sunday afternoons. At this point in a 2-9 season, that is beside the point. Johns helped keep Virginia in the game for a half and made the ‘Hoos competitive in the battle for boxscore stats. Well done Matt, Virginia fans sincerely wish you great success next week and beyond.

If Virginia football collectively won the Power Ball lottery, I bet it would forget to pay its taxes and end up in jail. It seems that no matter what happens to Virginia football that on the surface, appears to be good, it ends up being bad. Once again, Virginia failed to convert opponent miscues and Virginia accomplishments into points on the scoreboard. When really good teams are presented with opportunities to crush their opponents, they get it done. Virginia failed to capitalize on several opportunities both presented and earned throughout the game.

For what seems like every game this season, Virginia showed it could hang with their opponent, for about a half. Virginia has been in most every game this season (Oregon excepted) up to halftime and some times beyond. I am not sure if this is a depth issue, a lack of confidence, or just providence (see last year’s column) but Virginia just cannot close. Turnovers have been a problem all year and have contributed mightily to Virginia’s tribulations. If the Virginia team were a salesman in Glen Gary, Glen Ross, we certainly would not be in the running for the new Cadillac or the set of steak knives.

Next week Virginia gets on more shot. One more chance to close the deal. It would seem that just once this year the ball might bounce our way, but I wouldn’t bet on it.


E-mail David at david [dot] rayner [at] campuspressbox [dot] com and follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

Virginia Football Isn’t Going According to Plan

I’m exhausted. We are only three games into the Virginia football season and I am out of gas. This does not mean I am giving up on Bronco Mendenhall and his project to rebuild Virginia football. After all, George Welsh (who looks more and more like the greatest coach in college football history) was 2-9 in his first season at Virginia.

It’s just that this is a new season, with a new coach, and new systems, yet we have the same results. Frustrating losses against teams that in the salad days of George Welsh would have been unthinkable. Maybe being relegated to ESPN3 and having to watch Virginia implode on my computer is more taxing than watching them implode on a big screen TV, but by the end of Saturday’s fiasco, I was ready to tuck myself away for the rest of the day.

Much like the political fault lines emerging in the country, the UVA fan base is already split with a widening gap between two distinct camps. The first camp has already thrown in the towel and is asking why Virginia spent all this money for a new coaching staff that makes the same idiotic mistakes as the previous regime. Saturday’s game poured a lot of gas on that fire.

The second camp is made of the blessed eternal UVA optimists. A lot of these folks are pretty sure that winning the lottery is in their future. Despite three losses in three attempts, they see improvement in each game and a win is just around the corner. I am not sure how they can see around a corner, but as I look down the rest of the schedule, I am sure that I don’t see the same win they do. Bless these fans as they suffer even more than the rest of us. Every program needs these folks.

Much like the political arena, I can understand the positions of each camp, but I don’t agree with either one. I just don’t think we know where we are heading right now. We are Sir Galahad in search of the holy grail, and for Virginia fans, it may not exist as the football gods fart in our general direction. It is way too early to call Bronco’s tenure a failure and toss his teams onto the scrap heap of “same old ‘Hoos”. While his first three games have had all the earmarks, I am not ready to go there yet, though the thought has crossed my mind.

My problem with the “things are getting better” crowd harken back to grade-school science. We learned very early in science class that to test the impact of a change in any variable, we had to hold all the other factors in an experiment constant. Such is never the case in sports because the opponents and venues change every week.

So, while Virginia only lost by three points and held a lead for the first time in 2016, we were playing UConn, probably the worst team on the Virginia schedule. UConn is no Oregon and despite its loss this weekend, probably no University of Richmond either. UConn is below average across the board, so it makes sense that Virginia looked like it had “improved” against an dreadful opponent.

Yet, Virginia lost. Did I mention I was exhausted?

I, nor anyone else, can prove that the play of the team is getting better, but I sense that at least it’s not getting worse. Three horrific calls by an officiating crew that was as inept as the UConn football team played a large role in the outcome of the game. It’s easy to argue that Virginia should have beaten a lousy UConn team, but it didn’t.

Inexplicable time management and play calling at the end of the game worked to seal the Cavaliers’ defeat. While Virginia most certainly should have pushed this game into overtime with a frenetic chip-shot field goal, it didn’t. So I have a hard time making myself feel better that the fortunes of Virginia football are on the rise, when Bronco really just got his first taste of “losing the Virginia way”.

