Chris Graham: The freakonomics behind UVA retaining Mike London

Mike-LondonIt was Adam Smith, the Wealth of Nations Adam Smith, who argued in 1776 that the daily operations of a firm are run by “principal clerks” who are essentially homogenous and interchangeable, whose “labour of inspection and direction may be either altogether or very nearly the same.”

Which is another way of saying, when looking at UVA football in 2014, that the program is no better or worse off with Mike London as coach, somebody else as coach, or the proverbial empty chair, at least from an economics perspective.

Study after study has put to question the value of a new coach in improving the fortunes of bad and mediocre teams, some even suggesting that at least in the short term a struggling team’s fortunes are likely to be worse rather than improve with a change in leadership.

It’s safe to assume that UVA athletics director Craig Littlepage, who has an economics degree from the Wharton School at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania, is aware of those studies, if not also very well aware the words of Adam Smith.

Not to mention as well having working knowledge of the numbers from recruiting profiles of the past four years as compiled by Rivals and 247Sports, which would suggest that Virginia football is on the verge of a turnaround in 2014. The same metric that would have predicted a four-win season for the ‘Hoos in 2013 point in the direction of an eight- to nine-win season for UVA football in 2014.

What’s interesting is that only a few of the diehard fans expect more than two or three after last year’s debacle, on the heels of a 4-8 record in 2012, and six losing seasons in the past eight years overall for Virginia football, dating back to the last four years of the Al Groh era.

Littlepage took quite a bit of heat, plenty of it coming from these pages on Augusta Free Press, for not making a move after the 2013 debacle, after which it seemed plainly obvious that the wheels were off the bus. He stoically, clinically defended London and the direction that he was taking the program, expending a stack of the capital he has accrued for building an overall athletics program that finished fourth in this year’s Director’s Cup in the process.

Back to Adam Smith and the freakonomics of coaching: if no one manager is better than the other, or not much better, in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t as risky a move to an economics guy like Littlepage as it would seem to the rest of us. If 2014 was going to be another down season for Virginia football, that would have been the case with London coaching or someone else wearing the headset, in that line of thinking.

The move to keep him on, then, at worst, is akin to a baseball manager having his starting pitcher in a late-inning situation give up the intentional walk before bringing in the reliever to get out of the jam, so that the reliever doesn’t have to come in to throw four wide ones before having to bear down on the guy he needs to get out.

If UVA football is going to play to expectations and not to potential, London gets to take that heat, and the new guy who would come in next year starts with a clean slate, not to mention a solid talent base.

But that’s assuming it all goes wrong. And though there is little to nothing to suggest that things shouldn’t blow up on UVA football in 2014, I’m starting to think like Littlepage, that a turnaround is coming this fall.



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