All angles: Is Mike London finally done at UVA?

Mike-LondonOne reader adroitly observed that I can be good at talking out of both sides of my mouth when it comes to talking about the future of UVA football coach Mike London.

I blame my law-school training for that, but in any case, the mental gymnastics come to an end this weekend, one way or the other.

London is either retained, win or lose against Virginia Tech on Saturday, or he isn’t. End of story.

The only thing that is certain as I write this column on the eve of the Commonwealth Clash is that anyone telling you they know for sure what’s going to happen is utterly full of it.

That much was evident in the media workroom at JPJ Wednesday night. Whatever level of certainty you seemed to get from any individual media member was tempered with some version of, Seriously, they have to be getting rid of the guy, right?

Which is to say, the people who would be in the best position, outside of, say, Craig Littlepage and Jon Oliver, to know, don’t know.

I agree that logic would seem to dictate a change. Such was also the case a couple of weeks ago, a year ago, two years ago, and we are where we are.

It’s worth the lawyer in me taking on one last exercise to explore all angles as what could be the final hours of the London regime count down.

 

On the field

This one should be easiest. London’s teams are 27-45 in his six seasons at Virginia, and 14-33 in ACC play. His predecessor, Al Groh, was fired after nine seasons that saw his teams go 59-54 overall and 36-36 in ACC play.

A side-by-side comparison would look at Groh’s last six seasons: his record in that stretch was 37-38 overall and 23-25 in the ACC.

That got Groh fired.

Even in his last four seasons, in which Virginia had three losing records, Groh’s teams were 22-27 overall and 15-17.

London’s record on the field is Dick Bestwick-like.

Searching for any excuse to keep him on: George Welsh was 25-29-2 overall and 13-17-2 in his first five seasons back in the early ‘80s, and the Cavs were just 3-8 in his fifth season, in 1986, before turning things around in 1987, going 8-4 to start a streak of 14 straight winning seasons.

That ’86 season, incidentally, was not even a good 3-8. It included a 41-37 loss at home to William & Mary, a 20-10 loss at Navy, which finished that season with three wins, and a 20-13 loss at Duke, which finished with four wins.

Yeah, ugly.

But Welsh had built up considerable goodwill from putting up three straight winning seasons heading into 1986. His head was nowhere near any chopping blocks, and his seat wasn’t even lukewarm.

London’s struggles this season are the tail end of a four-year stretch of losing seasons. Whatever goodwill he had built up after his lone winning season in 2011 evaporated sometime during the nine-game losing streak that closed out the 2013 season.

 

This year, next year

But the Cavs feel thisclose to getting it turned around, don’t they? The embarrassing 56-14 loss to Boise State in Week 4 aside, Virginia has been competitive throughout, taking Notre Dame (10-1) to the final seconds in a 34-27 loss in Week 2, holding UNC (10-1) to an ACC-low 26 points in a loss in Week 7, dropping one-score games to Pitt (8-3), Miami (7-4) and Louisville (6-5), beating preseason Coastal Division favorite Georgia Tech, Duke and Syracuse at home.

UVA returns 38 of the 52 players listed on its two-deep chart this week, including quarterback Matt Johns (2,639 yards passing, 19 TDs/15 INTs), tailback Taquan Mizzell (1,365 yards from scrimmage, eight TDs), seven of the 11 offensive linemen listed on this week’s two-deep, and the top four tacklers on the defense (Micah Kiser, Quin Blanding, Kelvin Rainey, Zach Bradshaw).

A deep, experienced team will see a much tamped down schedule in 2016. After a non-conference schedule in 2015 that had the Cavs facing UCLA, Notre Dame, William & Mary and Boise State, the ’16 schedule has tilts out of conference against Richmond, Oregon, Connecticut and Central Michigan. The ACC schedule has Virginia playing Wake Forest and Louisville from the Atlantic Division in addition to the usual run of Coastal Division teams.

It’s a manageable schedule, let’s put it that way. Six, seven, maybe eight wins there, whoever is coaching ‘em up.

 

Economics

So we go negative to start, looking at what London has done, then try to inject positive, looking at what next year might bring on the field.

Now we go negative again. The economics of Virginia football almost certainly dictate a change.

All you have to do is look at more-than-half-empty stadiums the past few weeks to get that sense. Even for tomorrow’s game with Virginia Tech, my wife, a Tech alum, was able to buy tickets online through VirginiaSports.com for lower-level seats on Wednesday.

UVA is averaging 41,536 per home date in 2015. Before the school spent $86 million on an expansion in the late ‘90s, the capacity at Scott Stadium was 42,500.

That’s a lot of money. A quick run of the money spent in 1997 on the expansion has the value at $127.3 million in 2015 dollars.

Either way, it’s a lot of money to add 19,000 empty seats.

Back to the schedule for a second: that 2016 schedule that is more favorable for the team on the field is awful from the perspective of sports marketing. The home games are Richmond, Central Michigan, Louisville, Miami, North Carolina and Pitt.

Whoever is coach next year, there’s not going to be a lot of demand for season tickets. Maybe if the team wins some games, the late-season slate can see decent traffic from walk-up. Maybe.

And that isn’t going to get better anytime soon. The 2017 home schedule has William & Mary, Indiana, Connecticut, Boston College, Duke, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

When you look at it from a schedule perspective, it’s going to be hard to sell tickets for a few years down the road, win or lose.

That’s how far Virginia football has sunk.

Bottom line: the best hope from an economics standpoint is going to be putting a winner on the field. Easier said than done, as the recent run of aspirations to mediocrity would indicate.

 

Final verdict: Back, or gone?

I’ve made the case, in a pair of columns, for the justifications that Littlepage, Oliver and others on the admin side could offer for keeping London for the last year of his deal.

I’m not a betting man, oddly, considering how in effect I gambled everything 13 years ago in quitting my day job to launch Augusta Free Press, when nobody else was doing online-only news, and rolled the dice and won, big.

So I guess I should say, I’m not afraid to play when the odds are in my favor.

I’m literally the only guy in the UVA media who seems to think that it’s not a foregone conclusion that Mike London isn’t spending his last weekend as the head coach at Virginia.

And yes, it’s awfully lonely over here in this corner by myself.

I’m trying hard not to project my own feelings onto the story in trying to guess how the powers-that-be are going to handle the post-game tomorrow and Sunday.

The fan in me, the alum in me, the sportswriter in me, the marketing guy in me, the businessman in me, all agree on what the school needs to do.

What they will do: best guess, he wins tomorrow, he’s still around next year.

I really think he’s coaching for his job, odd as that is to think, and odder that it would be if it actually turns out to be the case.

– Column by Chris Graham


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