I am on the fence. It is possible that Virginia may, in fact, be righting itself and getting better each week. It is possible that a handful of wins are, in fact, just around the corner. I think it may also be possible that Virginia football is not fixable, that we could be tossed on the scrap heap of college football’s perennial losers along with Kansas, Kentucky, and UConn.

And while it is certainly possible that may be the case, look at what each of those college football doormats have in common. Maybe there is a trade-off here that we will just have to learn to accept.

All I know about Virginia football without question is that after losing on the last play of the game to a crummy team, I was toast. I cannot imagine having to endure the ensuing overtime, which in all likelihood would have just made this week’s trip to the dentist chair agonizingly longer.

At least next week we get to tailgate before the game so that we can cogitate over cocktails whether or not Virginia football will continue to improve against the undefeated Chippewas of Central Michigan. If I see George Welsh at the game, please remind me to thank him and shake his hand.


E-Mail David at david.rayner@campuspressbox.com and follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia user Mak7912.

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Virginia and Georgia: Compare and Contrast

Sanford Stadium is one of college football's greatest venues.
Sanford Stadium is one of college football’s greatest venues. Photo by author

I was among the 92,000+ woofing, screaming, deliriously happy Georgia fans at this past weekend’s tackle football contest against the Auburn Tigers.  I knew that this big game between two ranked opponents, in the nation’s best football conference, would give me lots of data that I could use to compare the football programs at Virginia and Georgia. I know that ACC football in general is about a 90-yard field goal away from the product put out by the SEC’s schools, but I hoped to find some common elements that would give me reason to believe that Virginia’s problems are not insurmountable. That’s what I hoped, anyway.

The comparisons are pretty easy.

Both schools play Division 1 football.

That’s about it.  There is little else about the two programs that is comparable other than the fact that both schools have been playing football for more than 120 years.  UVA football is free Tuesday night Shakespeare-in-the-Park.  Georgia football is a Led Zeppelin reunion concert.  Georgia plays before sellout crowds year after year. Virginia plays to half-empty stadiums filled with listless and frustrated fans. Georgia has won 768 games in 122 years, Virginia 632 in 126 years.  Virginia’s record is distorted by success in the late 1800s and early 1900s, periods that only Wahoo homers would trot out in support of Virginia’s football relevance. Virginia played football for almost 100 years before qualifying for its first bowl game in 1984.  It has but two conference co-championships to show for 61 years of ACC football effort.  Georgia, meanwhile has been to 49 bowl games and has won two national championships in its history.

Georgia has demographics that Virginia does not. Georgia’s Sanford Stadium seats 92,746 and is the 5th-largest on-campus stadium in the country. Virginia’s Scott Stadium, by contrast, seats 61,500, making it the nation’s 27th-largest on-campus stadium, a surprising fact given Virginia’s historical football mediocrity.  Athens, with a population of 112,000, is better able to support the home team than is Charlottesville and its 44,000 residents. Georgia has a strong alumni base among metropolitan Atlanta’s 6.2 million residents, who are just 70 miles away.  Virginia’s total population, by contrast, is 8.2 million and UVA must cobble together a crowd from all over the state. While Georgia’s Atlanta fans wouldn’t think of missing a game, Virginia’s non-Charlottesville fans are decidedly more, ahem, cavalier.  Noon games may be too early, night games may be too late.  August and September games are too hot and by the time good football weather rolls around, Virginia may be out of contention for…anything.

Georgia’s success has created demand for the product.  Now, to be fair, I was at Georgia for a night-game against a ranked and hated conference rival in what is billed as the deep South’s oldest rivalry, but I also have been in Scott Stadium for night games, big games, and big night games against ranked opponents.  I was in the crowd for what probably was Virginia’s biggest game ever, the 1990 game against Georgia Tech when Virginia was the #1 ranked team in the country.  I was not in the crowd for Virginia’s biggest night win ever, the 1995 Thursday night victory over Florida State.  I’m sure that the atmosphere was electric at that game almost 20 years ago, but what I experienced at Sanford Stadium last weekend is not an anomaly–it’s the norm. Virginia may not ever have had–even at the program’s peak in 1990–an atmosphere comparable to what I experienced Saturday night in Athens.

According to the Georgia Athletics website, “Georgia’s average home attendance has ranked among the nation’s top 10 for 23 consecutive seasons and among the top seven for 21 of the past 24 years. Virginia has not played in front of a sellout crowd since last year’s Virginia Tech game, and only then because Tech fans bought all the unsold tickets. It was hardly a home game sellout atmosphere.  Georgia fans did not sit for one second of game action Saturday night, allowing themselves a brief rest only during timeouts. Virginia fans will stand only when exhorted by the team or when a big play is coming. Shakespeare vs. Led Zeppelin.

Interestingly, Virginia’s and Georgia’s football paths crossed when Virginia coach George Welsh retired following the 2000 season.  Georgia also was looking for a new coach following the dismissal of Jim Donnan.  Both schools pursued then Florida State offensive coordinator Mark Richt, with Georgia winning the bidding.  Spurned by Richt, Virginia seemingly pulled a coup in convincing then New York Jets head coach and UVA alumnus Al Groh back to Charlottesville.  Seemingly. While Georgia got the coach it wanted in Richt, who has gone 134-47 in his time at Georgia, Virginia is still searching for a worthy successor to Welsh.  Groh and his successor Mike London have gone but 81-90 since Welsh’s fateful announcement in 2000.

If winning cures everything then Virginia needs to start winning again. Virginia must find another George Welsh. Like it or not, college sports have become big time businesses and universities must push back against the academic community’s revulsion of sports and embrace that fact. Football success and fundraising success are linked.  Football is the flagship product and UVA must find a way to win without sacrificing the academic standards that it holds above all else.  Difficult, but not impossible.  Virginia alumni want a team that they can be proud of.  In a time of dwindling state financial support, alumni support is needed to bridge the gap.  A winning football program spurs alumni support not just of the football program , but of all areas of the school.  Virginia cannot afford to play to a half-empty stadium of listless and disenchanted fans.  The financial repercussions are too great.

Virginia Not Making Meaningful Progress

Virginia made all manner of mistakes in losing 35-10 to Georgia Tech on November 1.
Virginia made all manner of mistakes in losing 35-10 to Georgia Tech on November 1. Photo: Mike Stewart

Oh boy. Virginia fans knew that the team’s 2014 football schedule presented opportunities early and that the team would need to seize those opportunities if it were going to make meaningful progress after last year’s 2-10 disaster. When pre-season favorite North Carolina and its porous defense was exposed early, that home matchup became the opportunity for the all-important sixth win that everyone looking at the schedule was trying to find. “Meaningful progress” is the standard that head coach Mike London supposedly is being held to this year and that term is just nebulous enough to invite debate. Some have insisted that six wins and a bowl game are the minimum standards for meaningful progress. Others believe that merely being competitive is the threshold following a season in which Virginia’s average margin of defeat was three touchdowns. Still others maintain that as long as Virginia defeats Virginia Tech this year then the record shouldn’t matter and that Mike London should be given more time. Athletic Director Craig Littlepage is tightlipped as to what constitutes his standard of meaningful progress, but what is clear following yesterday’s game at Georgia Tech is that this Virginia team no longer is meeting the standards that anyone has for it—not the players, not Mike London and his coaches, and certainly not the fans. Virginia, having let its two best chances for wins five and six slip away against Duke and UNC, now faces a November schedule that offers no handholds for a team trying to avoid falling headlong into the abyss.

I was among Mike London’s supporters at the beginning of the year. For a number of reasons I felt that this team would be markedly better than last year’s. It would have more upperclass leadership and more talent after the addition of an impressive recruiting class that included several players who were expected to contribute right away. The players would be more comfortable with the new offensive and defensive schemes that were installed last year and they would have the extra motivation of playing for a coach they love and whose job security depended on their play. Early on, I looked pretty smart. Even in losses to nationally-ranked UCLA and BYU, Virginia was game. As the team’s confidence grew, so did my belief that we could win almost any game on our schedule. The importance of confidence to on-field performance cannot be overstated and as Virginia stood up to its nationally-ranked opponents, I could sense that this team was vastly improved and comfortably within the parameters I personally had established for meaningful progress.

