Bad money after good: UVA preparing to enter football arms race

uva footballWhat UVA football needs to get to the top: more strength coaches, more analysts, that nice, new $65 million football operations center that Craig Littlepaige had been working on.

In short, more money thrown at the football program.

This was the message last week from new Virginia athletics director Carla Williams to what was described in media reports as select members of the UVA sports beat corps.

I, ahem, was not part of that select group, and since I wasn’t asked to carry anybody’s water, I won’t.

Speaking as a Virginia alum, first, my approach has always been, if you’re going to do something, be the best at it, whatever it is, and for the longest time, the effort with UVA football has been falling far short of the mark.

But, is it really as simple as support staff and facilities?

I’m thinking of what Duke has done the past several years under David Cutcliffe when I ask that question.

Remember how former UVA coach Al Groh famously warned the administration at the tail end of his tenure that if significant investments and concessions in terms of admissions policies weren’t made, then Virginia ran the risk of becoming Duke?

Well, as Groh was finishing up his tenure, which he had begun yammering about winning national championships, with three losing seasons in his last four years, Cutcliffe was handed the keys to the Duke football program.

Cutcliffe took over as the head coach at Duke in 2008, after the program had posted 2-9, 1-10, 0-12 and 1-11 seasons under Ted Roof, who had taken the reins from Carl Franks, whose teams had two winless seasons, in 2000 and 2001, after Fred Goldsmith had been let go after finishing up a five-year run that included another winless season, in 1996.

Basically the situation at Duke had been, do your five years, then it’s somebody else’s turn.

The program had been to three bowl games in the previous half-century.

Cutcliffe had Duke bowling by his fifth season, and has taken the program to bowls in five of its last six seasons, including a 10-win season and ACC Championship Game appearance in 2013.

And for much of that time, Duke played its home games in a dump, no offense to Wallace Wade Stadium, which hosted a Rose Bowl during World War II. But calling it a dump was being generous, and even with recent upgrades, the stadium is still several steps away from being on anything akin to a level playing field with the rest of the Power 5, and it’s often at far less than capacity on football Saturdays.

UVA, for its part, threw a ton of millions of dollars of money at Scott Stadium in the late ‘90s, expanding capacity from 42,500 to 61,500, not that we’ve seen anywhere near 61,500 in the stadium in years, dropped another Brinks truck full of cash on an indoor practice facility, paid Groh and his successor, Mike London, quite handsomely, and … bubkus.

To hear the story be told now, though, all the program needs is an infusion of cash. I’m reading estimates of $60 million to $65 million on this new football operations center, which I presume will have the latest in recruiting-driven drivel like video-game stations and fancy slides in addition to the weight-room and office space.

This in conjunction with, and also on top of, the identified need with University Hall, the basketball arena that won’t go away, in large part because of the cost to do something with it. I’m reading that no one is talking about projected costs for demolition and future use of the space, but I’m remembering from my reporting for the book Mad About U: Four Decades of Basketball at University Hall, the book that I wrote with Patrick Hite on the history of the arena back in 2006, that the estimates back then were that it was going to cost more to replace U Hall than it did to build the John Paul Jones Arena, which with finance and construction costs taken together came in at around $190 million.

You can value-engineer that figure back to something reasonable, no doubt, but I’m hoping you can see what I’m getting at here.

There are some serious value choices that need to be made on Grounds with respect to football. Investing in human capital in the form of a couple of additional analysts and strength coaches is just smart. I mean, one thing, among many, that Williams, with a resume that includes experiences at big-boy football schools like Florida State and Georgia, is how the folks who play football for reals get the job done from an organizational flow chart perspective.

Something needs to be done with University Hall, even if that something is just tearing it down and turning the space into a parking lot, though obviously more needs to be done than that, because it has still been in use as the base of operations for 10 athletics programs at UVA, including office and locker-room spaces.

That needs to be priority #1. The football ops center with shiny new weights, laser lights and assorted other shiny things that will somehow hypnotize five-star recruits into thinking UVA, and ostensibly also entrance the folks in admissions into relaxing every once in a while when we actually get one of those kids to want to sign on the bottom line, well …

There’s my cynicism coming to the fore again. Carla Williams isn’t the new AD at Georgia or Florida State. She’s the new AD at the University of Virginia. Which doesn’t get to play football on a level playing field with the UGAs and FSUs and ‘Bamas of the world.

The ceiling for UVA football is where George Welsh had the program back in the 1990s before we let ourselves run him out of town because all he could guarantee was that we’d win seven games a year. Every so often, Welsh could squeeze a special season out, make a run at #1, like he did for three weeks in 1990, flirt with winning an ACC title, pull off the big upset of a power every now and then.

Go ahead and rake me over the coals for saying that out loud. You know it’s the truth, deep down.

And if you know it’s the truth, deep down, can you justify throwing bad money after good to pursue something that you know is not going to happen?

A natural-grass practice field is not going to beat Alabama. A bigger weight-room isn’t going to keep Richmond from coming into Scott Stadium for the opener thinking that another win over UVA shouldn’t be considered an upset.

We can Clemson up a new ops center down to getting a copy of the construction drawings and building out to spec, and we’re not going to be Clemson.

But, yeah, sure, keep thinking that.

Column by Chris Graham


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