At a time when the athletic program at the University of Virginia is enjoying almost total success, finishing fourth in the most recent Capital One Cup standings, there is the pesky little matter of the Cavaliers’ football team. Virginia Cavaliers head coach Mike London enters his fifth year in Charlottesville having gone 18-31 on the field and just 8-24 in the ACC. Five of those wins came in 2011, when the Cavaliers shocked the ACC and the nation with a Chick-fil-A Bowl berth.
But while the baseball team nearly won the national championship, the men’s basketball team won the ACC and made the Sweet 16 and the school continues to have success in other sports (national titles in five different sports since 2003, eight NCAA titles total), the football program is weighing the university down like a 10,000-pound anchor. London is just 6-18 the last two seasons, and in 2013, Virginia failed to even win one conference game, going 0-8 and finishing last in the Coastal Division. Virginia hadn’t gone winless in the conference since 1981, and that was only a six-game schedule.
So the easy answer for most folks, of course, is to fire London. But it’s not easy. Under London’s leadership, the Cavaliers are enjoying a significant renaissance in recruiting. While not deep in its 2014 recruiting class, the landing of two five-star recruits has turned heads. And it’s where those recruits came from that highlights the Mike London problem. Both defensive back Quin Blanding (Bayside) and defensive tackle Andrew Brown (Oscar Smith) come from the vaunted “757”, or the Tidewater region of Virginia.
This has been an area where for many years Virginia Tech destroyed Virginia in recruiting, and it’s one of the main reasons why the Hokies developed into a reliable national powerhouse for over a decade,while the Cavaliers stumbled. Now, Virginia has seemingly forgotten even how to crawl, yet Blanding and Brown eagerly signed on in Charlottesville, with Brown even enrolling early. Both are the No. 1 recruits at their position according to Rivals.com.
Were both to lead Virginia to any level of success, the path from the Tidewater to Charlottesville will only grow more worn. That both picked UVA and not Virginia Tech is potentially huge for the future. But what can they do with London the head coach, rather than London the recruiter? Virginia won two games last year, and one was over FCS-school VMI. The other was a head-scratcher over BYU that many folks still aren’t sure how the Cavaliers prevailed. UVA was actually 2-1 before losing nine straight.
While plenty of the recruiting credit also has to go to coordinator Chip West, London has brought a charisma to recruiting that is paying dividends. But on the field, it hasn’t worked. If the Cavaliers go 4-8 this year and 1-7 in the ACC, is that enough for London to stay? Can Virginia afford to let him go and risk cutting off the inroads made for recruiting in the Tidewater, thus setting the program back even further? Who could UVA hire?
The only answer here that works is Virginia must win in 2014. UVA doesn’t have to win 10, and they won’t. But Virginia has to at least be competitive and a bowl trip wouldn’t hurt. Even if that bowl game is a reward for a pedestrian 7-5 or 6-6 season, pedestrian would feel way better than getting walked all over a season ago.
Brown and Blanding have an eye toward the future, and you have to love the fact that both want to be a part of building a program. They can be the football team’s version of Joe Harris, who stuck around for four years on the Virginia basketball team and saw it reach heights not seen in 30 years under coach Tony Bennett. That occurred in Bennett’s fifth year, with a slow build from mediocrity to potential national power.
This is London’s fifth year, and it will not be easy. Home games vs. UCLA, Louisville, North Carolina and Miami balance a road schedule that features BYU, Duke, Florida State and Virginia Tech. The season ends with the games against FSU, Miami and Virginia Tech, which is quite the gauntlet. If you assume Virginia goes 0-3 in that stretch, the Cavaliers must be 6-3 or 7-2 entering it to make a bowl.
In short, London must now win on the field like he is winning off it. It’s the only way to answer the biggest sports question at the University of Virginia.