And then came the bye week. Virginia’s seemed to come at a good time. Starting QB Greyson Lambert was nursing an ankle sprain and the team needed to address some deficiencies while preparing for a very important road contest against a Duke team that has owned Virginia under Mike London. Well, what looked like good timing for a bye week in hindsight wasn’t. For Virginia, the bye week broke the team’s rhythm. Post bye-week Virginia has looked very much like the fumbling, bumbling, stumbling 2013 Virginia team and nothing like the 2014 team that started 4-2. What the hell happened?

Virginia’s offense is going backwards. The Cavaliers haven’t scored a second-half touchdown in four games and have only 6 points total in those eight second-half quarters. I believe that the offense’s shortcomings were masked early by the help it was getting from the defense. Virginia scored 190 points in its first five games, but 72 of those points (38%) came after the defense either forced a turnover and scored or presented the offense with a short field or an unsettled situation. Virginia’s defense has been far less helpful during this three-game losing streak, generating just two turnovers that the offense has turned into exactly three points. Without the defense’s help, the offense has been exposed. Two of Virginia’s first five opponents were inferior and the Hoos took advantage, inflating its offensive stats by posting 45 points against both Richmond and Kent State. The offensive line, thought to be a weakness, has yielded but 8 sacks this season, giving the impression that it is better than it is. Virginia, however, wants to run the ball and it has gotten an uneven effort from the line in that regard. Virginia’s quarterbacks, lacking game experience, are having to learn on the job and are continuing the struggles Virginia has had at that position since since Matt Schaub graduated in 2003. Among FBS teams only Appalachian State has committed more red zone turnovers than Virginia’s five this year. Clearly, the offense has struggled when tasked with producing points on its own.

When a team is confident and playing well, the game’s breaks fall its way. Conversely, stumbling teams can’t seem to get out of their own way or catch a break. There was abundant evidence of this in Atlanta yesterday. When a team (Georgia Tech) is playing well, it gets a favorable spot on a 4th down play in the red zone. When a team (Virginia) isn’t playing well, it can’t convert an interception deep in its opponent’s territory into a touchdown because a wide open receiver inexplicably drops the pass. When a team (Virginia) isn’t playing well, it commits an illegal shift penalty that negates a first down throw early in the 4th quarter when the game is not yet entirely out of reach. The resultant punt into the wind travels 23 yards, giving the opponent a short field from which it did put game away. When a team (Virginia) isn’t playing well, it compounds its misery by going four straight second-halves without a touchdown. Virginia, quite simply, is doing this to itself.

Virginia and Duke were once the laughingstocks of college football. The schools made fortuitous hires in George Welsh and David Cutcliffe and everything changed. Virginia seems to have in place everything it needs to be successful except the right head coach. Mike London was not untested at this level but he was unproven when Virginia hired him. His ties to the state and his established recruiting contacts were valuable assets to a Virginia team that was whiffing on in-state recruits under former coach Al Groh, but now Virginia needs a leader who can change the losing culture. For all of his admirable qualities Mike London doesn’t seem to be the man for that job. Virginia’s early-season meaningful progress has evaporated and with it has gone London’s job security. Never will a school more reluctantly part ways with a coach whose only shortcoming is that he doesn’t win.  And unfortunately that’s the bottom line. 

Mike London Time

we believe
Virginia fans want to believe in the Cavaliers’ 4-2 start. (photo by Matt Riley)

