Mike London has posted an 18-27 record midway through his fourth season at the University of Virginia. The Cavaliers are 2-6 this year with just a single win against a BCS opponent—a three-point home victory over Brigham Young to open the season. And they still have to face the likes of Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech.
The season came apart on October 5, when Ball State blew out Virginia in Charlottesville 48-27. After that loss, Mike Robinson asked in the Virginian-Pilot, “Can someone explain why London should be at helm?” after yet another collapse against a seemingly inferior opponent at home. Robinson pointed to a September 2012 loss to Louisiana Tech, the start of a 3-8 run against FBS opponents. Actually, make that 3-11 after the most recent losses at Maryland and at home to Duke and Georgia Tech.
Duke is a particular sore spot for Virginia fans. Former Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils have beaten London’s Cavaliers in three of their last four meetings. On October 19, Duke rallied from a 22-0 deficit to score 35 unanswered points against Virginia. After that debacle, Ben Gibson of Bleacher Report sounded the alarm to fire London, particularly in light of cratering fan interest. “With a crowd of well under 40,000 people in an ACC contest,” Gibson said, “the writing on the wall should be perfectly clear.”
Yet faced with the very real prospect of losing out and finishing 2-10, London is in no immediate danger. Local columnists like Jerry Ratcliffe of the Charlottesville Daily Progress have toed the Virginia administration’s line in support of the beleaguered coach: “Virginia athletics director Craig Littlepage told this columnist on Oct. 6 that London will be back as the Cavaliers’ head coach next season regardless of how this season plays out.” Ratcliffe emphasized that senior Virginia officials—meaning President Theresa Sullivan—are firmly behind Littlepage and London.
History Is Doomed to Repeat Itself
We’ve all heard athletic directors and presidents back coaches “100%” just before firing them. Southern California athletic director Pat Haden made similar vows before the season about Lane Kiffin, only to fire the unpopular coach in an airport parking lot after returning from Arizona State. But Virginia’s misplaced faith in London appears genuine. Bleacher Report’s Gibson noted Virginia’s Littlepage “does not care about the result; he cares about the bottom line.”
It would be expensive to fire London and his staff—which includes former Boston College and North Carolina State head coach Tom O’Brien—after this season. Virginia would be on the hook for upwards of $10 million in buyouts. Despite producing little more than a single 8-4 season, London is paid over $2.5 million annually.
There’s also no risk to Littlepage’s future. Earlier this month, Virginia’s board of visitors extended Littlepage’s tenure for five more years. Littlepage has spent the past 25 years at Virginia, rising from an assistant men’s basketball coach to athletic director. He hired London in 2009 after firing Al Groh.
Littlepage’s mismanagement of the football program has been evident for years. In 2005 he extended Groh and doubled his salary to $2 million—after an 8-4 season that ended in a bowl loss to Fresno State. Groh responded by producing three losing seasons over the next four years. After Groh was fired, Dave Fairbank of the Hampton Roads Daily Press wanted to know just what did Littlepage and Virginia officials expect would happen when they extended Groh: “Did they honestly believe that a coach who was 30-21 at the time and just four games above .500 in a mediocre BCS conference — a league that, by the way, had just upgraded with the additions of Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College — was poised to elevate the program?”
Groh’s biggest qualification for the Virginia job was that he was an alumni. He’d been out of college football for 15 years before returning to his alma mater. Still, he managed to compile a bunch of eight- and nine-win seasons, which is about the maximum return Littlepage seems to expect from his football coach.
Not surprisingly, Littlepage did not look too far outside of his comfort zone in replacing Groh. London was working down the road as head coach at the University of Richmond. London, Groh’s former defensive coordinator, inherited a talented Richmond team that won the FCS championship his first year. After the second year, London returned to Virginia, confidant he could quickly rebuild a Cavaliers squad that went 3-9 Groh’s final season.
Even today, London is hailed as a terrific recruiter. But his recruiting talent largely extends to the Commonwealth of Virginia, where he’s spent virtually his entire career. London has no track record of developing talent capable of competing at the FBS level. Indeed, London helped recruit many of the Virginia players whose poor performance got Groh fired.
We’re Not In the SEC Anymore, Toto
If London were a fourth-year coach at any SEC program, he’d probably have been fired after the Duke debacle last Saturday. Administrators (and local writers) certainly wouldn’t be promising his return in 2014. Consider some memorable recent SEC firings. Tennessee jettisoned Derek Dooley after three losing seasons. Ole Miss fired Houston Nutt in 2011 after finishing 2-10 in his fourth season—the same record London may post. And then there was Ron Zook, who was fired after three winning seasons that didn’t meet the championship expectations of fans and administrators.
But at Virginia, fans and administrators are not on the same page. Craig Littlepage, who comes from a basketball background in a basketball conference, sees on-field success as secondary to off-field accounting wizardry. In 2012, Littlepage convinced the board of visitors to raise ticket prices in spite of declining attendance. He claimed it was more important to keep prices in line with other ACC schools, lest Virginia be perceived poorly. But there was a method to Littlepage’s madness. Last month, the Daily Progress reported Virginia “is on pace to set a single-season record for ticket revenues.”
How is this possible with a 2-6 team–winless in the ACC–with no hope and declining fan and alumni interest? Because Littlepage scheduled eight home games for Virginia this year, including season-opening contests against Brigham Young and Oregon. The Oregon game was a fiasco for London’s team—a 59-10 drubbing—and Virginia only managed to beat BYU by a field goal. Both games produced packed crowds, however, albeit mostly due to traveling fans of the other team.
The Oregon sellout was enough to mollify cost-conscious administrators and ensure Littlepage’s own contract extension. The fact that it setup the actual football team to fail was merely an unfortunate side effect. Littlepage is more than happy to accept London’s excuse, made after the Duke loss, that “the process that’s going on here is one that, although painstakingly slow, is a process that will be successful.”
Would anyone accept such talk about “process” from Will Muschamp, who is already under fire at Florida for starting 4-3 a year after going 11-2? Ask Gene Chizik about a “painstakingly process” when he was run out of Auburn with pitchforks after going 3-9 just two years removed from a national championship. Good programs demand accountability. Bad programs hide behind talk of process.
That’s not to say Virginia could, or should, adopt an SEC mentality towards football. There’s nothing wrong with being in the football middle class. Craig Littlepage’s cardinal sin is that he continues to overpay for bad results, then acts like the act of overpaying somehow makes Virginia a major football program. Virginia is more than willing to invest in football, it’s just not willing to demand results in return.
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S.M. Oliva is a writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia.