Bronco Mendenhall hire puts a new spin on Craig Littlepage legacy at UVA

Littlepage_Craig_09MVirginia athletics director Craig Littlepage had taken to carrying that Capital One Cup around as a protective shield.

You want to say I’m not getting the job done? Let me show you something. They don’t just give these things away.

But the fact remained: that even with the success of the UVA sports program overall, national championships in baseball, men’s soccer, men’s tennis, the national runner-up women’s soccer team, the two-time defending champ men’s basketball team, there was football, the anchor bringing the rest of it down.

Because for all the success across the spectrum, nothing speaks to the health of a college athletics program louder than half-empty football stadiums.

And when the guy you hired is the reason for those half-empty stadiums, well, the pressure is on.

Littlepage, who has a degree in economics from the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, had a bit of a checkered track record when it came to these kinds of decisions.

He famously demurred when it came to London, whom he had plucked from Richmond after a brief two-year stint that included an FCS national title, and then extended after London had led Virginia to an 8-5 record in his second season at UVA.

London, after all, had been the only candidate interviewed after the decision was made to cut ties with Al Groh after Groh had concluded a 3-9 campaign in 2009. As it became obvious over the past couple of years that London wasn’t working out, Littlepage couldn’t pull the trigger on the man he had hired in December 2009.

That move had concluded a busy year. That March, he had brought on another little-known coach by the name of Tony Bennett, by way of three years at Washington State, to coach the men’s basketball team. Bennett replaced Dave Leitao, another Littlepage hire, who had replaced Pete Gillen, who was famously given a 10-year contract extension in 2001 as one of the first acts of the Littlepage AD era, the money quote on the extension being that “Pete will be our coach when we open a new arena.”

That move, the subsequent hiring and firing of Leitao, the extension given to Groh before he was sacked, the hiring and bloodletting with London, the messy endgame with Debbie Ryan and failure of her replacement as women’s basketball coach, Joanne Boyle, to get that program turned around – I was being charitable in referring to Littlepage’s track record as AD as “checkered.”

He did hire Brian O’Connor to be the baseball coach, and the Bennett hire has, ahem, worked out. The rest of it is varying degrees of dumpster fire.

There’s a discernable pattern to the hires, particularly. O’Connor, 32 when hired at UVA, was a well-regarded assistant at Notre Dame. Leitao, 45 at his hiring, had one NCAA appearance in three seasons at DePaul, after a flameout at Northeastern that saw him step down after his second season went down in flames at 4-24.

Bennett, 39 when he was hired, had been a head coach for all of three seasons at Washington State. London had been a head coach for two seasons at an FCS school, with two playoff appearances.

The only coach that Littlepage brought on who had anything resembling a formidable track record is Boyle, who at age 47 had a 204-93 record and five NCAA Tournament appearances in nine seasons at Richmond and Cal before coming on board in 2011.

Aside from Boyle, what Littlepage seemed to look for in his hires was the value pick, a kindred spirit in that respect to Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, of Moneyball fame. Despite the UVA athletics department being one of the top two or three programs in the ACC in terms of annual revenues, Littlepage appeared to think of himself as a small-market AD, bypassing the big-name coaching candidates in favor of those who would have to grow into the job on Grounds.

With O’Connor and Bennett, that strategy has worked out well. With Leitao and London, it didn’t, to say the least, and their failures hurt the bottom line at a time when donors were ponying up literally hundreds of millions of dollars for a new basketball arena and a significant expansion to the football stadium.

The basketball ship has been righted, and UVA is one of a handful of programs in the country that can look at baseball as something of a revenue sport, so that’s a positive.

But those half-empty stadiums on fall Saturdays have been deafeningly silent the past few years.

Which gets us back to the pressure on Littlepage, whose is under contract through 2018, when it is widely expected that he will retire. The football hire will likely be his last significant move as athletics director at Virginia, barring something traumatic involving Bennett, whose name is thrown around every spring as various high-profile college and NBA jobs come open.

God forbid such a horrible thing happening, so back to football, as the last chance for Littlepage to define his tenure at UVA.

History would suggest that the public fixation on former Georgia coach Mark Richt was horribly ill-advised, Richt being the 2015 equivalent of Tubby Smith, the popular choice to replace Leitao back in 2009, with a national championship on his resume from his days at Kentucky.

I wrote a column to that effect on Thursday after reports that Virginia had shown interest in Richt blew up with the news that Richt had agreed in terms to become the new coach at Miami, an ACC Coastal Division rival.

One report on that news had it that Virginia had balked at Richt’s $4 million-plus asking price, and Miami hadn’t.

This fit the profile for how Littlepage had operated the past 15 years. You can keep your Tubby Smiths and Mark Richts. Give me the next Tony Bennett or Brian O’Connor, at the risk of me getting another Dave Leitao or Mike London.

And then today happened. Nobody had Bronco Mendenhall on their radar, nobody in Virginia, nobody in Utah.

Mendenhall is the anti-Littlepage hire: 49 years old, with 11 years as a head coach at a program that is arguably not only a step ahead of UVA, but two steps or more ahead.

BYU has a national championship, a Heisman winner and 23 conference titles. Mendenhall’s teams won 10 or more games five times in his 11 seasons in Provo. For comparison, UVA has one 10-win season in its program history, way back in 1989, and has won nine games just twice in the past 17 seasons.

To land a coach with that pedigree isn’t inexpensive. When Virginia hired London in 2009, he was brought in with a $1.7 million contract, which was upped with an extension signed after his lone winning season, in 2011, to the point where his overall compensation in 2015 was $3.1 million.

Mendenhall’s deal starts at $3.25 million annually, which would rank 26th among the 128 coaches in FBS based on current numbers.

Those aren’t messing around dollars; them’s big boy dollars, and an indication that Virginia is ready to play big boy football.

As is Littlepage, who rolled the dice with Leitao, rolled the dice with London, rolled the dice with Bennett, and isn’t rolling the dice on his new football coach.

We all know what we’re getting with Bronco Mendenhall. There’s no growing on the job, into the job, no surprises around the corner. Mendenhall took over a train wreck at BYU, which was 14-21 in the three seasons before he took over, and by his second season had the Cougars finishing 11-2, and he’s averaged nine wins a year since.

His track record would suggest that he’ll have Virginia football competing for ACC championships by the time Littlepage retires as AD in 2018.

That’d be a helluva legacy for CL to leave behind.

– Column by Chris Graham