Mike London’s critics figured to have it easy this year. Fish in a barrel, ducks on the pond easy. London, they said, was a lame duck playing out the string before his inevitable sacking at the end of the season. In the annual listing of hot-seat coaches, Virginia’s man, having presided over 2013’s disastrous 2-10 record that included no conference wins for the first time in thirty-three years, was near the front of the line. Virginia, predicted by ACC sportswriters to be the Coastal Division’s doormat, had almost no chance to win the six games that everyone seemed to agree would be the minimum required for London to retain his position. Yep, the critics were feeling pretty smug.
Why? As I have written previously, London’s hiring was met with some optimism but also with lots of groans, curses, and dismay. In UVA’s search for another George Welsh, London was seen as a budgetary hire, not a visionary one. Welsh, hired in 1982 and a coaching miracle worker if ever there was one, took a UVA program that had never been to a bowl game and had had just 2 winning seasons in the 29 prior to his arrival and turned it into a model of consistency. He was ACC Coach of the Year four times and National Coach of the Year once. He took UVA to 12 bowl games and to a brief #1 national ranking in 1990. When he retired after the 2000 season he was the ACC’s all-time winningest coach.
At Virginia, of all places. Hapless, forlorn Virginia, a coaching graveyard. Once upon a time a long time ago, when Dick Bestwick was considering whether or not to take the Virginia job, his friend Joe Paterno cautioned him against it. “There’s no way you can succeed there. It’s impossible,” he said. Bestwick didn’t listen. He took the job. And lost, just like most of the coaches who preceded him–and all who followed–until George Welsh came along. No wonder he is UVA’s coaching gold standard.
By comparison, London came to Virginia with limited–albeit successful–head coaching experience. In his only head coaching stint prior to UVA, London compiled a 24-5 record and won a FCS National Championship in his two years at the University of Richmond. Not that he lacked for experience, however. London has been coaching at the college and professional level since 1988 and had served previously as UVA’s defensive coordinator. A Virginia native and a former Richmond Spider defensive back with well-established recruiting relationships in the talent-rich Commonwealth, London’s limited head coaching experience was not as much a consideration as were the intangibles the UVA search committee saw in him. Nevertheless, his hiring in December 2009 was viewed by critics as an admission by UVA that it was unwilling–or perhaps unable given the financial climate at the time–to pay for a big name when there was no way to guarantee a positive outcome. Athletic Director Craig Littlepage and the search committee decided on London, a less-proven and more affordable name, but one with ties to the program and the state. The potential was there for him to succeed, yet his record entering this season was a non-inspiring 18-31. The Mike London experiment looked like a failure.
Well, after surviving a stumble-footed second half against Pitt last weekend, UVA enters its bye week at 4-2 and feeling pretty good about itself. The team is tied with future opponent Georgia Tech for first place in the Coastal Division. It has two weeks to prepare for a very important road tilt against Duke and enters the back half of the season in much better shape than almost anyone would have thought possible in August. Everyone knew that Virginia’s defense would be good (better), but Virginia is now in the enviable position of having three quarterbacks with considerable game experience, an offensive line that has evolved from a question mark into a strength, and a confidence and optimism that has been missing from UVA football since the 2011 Peach Bowl Season. And Mike London? He’s surely breathing just a little easier.
Not that the turnaround is complete. Far from it. If London were a hospital patient, his condition following the Pitt game would have been upgraded from critical to serious. After a weeklong campaign urging fans to turn out to support the team against Pitt, Virginia drew 43,307 for its Saturday night game, 6,407 better than the season’s average of 36,900. It looked, however, that a much better student turnout was the reason for most of the increase. The paying fans still need convincing. In fact, there still is a component of the Virginia fan base that will refuse to be persuaded that London can handle the job. They would much rather see Virginia lose and London be fired. It makes no sense.
These fans sounded off when Virginia lost at home to UCLA to open the season and again when UVA stumbled on the road at BYU three weeks later. “London must go or else we will be so far in the hole we’ll never get out. Fire him now,” they said, paying no heed to the irreparable damage a mid-season coaching change can do. When Virginia beat Richmond, Louisville, Kent State, and Pitt these critics proclaimed that UVA won only because these teams are no good. This is a classic example of confirmation bias–data analysis to fit a pre-conceived notion. Since London is a bad coach, the only way Virginia can be winning is if its opponents are worse. That’s their stance and they are sticking with it, even as the ice supporting that position melts away underneath them. Virginia–and London’s–task is not simply to prove these people wrong, but to win back their ticket-buying and annual-giving loyalty.
College football attendance is on the wane and even winning programs struggle to maintain a full house, so Virginia’s challenge is even more daunting. Everyone loves a winner though and a winning season and a bowl game would do wonders for Virginia’s beaten-up fan base. Fan loyalty would ramp up exponentially if the Cavaliers can mix in a win this year over Virginia Tech. The annual game has gotten so one-sided that it scarcely can even be called a rivalry anymore. But’s that’s getting ahead of things. One game at a time, goes the cliché.
Maybe a win in the Virginia Tech game could even overcome confirmation bias, however.

Is Virginia the New Duke?

