Strap yourselves in Virginia fans, Mike London is going to be running the Cavalier program in 2015. Some fans will give a reserved cheer, others will throw their hands up in disgust and exclaim they will never enter Scott Stadium again until a coaching change is made. By the way, this is a decades-old threat from Virginia fans who frequently lay down the gauntlet, but rarely follow through. The rant goes something like this: “If (fill in the blank – Sonny Randall, Dick Bestwick, Al Groh, Mike London) is coaching this team next year, I’m not going to another game until he’s gone, maybe ever again!” Okay! See you next year! Don’t forget to send in your VAF donation early so you get the most points for your parking spot.
Mike London is coming back and here is why:
While improving over the 2013 edition of Virginia football is an horrifically low bar to clear, the 2014 team is not a bad team by any measure. They are not a good team yet, but they are a much better team than 2013 and I would argue much better than 2012 as well.
For starters, the defense is good to very good. First team All-ACC running backs James Conner and Duke Johnson average 146 and 130 yards rushing per game. Against Virginia, they had 83 and 88 yards respectively. The Virginia defense is ranked 26th nationally in total defense. It has sacked opposing quarterbacks 32 times (18th nationally) and generated 26 turnovers (12th nationally). Virginia played the toughest schedule in the ACC and the defense kept the Cavaliers in every game, Georgia Tech excepted. Led by the All-ACC play of senior linebacker Henry Coley, Virginia is a defense that teams don’t want to play. Jon Tenuta has shown himself to be a top-shelf coordinator and has put a very solid unit on the field.
There is no question that offense has been more of a struggle for Virginia this season and frankly is the reason why Virginia football is 5-6 after 11 games and hence, why many Virginia fans are clamoring for a coaching change. However, despite the problems on offense, there have been several bright spots as well. The Virginia offensive line was predicted by all prognosticators to be the weak link in the Virginia program. A makeshift group with no clear leaders, many predicted that Virginia’s young quarterbacks would spend the 2014 season running for their lives. In a delicious twist of irony, the Virginia offensive line has been the brightest of bright spots for the Virginia program. The Virginia OL has given up a scant 12 sacks through 11 games, and delivered multiple games yielding zero sacks including this past week’s win against Miami. The Virginia running game has improved throughout the year. In the second half of Saturday’s win, the Virginia offensive line imposed its will on Miami, running on all but 5 plays, moving the ball consistently. The Virginia wide receiving corps has been more than capable in 2014 and shows great promise moving forward. The Virginia quarterbacks have delivered 17 touchdowns against 15 interceptions. While this is not the ratio Virginia fans hoped for in 2014, it is a marked improvement over 2013. There are clearly areas for improvement on offense. Tight end play has been deficient and interceptions have been too frequent and unusually ill-timed. Play calling has been questionable, with the screen pass being the most predictable, over-used, and under-performing play in the Virginia arsenal. Steve Fairchild bears much of the responsibility for the struggles on offense. The running-back-by-committee seems to take Kevin Parks out of his rhythm and the lack of commitment to the vertical passing game has made the Virginia offense predictable and therefore easier to defend.
Despite the noted shortcomings, this team is not far from turning the corner. A wholesale cleansing of the coaching staff would likely set Virginia back instead of keeping forward momentum. The reality is, Virginia is one badly botched screen pass against UNC from delivering enough on-field success to keep a restless and impatient fan base in check. Looking at the schedule before the season began, most fans would have been reasonably pleased with a 6-6 season. Given the early success of the program, the fan base got greedy, and now 5-7 or even 6-6 is reason to go through the cost and disruption of a coaching change. It’s not happening.
There is another big reason Mike London is coming back, field performance aside. The donor community and the administration don’t want him gone yet. Mike London brings a lot to the University of Virginia and its stakeholders. The Virginia program, from all indications to the public, is a solid group of admirable young men. Graduation rates are up and disciplinary problems are down. When Virginia administrators, donors, and fans read about the garbage going on at Florida State and UNC, everyone looks thankfully to Mike London as a leader who shares the ideals that are important to UVa community.
On balance, it was a bad week for the University. Given the publicity of the Rolling Stone article and the pressure that will bring for Virginia to take a leadership position in driving structural change to better protect its students, the last thing UVa needs right now is to fire its head football coach, which smacks of “business as usual” and focusing on the wrong things. All eyes are on Virginia right now, and the clear focus needs to be on addressing sexual assault problems, not mollifying impatient football fans. Mike London will be back in 2015. I have seen enough improvement in the program to be glad about it. If UVa is going to make headlines with changes in its leadership, it needs to be centered on addressing the problems on grounds that threaten the well-being of its students, not quibbling over whether 6 wins is good enough to keep the coaching staff in place.