Chris Graham: Mike London stocks the cupboard for his successor
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Apologists for embattled UVa. football coach Mike London begin their defense of the Cavs’ awful 2-10 2013 season by pointing out how young the team was this year – with just seven seniors seeing action.
The notion advanced along with this defense is that London’s first three recruiting classes, all in or around the Rivals Top 25, will get better with age, and with that recruiting haul that London has coming in 2014, with two consensus Top 10 recruits, 757 stalwarts Quin Blanding and Andrew Brown.
Before we get too far into the recruiting haul of 2014, here’s something to sober the London apologists. Even with two Top 10 recruits, the class overall is ranked 43rd in the nation by Rivals, which would make the 2014 class the lowest-rated UVa. incoming class since Al Groh’s last class, in 2009.
There is more fruit to be borne, clearly. To date, Virginia has secured commitments from just 13 incoming freshmen, and if you average out the ratings on those 13, the class, currently in the middle of the pack in the ACC, becomes the ACC’s best, which is saying a lot when you’re competing with the likes of #1 Florida State, perennial BCS contenders Clemson and Virginia Tech and the likes of Georgia Tech and Miami thrown in there for good measure.
But you’ve still got to add more numbers to the class to add depth to a threadbare roster, and that might prove difficult with a program in flux. Virginia lost its last nine games to finish 2-10, went winless in the ACC for the first time in 32 years, and has put up six losing seasons in the last eight years.
London, apparently having survived his third losing season in four years at the helm, will need to hit the recruiting trail, and hard, and even assuming that he has more success along the lines of Blanding and Brown, it’s still not hard to imagine that he won’t get to enjoy the results of his hard work.
Adding two consensus Top 10 recruits in football is nothing at all like doing the same thing in basketball, where players can get on the court and get assimilated to the college game pretty quickly (and where often Top 10 recruits are thinking of themselves as being a year away from the NBA, so the quicker they can get to it, the better).
True freshmen as impact players are few and far between, even in an era where we had a freshman win the 2012 Heisman Trophy (Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel) and the frontrunner for the 2013 Heisman is another freshman (FSU QB Jameis Winston). Both broke onto the scene as redshirt freshmen, taking a redshirt year that will be a luxury that London can’t afford in 2014.
Anything resembling the 2-10 debacle that by all rights should get London fired this week will surely get him fired this time next year, and an early look at the 2014 UVa. football schedule portends that kind of doom. The ‘Hoos open Aug. 30 with UCLA, then travel two weeks later to BYU. Also on the schedule are road games at the #1 ‘Noles, their opponents in this week’s ACC Championship Game, Duke, the two teams that finished just out of the running for the title game, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, home games with Coastal Division rivals Miami, UNC and Pitt, oh, and just for fun, an inaugural ACC matchup against Louisville, which is 10-1 this season heading into its finale this weekend.
The only games on the schedule that we can expect UVa. to be favored going into – FCS opponent Richmond, which will bring to town two former UVa. quarterbacks, Michael Strauss and Michael Rocco, and Kent State, which finished 2013 with a 4-8 record, but played better against common opponent Ball State (in a 27-24 loss on Oct. 12) than Virginia did (in a 48-27 UVa. loss a week earlier, on Oct. 5).
Maybe Pitt at home. Maybe. Maybe UNC at home. Probably not, but maybe.
London’s 2014 team could do well to go 4-8. But does 4-8 in his fifth year keep London on the job?
This isn’t necessarily talked about much around the UVa. Nation these days, but George Welsh’s fifth team went 3-8 in 1986. Welsh put up three consecutive winning seasons heading into 1986, including a program-defining win in the 1984 Peach Bowl, but the ’86 Cavs started slow and fell with a thud, losing five of their last six, including an embarrassing home loss to William and Mary and back-to-back blowout losses to UNC and Maryland to end the season.
The 1987 ‘Hoos went 8-4 and won the All-American Bowl, and two years later Virginia won 10 games and played in the program’s first New Year’s Day Bowl, and Welsh didn’t have another losing season in his final 14 years.
It’s more acknowledged what Frank Beamer survived down at Virginia Tech. After a so-so 6-5 record in his fourth year, in 1990, the Hokies slipped to 5-6 in Beamer’s fifth year in 1991, and sank to 2-8-1 in 1992, Beamer’s sixth year the helm.
It was almost a given that Beamer was toast at that point, but the administration famously stuck with the coach, and his 1993 team went 9-3 and won the Independence Bowl, and by 1995 Tech was a 10-game winner playing in the Sugar Bowl.
That the mid-1980s and even the mid-1990s were a different era in college football is understood well today. Scott Stadium and Lane Stadium were years away from expensive renovations that took seating capacities from the low-40,000s to the low-60,000s, and head coaches in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t command anything close to the mid-two-million range that both London and Beamer get from their athletics departments today.
London even getting a fifth year is something that neither Welsh nor Beamer could have expected if they were young coaches in the mid-2010s and not a generation ago.
So to answer the question from a few paragraphs above: no, most certainly, 4-8 (or worse, and it’s likely to be worse) doesn’t get London back for a sixth season in 2015.
Which now brings us back to the recruiting trail. Many congratulations to London for landing Blanding and Brown, and best of luck using those two to build a megaclass that can bring some Ws to that portion of the UVa. fan base that remains after six losing seasons in eight years maybe around 2016 or 2017.
Unfortunately, Mike, you’re not going to be there to claim those Ws on your resume. You’ll be coaching up a defensive line somewhere else in FBS while your successor game plans for bowl games with kids that you helped bring to Charlottesville. Sorry, but that’s just the way this is going to work out.