2013 was a season of change in college football. A team from the ACC instead of the SEC won the national championship, college football bid farewell to the BCS, and Maryland decided it was a good idea to risk a $ 52M exit penalty to join the Big 10. Closer to home, Duke won 10 games while Virginia lost 10 games inspiring even the not-so-cynical among us to ask “Is Virginia the new Duke?” Maybe, but then again, maybe not.
If we are looking across the sports spectrum to include basketball, in his 6th year as head coach of the Duke basketball program, Mike Krzyzewski won both the ACC regular season and tournament championships and made it to the finals of the NCAA tournament. In only his 5th year, Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett won both the ACC regular season and tournament championships and made it to the sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. So is UVa becoming the new Duke? Looking at the basketball programs, in the instructional words of the Magic 8-Ball “signs point to yes”.
Football is a different story. For 40 years, starting in 1975, Duke set the standard for futility in college football. During that span, Duke had 6 winning seasons which ironically also equals the number of seasons in which Duke won 1 game or less. That’s 1.5 winning seasons per decade, perfectly balanced by 1.5 seasons with no more than 1 win. Last year’s 10-win season was the first winning season for Duke football since 1994. For the few brave souls who went to the Duke football games, that’s a lot of games where the entire second half is spent at the tailgate (not that there is anything wrong with that.)
Over the same 40 year time span, Virginia had 23 winning seasons and 3 seasons with 1 win, the last of which came in George Welsh’ first season in 1982. During the past 10 years, which have admittedly been tough sledding for Virginia football, UVa had 4 winning seasons. By contrast, Duke had one winning season. Based on won/loss records over the past 4 decades and even the past 10 years, the assertion that Virginia is the new Duke is a stretch.
While the direction of the Virginia program over the past 5 years is alarming, as noted in prior posts, Virginia football is not struggling on the recruiting trail, which represents another point of departure from Duke football. Over the past 10 years, which includes 2 lean years at the merciful conclusion of the Al Groh debacle, on average Virginia’s recruiting classes ranked 37th nationally. By contrast Duke’s recruiting classes ranked 62nd. More importantly, over the past 5 years, the recruiting class differential has widened slightly with Virginia maintaining an average national class rank of 37th while Duke slipped to 67Th.
Chatting up a comparison of Duke and UVa football draws mixed reviews from the Virginia faithful. However, those stressed that we are devolving into the new Duke of ACC football are jumping the gun, worrying needlessly…which is something Virginia fans do well.
While Virginia has a long road to travel before we become the new “Duke” of college football, there are some things we can take away from the newfound success of Duke football. 1) Coaching Matters. David Cutcliffe’s work at Duke is just short of miraculous…close to but not eclipsing the miracle Mets of 1969. Cutcliffe won 16 games the past two years with talent that was not highly ranked, but that played within themselves and fit into Cutcliffe’s systems. Kudos to Coach Cutcliffe, he won in a job that had been a coaching graveyard since Steve Spurrier stopped in Durham for a cup of coffee. 2) Patience Pays Off. Duke didn’t turn the ship around in a year or even 5 years. It took 6 years of recruiting the right players, building the right culture, and avoiding the temptation of head coaching quick-fixes to quell anxious fans and donors. Virginia has a re-tooled coaching staff entering its second year in the program. We all want to win and win now, but we need let the players learn the systems and the coaches build a culture of winning. 3) Winning Cures Many Ills. We all know this. We saw it with our own miracle worker when George Welsh took a perpetually floundering Virginia program and put it football on the map. Is Virginia football turning into the new Duke? It hasn’t yet and won’t if we stay the course. The Magic 8-Ball tells us to “ask again later”.

UVA: Recruiting Wins Cause for Optimism?

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Mike London needs to convert recruiting wins into actual wins in 2014.

For modern-day Virginia football fans, the George Welsh-era casts a light of hopeful illumination over a program that last year endured its worst-season since 1982.  Lauded as one of the greatest turnaround artists in college football history, Welsh took the University of Virginia (and the Naval Academy before that) to heights not scaled since his retirement in 2000.  His UVA record of 134-86-3 included 14 consecutive years with at least seven wins and proved conclusively that UVA could win despite its reputation for academic rigor. If it was done once it can be done again, Virginia fans insist. They are still waiting.
Welsh’s successors have proved unable to maintain the momentum he established and UVA since then could be characterized as a program in a steadily decaying orbit. Following Welsh’s (some say forced) retirement UVA turned to Al Groh and under his direction the program had several memorable years. Fans had hope. The 2002 team won 9 games. The 2004 squad started 5-0 and reached #6 in the national polls. The 2007 team won 9 games, with an NCAA record five of those wins coming by two points or less.
Groh was winning at an acceptable rate but cracks began to appear in the program.  While UVA had seemingly settled into a “seven wins and a bowl game” mindset, rival Virginia Tech was coming on fast.  UVA fans vociferously objected when Virginia Tech joined the ACC in 2004, sensing that ACC affiliation was all that stood between Virginia Tech and state football supremacy. They were right. Virginia has not beaten Tech since.  Tech’s on-field success and ACC status made the school dominant in recruiting in-state talent.  Virginia produces football talent at a level just below powerhouse states Texas, Florida, and California and keeping that talent at home is a priority for the state’s Division 1 coaches. Groh wasn’t doing that.  There were reports that Groh had strained relations with coaches at some of the state’s top high school programs, especially those in the talent-rich Tidewater area.  Eventually, Groh’s inability to recruit in-state talent, his surliness with fans and the media, his record against Tech, his willingness to burn red-shirts to no real advantage, and UVA fans’ abandonment of the program cost Groh his job. He was let go at the end of the 2009 season.
The Cavaliers turned then to Mike London, a former Groh assistant and a coach who had guided the Richmond Spiders to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) National Championship in 2008.  UVA fans hoping for a big name to make a recruiting splash perceived this as a questionable hire. UVA, however, was sensitive to criticism it received for having to buy out the remainder of Groh’s contract during a time of dwindling state financial support and resultant budgetary cuts.  With already good in-state recruiting ties, London was, financially at least, a lower risk.
Like Groh before him, London delivered a season early on that gave UVA fans reason for optimism.  His 2011 team won 8 games before getting steamrolled by Auburn in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.   Virginia stumbled in 2012, losing 8 of its last 10 to finish 4-8. Fan nervousness was offset partially by the fact that London appeared to be a players’ coach and was once again bringing top-level in-state and national talent to Charlottesville.  UVA fans logically believed that London’s recruiting wins were a precursor to gridiron success.  The one-sided nature of the Virginia Tech rivalry remained an issue, however. The 17-14 loss in 2012 was as close as UVA had gotten since a loss by the same score in 2008.
Last year, the program crashed. Hard. A season that began with a somewhat surprising and frankly miraculous win over BYU was followed the next week by a 59-10 home loss to #2 Oregon that gave UVA fans a very clear picture of where the program stood in its quest for national relevance.  After cruising past an overmatched VMI team that UVA had no business playing, nine consecutive opponents bested Virginia and exposed all of the team’s flaws.  The losing streak was attributed to new offensive and defensive schemes, new coordinators, a largely untested QB, a shaky offensive line, bad game management, and lack of upper class depth.  A program that had struggled for a decade to stay afloat lost all buoyancy, posting an oh’fer in the ACC and dropping to the bottom quartile of many national statistical rankings.
All struggling programs sell optimism when wins are scarce and UVA is doing some hard selling this year. Despite its 2-10 record UVA had a very good recruiting year, garnering commitments from twin Tidewater 5-stars DL Andrew Brown and S Quin Blanding and several other highly-touted in-state and national recruits.  With Brown, Blanding and last year’s 5-star addition, RB Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell, in uniform this year, UVA likely will have more talent than at any time since the Welsh era.   Last year’s very young team is a year older and returns 9 starters on a defense led by senior All-American safety Anthony Harris.  Highly recruited Greyson Lambert has supplanted the popular-but-ineffective David Watford at QB. Lambert will have the luxury of handing off to Mizzell and Kevin Parks, the ACC’s only returning 1000-yard rusher. The transfer of senior TE Jake McGee to Florida no doubt hurts the passing game but sophomore Keeon Johnson flashed big play potential last year and Lambert will have ample receiving talent at his disposal.
This team certainly does not lack for talent and London’s recruiting ability has gained him another year to try to turn this program around.  Virginia was one of only 8 teams to sign more than one 5-star recruit last year and the only one with a losing record. With more game experience this team should show better execution on both sides of the ball.  There is no guarantee that this additional depth and experience will show up in the win column because every one of UVA’s 2014 FBS opponents was bowl eligible last year.
Most pundits predict that UVA will need to gain bowl eligibility this year for London to keep his job. London has proven his prowess as a recruiter but ultimately recruiting wins are not as important as actual wins. It is time to turn this impressive collection of individual talent into a winning team. If UVA flounders around at the bottom of the Coastal Division again no number of recruiting wins will save his job.